Those of us who are gothic at heart feel particularly comfortable this time of year. It's a time to don our black lace blouses, fire up that crimping iron and dig out those Sisters of Mercy EPs -- and not feel the least bit embarrassed about it.
The lure of black clothes and negative energy may be the initial attraction of an event such as the Spiral Dance -- a six-hour witch festival celebrating the dead and welcoming the witch's new year, or Samhain -- which is held each year in San Francisco on the edge of the bay at Fort Mason. But if you've come to watch babies anointed with blood and chicken heads ripped off amidst explosions of malevolent cackling and lightning bolts, be warned. Instead, you might think you've stumbled into a New Age scout jamboree by mistake.
"Breathe deeply!" advises a smiling priestess as she shakes burning sage in the direction of the throng moving through translucent white silk panels toward the center of the large, dark warehouse. If you expected blood-curdling wails, it's admittedly eerie to see 2,000 people sitting calmly on blankets, candlelight flickering around them, the air fogged with incense, as they wait as patiently as fans at a Neil Diamond concert.
And a few other aspects of the modern witch life are a little startling. For one thing, just as we lay people have co-opted the witch stereotype for our own amusement, the witches seem to have borrowed quite a bit from their sworn enemies, the Catholic Church. Imagine, if you will, a crowd of tie-dyed families, lesbian couples and generic alternative slacker types shaking their neighbors' hands at the urging of priestesses. Disappointingly enough, depending on your expectations, the Samhain atmosphere is genial, non-threatening and completely ungloomy.
Access any of the numerous witch Web sites and you'll find that paganism seems to mean whatever you want it to mean. It is an umbrella term with a number of subsets (e.g., Wiccans, Satanists, etc., etc.) that describes a system of polytheistic beliefs and worship of a family of "ancestors" or "goddesses," all having to do with the Earth and the "life force." Wicca is a religion created in the 1930s that entails practicing magic; a Wiccan is necessarily a pagan, but a pagan is not necessarily Wiccan.
Anyone can be a witch, as "witch" is simply a term meaning one who follows a set of magical beliefs. And almost all pagans practice prayer -- which in layman's terms means casting spells or making magic. But begone those evil stereotypes! Most pagans believe it is wrong to use magical power to coerce or to harm; in other words, it's OK to cast a spell to get a better job, but it is definitely not OK to cast a love spell, since whatever you do magically will come back to you threefold. (Unless you are a Satanist, in which case all bets are off.) What can be said categorically is that witches are anti-patriarchal, anti-authoritarian and very pro-female. In other words: Be nice, don't dominate, be nurturing and caring. Hard to argue with.
"These are the high holy days for witches," says Chloe, a 33-year-old self-described witch who studies Wicca. Today's well-organized event in honor of Samhain, meaning "summer's end" in Irish Gaelic, is a traditional pagan celebration of the time when the veil between the living and the dead is thinnest. Witches in the thousands, with their families and partners, are encouraged to chant, to sing, to watch and most importantly to join hands at the end of the evening and weave in a giant grapevine to the tribal beat of drums and choral chants, culminating in a waving of hands in the air as they collectively sing a giant "ommmmm."
"It's our Rosh Hashana. It's the Pagan New Year," says Chloe. She adds somewhat derisively, "Of course, on Samhain, everyone's suddenly a pagan."
"My wife's been into Wicca for about four months now," says a soft-spoken man in his early 30s who seems fearful of giving his name. "She would definitely call herself a witch," he continues. His blond wife and pretty 2-year-old daughter with a pageboy haircut sit next to him on a blanket, waiting for the festivities to begin.
"This is our first ritual," his wife, "Susan," says. "Susan" is also reluctant to reveal her real name, despite the welcoming witch atmosphere infusing the hall. "People have funny ideas about it," she explains. She adjusts the collar of her daughter's dress and rubs her back as the toddler stares agape at the characters around her.
Like many witches, and like her husband, "Susan" is a former Catholic. Perhaps that particular religious background helps to make familiar some of the pagan rituals practiced on Samhain -- the shaking of the water on the congregation, the clouds of incense. The notable difference from Catholicism is not just the inclusion but the predominance of women in pagan rituals. At this evening's event, women outnumber men roughly three to one. The chorus on stage is mostly female, the choral director is female and all the leaders, or priestesses, who ascend the stage to read off the names of this year's dead (including friends, family and the famous -- even Diana, Princess of Wales) are women.
Despite the number of families in the crowd, this threesome looks slightly out of place, their fresh-scrubbed faces and Gap garb clashing with the black and purple velvet capes and half-naked fellow attendees, many of whom looked like Haight Street refugees. Had they been reluctant to bring their 2-year-old to a celebration that was, after all, an open-ended evening with a decidedly alternative audience?
"No," "Susan" says adamantly. "From everything we knew about this kind of group, we knew she wouldn't be excluded." It had indeed been stated at the very outset that the Spiral Dance was a "safe and sane" event: Absolutely no drugs or alcohol, since one had to be "grounded" in order to create the energy needed for the dance. And there is certainly a strong child presence -- at least 20 children under the age of 12 are counted throughout the night, including a few sleepy newborns. In one corner, a makeshift play area/day-care center has been set up. Bored children, mostly long-haired girls wearing tie-dyed t-shirts, draw skulls on slips of paper and pin them to the altars or matter-of-factly drop stones into bowls of water to chase away negative energy.
So what will pagan children like these be doing on Oct. 31?
"Oh, my daughter has this Web Woman costume with all these spidery, web things all over her," Chloe says of her 8-year-old, who also considers herself a witch. "She'll go trick-or-treating. And she's in the Halloween school play."
"A bad witch." she laughs. "And yes, she sees the irony. Though she takes being a witch very seriously -- she's a better witch than I am -- even she thinks that's pretty funny."
Elsewhere in the hall, four mini "shows" are presented to the cacophony of thundering drums, including aerial dancers, a trapeze artist and a skit, which entails a naked woman portraying Isis. The crowd goes silent as two "graces," or festival handlers, rub her up and down with oil. That, apparently, is as outrageous as this family values evening is going to get.
"Oh, God!" a woman screams as several "graces" crowd around her. She is grieving for the dead, as she has been encouraged by the lead priestess, who, microphone in hand, stands before the audience at the center of the stage leading a prayer. Intermittent howls and, at last, wails fill the hall as the list of the dead is read -- a 45-minute test of endurance for some. "A lot of women in the craft have been damaged," says Chloe. "They go into it to find some power in their lives." As the crowd is encouraged by the priestess to join hands and begin the Spiral Dance, it is the men who look awkward and seem less at ease in the touchy-feely atmosphere.
As easy at it might be to criticize the Samhain festival for its watered-down Catholic rituals, its slick large-events management, its simple eco-friendly sloganeering and flaky admonishments ("Feel the center of the earth between your sex and your arsehole," croons one priestess, "this night can be whatever you want it to be!"), few lay Halloween celebrations seem as genuinely child-friendly and unscary as this one. There isn't even a Haunted House, for heaven's sake. As the clock edges toward 11 p.m., the formerly sanguine children riding on the shoulders of their mothers and fathers begin to get cranky. Cries of "I want to go home!" are heard throughout the dancing crowd. The mothers and fathers quickly obey.
But lest you think witch mothers have it easier, consider the achingly familiar laments of Chloe. "It would be nice to have witch camps for kids, but no one seems to be able to get it together," she says. "Every pagan I know is stretched to the max. I've never met a pagan who's had a lot of time."