Jason Winslade Interview: Esotericism and Witchcraft in Entertainment and Commodification

Jason Winslade will receive his Ph.D. in Performance Studies from Northwestern University this December. He currently is an adjunct professor at DePaul University, where he teaches interdisciplinary courses on occultism and culture, rites of passage, Irish myth and politics, comics, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Since 1993, he has been an active practitioner and initiate of the Western Mystery Tradition, with concentrations in Hermetic and Qabalistic practice, as well as experience in Wicca and general Paganism. He often attends and teaches workshops at Pagan festivals, like Starwood Festival, where he is also an active fire drummer. His dissertation deals specifically with initiation as an occult performance practice, and he has published articles in various journals and anthologies on aspects of occultism and initiation in academic theory, live performance and the media. He is currently working on a new project dealing with Pagan festival culture.

TheoFantastique: Jason, thanks for making some time to answer a few questions. I am engaged in an ongoing research project that looks at the many facets behind the ongoing controversy over the Harry Potter books and how some are alarmed at what they perceive as “real witchcraft” in the stories. This is related to a broader set of questions concerning how not only Wicca, but also “the occult” or Western esotericism is portrayed in film and television, or at least how stereotypical expressions of them are portrayed for a popular audience. Can you comment on comment on some of the various portrayals of occultism and Wicca on television and how you have interacted with this as a scholar?

Jason Winslade: Let me first say that I have a hard time coming up with any examples of “real witchcraft” or “real magic” in television or films. As you rightly state in your blog, any portrayals of these phenomena are inevitably fantasy with fancy special effects and things flying around. Any practitioner will tell you that this does not happen. At least they do not in the waking world. (Of course, this begs the question what “real magic” actually is – ask 3 practitioners and you’ll get 5 answers. Certainly "real" magic, with the exception of ritual, is much more of an internal process, and thus doesn’t lend itself to special effects extravaganzas). Some programs may incorporate sound magickal philosophy and metaphysics but their application is ultimately fantastical. The recent SciFi Channel show about a Chicago wizard, The Dresden Files, is a good example of this. The writers had obviously done their research in terms of what practitioners have thought of as magical “law” since medieval times – in other words, every idea made sense in terms of theory and historical context – but the application of magical theory on the show had very little to do with actual practice. [Of course, the classic Hollywood example of this, one that I use in my classes, is the voodoo doll. I use this construct as a way to explain Frazer’s laws of homeopathy and contagion (like attracts like, contact creates power)]. Or a program may engage the trappings of various “real” practices, but incorporate them into a fantastical setting. For instance, the movie that reignited the teen witch trend in the 90s, The Craft, had a scene that included the exact liturgy of the first degree Wiccan initiation, which itself was adapted from Freemasonry, but the witches, of course, had Hollywood special effects powers, and their practice had nothing to do with the actual Wiccan religion. I believe some filmmakers and authors do tend to use these elements irresponsibly, thus creating an unnecessary connection between their fictional fantasy and “real” magic, which causes so much controversy and confusion in people who draw assumptions from these shows and films (here, I think of Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows, which obviously capitalized on Wiccan culture with its title and a Wiccan character, but ultimately, the director Joe Berlinger, who should have known better because of his West Memphis 3 documentaries, took information from a Pagan consultant about a grounding chant and used it in a horror scene, and made unfortunate associations, like the use of Germanic runes, the kind available for divination at any metaphysical bookstore, as evil symbols).

Every now and then, you have a show like The X-Files, which redefine the genre. The idea of occult investigators is not exactly new (ask Carl Kolchak), but The X-Files very cleverly (at least for the first 5 seasons or so) used occult content to address issues in culture and politics, even employing a specifically postmodern take on truth claims. As far as I can remember, that program was the first to address Wicca as if it was a real thing – in the episode “Sanguinarium” for instance, the characters actually pointed out that the pentagram was a symbol of protection rather than something Satanic and that Wiccans were actually legitimate – even though these "real" elements still operated in a fantasy context where Satanic creatures did exist and operate. Then you had shows in the late 90s, like Picket Fences, Judging Amy, or JAG, where the main characters interacted with guest stars who were Wiccan. Often these shows would bring up engaging social issues about the politics of difference. Even last season on ER, we saw a Wiccan couple in cultish white robes who had been "handfasted" too tightly in a brief scene meant to introduce a contrast to the main characters’ wedding plans.

In my classes and workshops, whether I’m dealing with students or practitioners, I often have to downplay the debate about whether shows are “accurate” in portraying magickal practice. I’m convinced that we’ll never see that kind of portrayal on the screen. It doesn’t sell. Some colleagues like myself who are practitioners and academics have joked about doing an HBO-type show about real practitioners and it would be much more like a soap opera than anything else. It would be great to see a non-fantasy show where several characters are Pagan, for instance, and that’s part of their identity, but they’re not set up on the show as “outcasts” or “special” with magical powers – but rather people just trying to make their way through life with an ostensibly different belief system than the mainstream world. It would be kind of like our version of the "L" Word – maybe the "W" Word or the "P" Word. So instead of focusing on accurate portrayals, I ask students to look at how the authors or filmmakers are actually deploying magic as a concept. Philosophically, since the Enlightenment, magic has been used as a metaphor for action, often action with hidden motives or hidden mechanics, so I try to discuss how magic works as part of politics, activism, ethical action, etc.

TheoFantastique: In a previous blog post I drew attention to an article online that deal with the increase of so-called “occult-tinged” fiction on television. One of my readers felt that a distinction and qualification needs to be made when considering such things. Various forms of speculative fiction have long drawn upon the magical and fantastical in telling stories. This has been expressed in the use of magic and spell-casting to the inclusion of Witches and sorcerers as characters. It would seem that a proper hermeneutic of fiction would require that we distinguish between “fairytale” expressions of the magical from that found in the growing interest in Western esotericism. How would you distinguish between these two as they are expressed in popular culture?

Jason Winslade: I always tend to question when some entertainment writer makes statements about the "increase" of anything in the media. More often than not these statements are on the whole inaccurate. It’s like they focus on a recent trend (like Heroes) and then approach it with no sense of cultural history. I seem to remember critics saying the same thing when Lost became a hit only a couple of years ago. I haven’t counted (though I do watch way too much TV), but I tend to doubt that there are more fantasy programs coming up the pike than in the last few years. In fact, I’d guess that there were less (I do know that in the last few years several "occult" pilots specifically involving Witches, including an adaptation of the film Practical Magic, have not made it to air.) There has always been occult programming – I grew up with syndication of Dark Shadows and Twilight Zone, even Bewitched (definitely more fantasy than "occult," I’d say), not to mention all the shows and cartoons with magic and super powers in the 80s. Rather than say that there is more "occult-tinged" programming, I’d say there’s simply more television, with so many new channels doing original programming. Thus you have a channel like Lifetime doing an occult detective show with vampires and demons (Blood Ties).

As far as how to distinguish between "fantasy" occultism and "real" occultism, it’s a tricky venture. For obvious reasons, practitioners want to distance themselves from these fantasy portrayals in order to educate the public about what they do and do not do, especially with the perennial accusations of Satanism. I even found myself the subject of a local Chicago blogger with extreme Christian beliefs who only briefly Googled me, saw my workshop listings at Starwood and saw the title of my class at DePaul and assumed I was luring students to the dark side – even calling for her readers to write the Bishop so that I would be fired, never mind the fact that magic and occultism has always played a prominent role in Western society, both at its center and its margins, and is a perfectly legitimate subject for university study (especially at a Catholic one), and that I do not and would never teach university students actual magical practice. Rather, I teach about the complex history and the continual cultural, philosophical, and political influence of magic and occultism. So I can see that education about magical practice is important in terms of distancing from fantasy narratives which more often than not associate magickal practice with, at the least, heartless manipulation, and at worst, Satanic evil. Not that magickal practice is all sweetness and light, like some practitioners would like to believe, but most of the time these negative portrayals are so way off the mark it’s laughable.

Having said that, "real" magick is always already caught up in fantasy. Especially since the late 19th century, magickal practice and fiction have always had a kind of symbiotic relationship in which each feeds the other. When Gerald Gardner first revealed his particular brand of Witchcraft, it was through a novel. Both Aleister Crowley and Dion Fortune used fiction to discuss the precepts of magick. You look at current graphic novels like Alan Moore’s Promethea, and it’s almost entirely Kabbalistic and Thelemic instruction. You have Wiccans basing actual practice on what they’ve read in Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Mists of Avalon, or the Church of All Worlds, one of the earliest American Pagan organizations in the 1960s, basing their entire philosophy and life practice on Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land. Many argue that early source material for Wicca, like Charles Leland’s Gospel of Aradia, was entirely fictional. Practitioners have taken flawed and sometimes wholly inaccurate and incorrect scholarship like Frazer’s Golden Bough or Margaret Murray’s work on Witchcraft, or all kinds of wildly imaginative anthropological and archaeological speculation about supposed “Goddess” cultures, and used it as the basis for legitimate practice and political action. In its early years, Wicca longed for its own mythology, so Wiccans created it. To me, this doesn’t de-legitimize the religion, but is rather a crucial step in establishing a religion’s legitimacy, no different from any other religious venture. So yes, I would certainly want to separate fantasy portrayals from actual practice, but I would also remind people of the slippery boundaries between the two.

TheoFantastique: You wrote an interesting article related to this topic for Slayage: The Online International Journal of Buffy Studies (1:1) titled “Teen Witches, Wiccans, and ‘Wanna-Blessed-Be’s’: Pop-Culture Magic in Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” In the article you refer to how such depictions of “popular occultism” have contributed to a “marketable new age spirituality.” How is the depiction of Witchcraft in Buffy or other television programs “part of a larger discursive field in popular media in which Wicca is presented as trendy and empowering for teenagers”?

Jason Winslade: What I’m talking about here is "occulture," Christopher Partridge’s term you mentioned in your blog – I haven’t read his book yet, but I’ve been independently using the same term for some time now. Ultimately, when you represent magick and occultism in media, you’re dealing with one or more of three things: the actual practice, the solidification of the practice into a religion (which is rarely depicted) or a particular world view, or the culture in which these views prosper, including the many aspects of commodification. This third aspect is the "larger discursive field." If you watch that brief scene in the Emmy-nominated "Hush" (the Buffy episode), you’ll see that not only does it contribute to the general theme of language, performative speech acts, saying vs. doing, and the power of silence that the episode so brilliantly explores, but it’s a legitimate satire of a youth subculture that attaches itself to the trendy aspects of Witchcraft and feminism without understanding the deeper cultural and spiritual implications. Thus, the Wanna-Blessed-Bes. When this episode came out in the fall of 2000, the teen Witchcraft trend was at its height with the release of the Teen Witch Kit, and all the controversy that surrounded that. In debates about legitimate representation of Witchcraft and Paganism, as well as in issues of group identification, I always think it’s important to distinguish between practice, religion, and culture while acknowledging their overlap. In my work in festival culture, I deal with groups that may define themselves very differently in terms of practice and belief, while still maintaining a sort of umbrella membership as an alternative subculture that can easily interact in a festival setting, especially around a fire. To me, it’s the same thing as saying the Irish troubles ultimately were about culture clashes rather than true religious differences.

TheoFantastique: Dominique Wilson wrote an interesting article similar to the one you wrote for Slayage, titled “Willow and Which Craft? The portrayal of witchcraft in Joss Whedon’s Buffy: the Vampire Slayer.” In the article Wilson concludes that “[t]here is magic and spell craft in Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, but it is not the witchcraft found in historical accounts or practiced by contemporary wiccans, pagans and witches. Instead it is a means of exploring stereotypes and classic images assigned to witches and their craft within popular culture, from age-old fairy tales to the box office.” Would you agree with this assessment, and would this provide another conformation of some of what you are arguing for in your article for Slayage?

Jason Winslade: Absolutely. But I would go further and say that not only do these texts explore the stereotype of the Witch and what she means as a cultural symbol, but that Witchcraft and magick is presented as a tool for character growth, just as it is for actual practitioners. Thus magic on television and in fiction is a performative construct that allows viewers to tap into filmed and written narratives, interweaving their own stories.

If you trace the metaphorical use of magic in older folklore to today, there’s been a shift from where magic was seen as a hidden, almost fascist power, wielded by mysterious authority figures to control the masses and crush the individual spirit (think Wizard of Oz) to the notion of magic as a self-empowering way to resist those forces of authority. This shift is in no small part due to the development of feminist Witchcraft as something that exists in the world that actually uses magick for this purpose. And in turn, that "real" practice is due to the transformation of Enlightenment thinking about power into postmodernism and poststructuralism, with its roots in the mid-19th century and its reimagining in the 1960s, especially with writers like Michel Foucault, leading into feminist deconstructions of power, from Judith Butler to Starhawk.

As we’ve seen with Harry Potter and Buffy, this second sense of magic as empowering for the disenfranchised has proven particularly powerful for teenagers in that it is symbolic of the individuation process – magic is that challenge to realize your “true” identity and to turn that power towards action in a world where challenges abound, from both your enemies and your closest friends and family. This is why these texts are so resonant within magickal communities and practitioners – why the fantasy genre has always been an inspiring factor for these folk – they are able to read their own struggles of identity and action, mediated by magical practice, in the quest of Frodo, for instance. There’s a reason why Joseph Campbell’s “hero’s journey,” which can be read into classic literature from the Odyssey to Harry Potter, is an initiatory model. I think it’s the reason why initiations are still so important for practitioners today, despite the fact that so many reject the old, “occult” way of doing things, in which the candidate placed her fate in the hands of the initiating powers-that-be. People still want to experience that rite of passage, but they want to be more responsible for it themselves.

I also wanted to comment on the Harry Potter phenomenon. When one asks the inevitable question of "why this particular book" and "why now," when fantasy literature involving the use of magic has always existed, I think there are several factors involved. For one, unlike Tolkien’s ancient elsewhere, Middle Earth, Rowling’s magical world is here and now, but truly occult – hidden from view of those not in the know, the Muggles. I think people are particularly sensitive to this division between magical and non-magical people – and in Rowling’s world, this in-group politics exists at many strata of the wizarding world with the race and class issues she raises. How this translates in the real world is that those who actually are magickal practitioners or at least fantasize about being practitioners are comforted by the notion of a hidden magical world existing alongside our own. However, for those that eschew magic and cling to hyper-rationalism or religion as the primary arbiter of reality, this notion can be particularly disquieting and brings up all kinds of regression from conspiracy theories to witch hunts. Of course, all this is dependent on its detractors actually reading the books which, in many cases, doesn’t seem likely. Another level of this is the sheer marketing power of the franchise. Rowling may not be a magickal practitioner as such, but she, and her creation, certainly has considerable mojo. She’s essentially created an icon. The archetype that Harry Potter draws from is certainly not original, but the solidification into a figure that serves as a symbolic product is unique (the same can be said for Buffy as an iconographic figure). What’s overwhelming for people who are already suspicious of pop culture is the inundation of merchandise. Their children can easily put on a costume and "become" Harry Potter, thus solidifying the audience reception of the books as a performative act. Again, this tends to frighten people (I think of that brilliant, satiric piece in The Onion from 1999 that featured children rejecting the Bible and using Harry Potter merchandise to worship Satan – one that apparently some fundamentalists thought was a real article). Finally, the fact that "real" witches and magickal practitioners have been so taken by these books, and the fact that the books have made "real" magickal practice more visible also plays a role. That some practitioners have adopted the term “Muggles” to reality in order to accentuate the division between magickal and non-magickal folk is certainly an extremely influential and problematic factor in how practitioners interact with society (I personally find that, although the term may be convenient, it essentializes magical practice and creates an inaccurate dichotomy. For instance, I know a few people who would fit under the category of Muggle who are far more connected to spiritual energy, than some who claim to be Pagans or Witches).

TheoFantastique: In the past there have been some pretty negative depictions of Witchcraft, particularly in horror films which have lumped it together with Satanism and have reflected medieval Christian perspectives on demonology, Satan, and Witchcraft. Do you see this trend shifting with the more recent portrayals on television and film?

Jason Winslade: Since information on "real" witches is much more readily available nowadays, I see writers using research to become more creative in their storytelling and mixing more "real" elements in with their fantasy, but unfortunately, I don’t see those Satanic associations going away any time soon. The pentacle as demonic, particular in the context of horror films, is forever cemented into our psyche, in the same way that we cannot see a swastika as anything other than a Nazi symbol, even when it’s used in very positive religious contexts such as in Hindu and Native American symbolism. And let’s face it, Witchcraft as history understands it is a creation of medieval demonology. Satanic Witchcraft was an invention of the inquisitors who were looking for an anti-church conspiracy and basing their ideas on folklore and rumor. That narrative – the Black Mass, the women coupling with the Devil, etc. was a very powerful story that gripped Western Europe for quite some time. It takes a lot of energy to dispel that (no pun intended).

Many Witches acknowledge the impossible burden of taking on a name and symbol with millennia of negativity attached and attempting to reclaim it. Some have even said they wished they had chosen a different name for themselves, but that you certainly cannot put that genie back in the bottle. What I find troublesome is that every time a "witch" appears in any media, no matter how fantastical and unconnected to actual Wiccans and people who call themselves Witches today, that some people will still make that connection, either those who do that so in order to point out "real" witches as evil or just plain silly, or as a means for practitioners to claim ownership over an image and decry the text for misrepresenting them. The truth is that the figure of the Witch has existed cross-culturally long before Wicca came on the scene and it’s highly problematic and anachronistic for Wiccans to claim ownership over such a disseminated image – when their original association with that image was tenuous at best and chosen for political reasons more than anything else. I still think it’s a compelling figure to inspire magickal identity and practice, but I think people need to be much smarter about it, and many people are starting to realize that. Thanks to work by academics like Ronald Hutton and the development of what is now called Pagan Studies, whose scholars are often also practitioners, I think there has been an increase in awareness about the tricky contingencies of Witchcraft history and culture. I think most of these scholar/practitioners recognize Witchcraft as being a syncretic esoteric practice that represents an accumulation of cultural, religious, and political factors appropriate to the mid-20th century and is now redefining itself for the new millennium, often through mediatization, especially online presence.

TheoFantastique: You have given a variety of presentations, one of which was at the Starwood Festival. One of these presentations touched on whether the increasing depiction of a magickal worldview in popular culture makes magickal practitioners wonder whether their practices and beliefs “are being trivialized and cheapened.” What are the reactions among practitioners to this phenomenon?

Jason Winslade: As I said, I do get a variety of responses, with many scoffing at their misrepresentation. Yet there is a constant split between those who want to maintain a good public face and are content to merely convince people they’re not Satanists, and those who want to pursue a more esoteric practice and experiment more profoundly, even if they threaten to tarnish the "sweetness and light" image that some media Pagans are trying to sell. I think quite a few practitioners agree with me that there’s a difference between "Witches" in the fantasy sense and any attempted association with actual Wiccans. Whether or not someone will see this representations as “realistic” and apply those standards to real Wiccans depends on how uninformed the viewer is. Some practitioners have absolutely no problem with commodification and the "Harry Potter-ification" of magic and witchcraft, often arguing that it helps increase awareness. I remember at one of these workshops a few years back, I talked about the unveiling of a statue of Samantha from Bewitched in Salem and the range of responses from the local Pagan communities. Some were mightily offended at its trivialization of the Witch trials (even though Salem’s theme park existence has already done this so extensively), while other Pagans thought it was great and saw the character of Samantha as a great role model for young Witches. I know several Pagans who collect “Witch kitsch” and get a kick out of images of sexy Witches on broomsticks and the like. I also tend to enjoy the kitsch factor and humor in these representations and again would emphasize the differences between culture. I can laugh at Witch kitsch and still have a serious relationship with the divine Feminine. As long as those images aren’t used as a way to deny someone’s right to worship and practice their religion, I have no problem with it. I know Christians who think Kevin Smith’s “Buddy Christ” from Dogma is hilarious.

TheoFantastique: Jason, thanks again for making the time to answer a few questions. This is an interesting and ongoing area of research for me and I look forward to interacting with your scholarship and perspectives in the future.

Comment Pages

There are 11 Comments to "Jason Winslade Interview: Esotericism and Witchcraft in Entertainment and Commodification"

  • Visigoth says:

    Great interview. This is a subject of great interest to me. I would love to ask Jason a few questions as well. I have always been fascinated by the occult as it is portrayed in fiction and television. It seems to coincide more with what is in the bible. It actually presents supernatural power and abilities.

    Why would one wish to be a practitioner of witchcraft unless you really can heal someone, float items through the air, light candles with simple words, or curse someone who has done you wrong?

    After reading several books on witchcraft/wicca I became bored with the whole modern idea of it. The movies and TV shows are way more appealing than the so-called "real thing". The magicians of Pharoah actually did change their staffs into serpents. The witch of Endor actually did conjure the dead. What the bible represents as magick is much more potent than the benign mother-earth goddess worship that some of my friends practice. I do not honestly see the appeal to the benevolent "blessed be", do no harm variety of paganism. What is the appeal?

    I always found it funny that in BtVS, the scoobies warned Willow at one point that she was using "too much" magic. I thought, so what, isn't that what the point of magic is? But they seemed to draw an arbitrary line between what was good and evil regarding an occult practice that in all forms historically has been seen as evil by the Church. Medicine is good, but dependency and side-effects of medicine are not good, and therefore in one sense, evil. But magick always seems to rely on supernatural principalities or powers. Willow actually invokes pagan dieties for the big rituals. The small stuff, like using energy as strength or protection spells, still implied that she was opening up to elemental forces, and yet she seemed to have no way of determining whether they be demonic or angelic. The fact that the dark magic did overtake her in the end was also ironic. After all, she was trying to rid the world of suffering, the collective torment of humanity that she felt. The only way that could happen was to destroy the world. Xander comes along to save the day with the yellow crayon metaphor and she snaps out of it by realizing that suffering is necessary. But, she does not give up magic. She tempers it to some amorphous harmony working with nature and not against it, guided by a sense of Wiccan "goodness". Does not Willow become the very wanna-blessed-be she made fun of at the end of the series?d

  • buffyologist says:

    visigoth - to address some of your points:
    "The magicians of Pharoah actually did change their staffs into serpents. The witch of Endor actually did conjure the dead." - I question your use of the term 'actually' as applied to stories in the Bible. You might as well say Harry Potter 'actually' produces a Patronus. I'm not going to get into questions of belief, but these are stories like any other mythology - even if they actually happened, which is pretty unlikely, they were likely embellished. Did the Egyptian priests 'really' turn their staffs into serpents or was it skilled sleight of hand? Egypt had a long history of elaborate stage magic effects. The line between trickster and magician is often thin, but the 'tricks' themselves - these effects you long for - are hardly the point. Rather, it's the lesson behind them. And remember, when you're looking at magic from a biblical perspective, it's always going to be seen as 'evil.' The magic of God and his followers = miracles. Other cultures' magic = evil, Satanic.

    Also, the use of magic changes with the times. During eras when people were desperately disenfranchised, necromancy (invoking the spirits of the dead) was a common practice. Whether it actually worked was another thing. But nowadays, people take a much more psychological approach to magic, so they apply it to improving their lives. Of course, magic can still be the tool of the disenfranchised (look at New Orleans voodoo, for instance).

    Skilled magic-users also tend to be very careful about how they apply their magic. In most cases, they exhaust mundane channels first, before they resort to magic. Also, I suggest you do some reading about the history of magic in Western occultism, and the difference between 'practical' magic and ceremonial magic. While the former is all about getting things done (with much less emphasis on ethical behavior), while the latter is more about aligning yourself with the Divine, through prayer, meditation, and ceremony (like Qabalistic magic, for instance). This is also the 'religious' element to magic that we never see depicted, and what usually draws people to the practice in the first place. Here, people 'actually invoke Pagan deities' as well (and angels and demons, too). Modern magic is experiential - the kind of thing you wouldn't fully understand unless you experience it. Thus the Mystery. If you're looking for special effects, I'd suggest studying stage magic.

    Finally, does Willow become a 'wanna blessed be'? Absolutely not! If you read my essay, or saw that episode, you know that those young women were using the language and trappings of feminist witchcraft to identify with, but had no knowledge of the actual content and history of magic and witchcraft. In Buffy, magic was often a metaphor for addiction - the warning that she was using too much magic became about a dependency issue - plus the implication was that the more you use magic, the more it uses you. Although I don't know of cases in real life, I can certainly see how one can become 'addicted' to the high of constantly living in a magical world. Willow's magic was most powerful when it came from a place of rage, pain and hurt (esp. with Tara's death). In the final season, she learns how to access that power from a more positive source (by feeling connected to people, nature, etc. - remember, the Slayer spell in the finale was all about connection, not isolation, unlike her previous magic), so that she's not merely a slave to her passions. At the end of season 6, Giles' attempt to provide Willow with empathy backfired because he thought she would stop hurting people, but he underestimated her despair, so deep that she would channel that empathy into destruction to 'save people from suffering.' I would have liked to have been shown a scene where she works with the coven that she mentions in 7.1, but the process was happening. But Willow ultimately becomes far more powerful, even than she was in season 6, and that's from training, knowledge, and balance. This is as far away from a wanna-blessed be as you can get.

    Having said all that, Buffy is a fictional world, and in reality, things are much more complicated than black and white, good and evil. Which is why I mentioned the fact that many practitioners decry the 'fluffy bunny' image of witchcraft and argue that sometimes you need to delve deeper than that, and take risks.

  • Visigoth says:


    I believe the Bible is portraying a historical account. If the witness in Pharaoh's court was deceived, or the historian at the event where Saul visited the witch was subject to legerdemain, does not matter. I cannot prove or disprove the validity of either account.

    I read this article:
    after posting my comment. If you are the author, good job. I found it a bit more helpful. I am working on a response to the interview and that article that I will soon post on my blog. (

    I liked both the Buffy series and Angel, and am trying to understand them from my Christian perspective.

    My initial response now is what in the world do you mean by "magic" if you do not mean supernatural abilities. The only enticement I can see towards the occult is exactly that aspect. Do modern practitionaers of magic move things with their mind? Conjure the dead? Heal people? Levitate?

    If not, what is the appeal?

    If what Willow portrays through her use of magic is not part of authentic Wiccan practice, then I can see how Wiccans might feel misrepresented. But honestly, what use is magic if you cannot use it to make someone fall in love with you, or form energy shields to protect you from demons, or heal someone you love from cancer?

    You say it is experiential? So is a drug induced hallucination.

    Your point about Willow not becoming the wanna-blessed-be is well taken. I forgot it was actually Giles that cast the empathy mojo on her.

  • John W. Morehead says:

    I'm glad this interview is generating interest and comments. As to buffyologists comments, when you say, "The magic of God and his followers = miracles. Other cultures' magic = evil, Satanic," while I think this is often an evangelical and fundamentalist assumption, I do not know this is necessarily a biblical teaching. This is where Christians need to rethink their assumptions.

    And visigoth, when you state, "Why would one wish to be a practitioner of witchcraft unless you really can heal someone, float items through the air, light candles with simple words, or curse someone who has done you wrong?," I think we as Christians need to be more sensitive to and aware of the long history and sophistication of thought in Western esotericism, and recognize that it offers far more to its practitioners than such parlor tricks. Thus, even though no one is seeking such things this does not mean that their absence does not mean that this spiritual pathway has nothing to offer, and that Christians should not take it seriously.

    More thoughts for our critical reflection.

  • Visigoth says:

    John, I was not trying to be disrespectful in any way. I am serious when I ask those questions. I do not see those supernatural abilities as parlor tricks. I covet that kind of power. And it seems to me, to be the very type of thing sorcery in the Bible seems to offer.

    I am a Christian because it offers resurrection from death, immortality,and eternal bliss. I'd be lying if I said it was anything else. I am not in it because it is benevolent, kind and good for the environment. So, I want to know what paganism, magic, witchcraft, and other occult practices have to offer if it does not look like the stereotype of film and fiction?

    None of the books I have read get into anything beyond a very similar idea to Taoism. Wholeness, balance, inner peace, etc. . .

    In Christianity, we drink the blood of our God and His ghost lives within us. We gain immortality through the God who became flesh and blood to die at our hands. We will rule with him in a kingdom without end. Pretty potent stuff.

  • buffyologist says:

    visigoth - It's hard for me to discuss the Bible with anyone who thinks it is a historical account. There's really nowhere for that discussion to go that won't end badly.

    btw, I'm not Dominique Wilson - I'm the guy who was interviewed. The link to my original Buffy article is in the interview (though I wrote a follow up that I've yet to publish, that goes deeper into the implications of 6th and 7th season Willow).

    As far as what's the appeal? Every practitioner is going to have a different answer. I suspect the reason why Biblical sources come down so hard on the sorcery is for the very reason you claim it's attractive: you 'covet that power.' This is also the same reason why many practitioners would recommend against someone with that desire getting into magic.

    There are many reasons why people enter alternative religions, or practice magic. The more you read and the more people you talk to, the better picture you'll get.

    Feminist witchcraft was certainly born out of a desire to escape confining, patriarchal notions of divinity - allowing for positive representations of women and reverence for the body and sexuality, all things sorely lacking in most monotheistic religions, many of which have taught that women and women's bodies are evil and sinful. Many women (and men) believe that nature, the body, and sexuality, are not sinful but sacred. Also, many people believe that the Christian perspective on the afterlife (in extreme cases, that they're just biding time, waiting for the Rapture), allows for an abdication of responsibility in this life. That this allows for a neglect of the environment, for instance, because Christians believe in a transcendent God and not an immanent one. This is one of Starhawk's major tenets (one that I don't wholly agree with). Also, Pagans tend to decry the notion of a god sacrificing themselves for their 'sins' - some believe that this takes away responsibility from the individual (it's okay to sin in this life, as long as I go to confession before I die). Rather everyone needs to be their own savior and make up for their misdeeds in this life. For many people, it's the difference between empowering yourself and laying your fate in the hands of others, which I believe is why Christianity had such a hold over medieval Europe - Christianity helped to reinforce class differences, extreme poverty, oppression and divine right of kings.

    Granted, much of this is based on particularly broad assumptions about Christianity and Christians that are not true across the board, but yet seem to cohere with how hegemonic Christian culture represents itself.

    For me, when I first read Israel Regardie's Tree of Life, I was struck by the notion that the Qabalist/ceremonial magician was dedicated to the process of purifying oneself and raising one's consciousness, ever seeking communion with the divine, and by doing that you were raising the consciousness level of the whole universe. This seemed to make a lot more sense than the notion of 'being good' so you can go to heaven, which was rammed down my throat after 16 years of Catholic education. I felt that no matter what good you were doing, it was ultimately selfish so that you could get into heaven. As I said, this is simply my experience. And anything I've done in this realm has been infinitely more 'powerful' for me than anything that happened in my Christian background (at the same time, Christianity is a part of my religious makeup and I don't deny its power and its role in making me who I am. Jesus is still a strong archetypal figure for me). I don't deny that others have powerful experiences within Christianity and I fully support those people, to the extent that they also claim that's what works for them and don't try to tell others that their experiences are wrong and sinful.

    That's the religion part. As far as the experience part, that's even more individualistic. I've felt closer to God (and I don't even necessarily mean a Pagan deity, but a Prime Mover) doing performance, doing ritual magic, drumming around a fire and connecting to community, than I ever felt in a church. Ok, I've had some great internal experiences in churches, too, but hardly ever when there was a mass going on.

    Think of how your consciousness shifts when there's lots of incense and chanting in Latin (I'm talking high mass, not magick - though the line between the two is thin!) Much of magickal activity is a shift in consciousness where you're outside of your mundane self and feeling connections beyond yourself. So sometimes it really is the SAME appeal as those who get that out of going to church. But I guarantee you most (not all) people who attend church don't reach those heights.

    If you're interested in reading up on any of this, I'd recommend reading texts by Lon Milo DuQuette, and look at some of his sources, particularly Aleister Crowley's Magick in Theory and Practice. Overall, I'd be careful about romanticizing, exoticizing and othering magic and magickal practitioners too much - I really believe that this type of attitude (by both its detractors and supporters) is what has kept it so continually marginalized in our society, even when it's so present and acknowledged in the mainstream, as these tv shows and films demonstrate.

  • Visigoth says:

    buffyologist, great response. I appreciate the dialog. You said:

    "Think of how your consciousness shifts when there's lots of incense and chanting in Latin (I'm talking high mass, not magick - though the line between the two is thin!) Much of magickal activity is a shift in consciousness where you're outside of your mundane self and feeling connections beyond yourself. So sometimes it really is the SAME appeal as those who get that out of going to church. But I guarantee you most (not all) people who attend church don't reach those heights."

    Heck, I feel that shift in consciousness with a good cup of coffee. I agree that all of life and nature is sacred. I will not go so far as to say that nature id therefore divine.

    I believe God is both mysteriously transcendent and immanent. Christ became like us, to show us the way, and we killed him. Hardly something to be proud of, but isn't that a form of assuring your own salvation ?

    I have the book by Crowley, and am currently reading through "Magick Without Tears" as well. I would love to read your new essay on th and 7th season Willow. I am fascinated by Joss Whedon's perspectives on spirituality. (As ontologically crazy as they are . . .)

    I posted my thoughts on your interview regarding my limited understanding of the occult.

    It is coming from a heavy medeival perspective, which I think you can handle. Go ahead and rip me to shreds in the comments if you want. I have learned a few things from you already and have a broader perspective.

    My main concern regarding the occult is that it seems to open the individual up to oppression and obsession caused by demonic forces.
    Two individuals I know have plummeted into despair and suicide after delving in black magic.

    You said: "everyone needs to be their own savior and make up for their misdeeds in this life."

    Reminds me of the Angel series. No amount of good deeds can atone for the bad. The gray aspect of moral lines in Whedon's world kind of exploit the reality that even our good intentions and deeds can be tainted by evil desires.

    Willow was saved by Xander's love. Xander was saved by loving. Seems like Willow's reciprocal act was surrender.

  • buffyologist says:

    visigoth, despite our vast ideological differences, I do appreciate your open interest and mostly non-judgmental attitude around this. Buffy does bring people together.

    About the lure of black magic - many people do see magickal practice as very much a psychological pursuit. Sometimes you are faced with 'demonic forces' which are usually of your own making. If you can't find a way to integrate these parts of yourself, you'll most likely have a breakdown. In that situation, you can't hide from yourself and pretend everything will be okay because your religion will protect you. Magic itself is neutral - it's what the person brings to it and does with it that matters. Most practitioners don't ever deal with that kind of dark magick because they know better. But I really think that individuals' own illnesses and issues are what leave them open for despair, not the occult. It could have easily been something else that helped them along the way. And as so many Hollywood movies show us, culturally we associate the occult with that kind of despair. So which came first?

    On this topic, I would highly recommend Lon Milo DuQuette's book, The Key to Solomon's Key, as well as his autobiography, My Life with the Spirits, which I've used in class. DuQuette's approach is very accessible and he does use a psychological interpretation of demonology - in fact, he talks about the Goetia, the medieval grimoire attributed to Solomon, as a book of invokable demons who are really aspects of the self that must be integrated. You can't destroy them because they're part of you, but you can't repress them either, because sooner or later they'll come back and bite you in the ass. In some cases, magic can be seen as a very imaginative and performative kind of therapy.

    I'll take a look at your blog later.

  • Madame Meltje says:

    Hello, thanks for the posting. I am an undergraduate student studying religion and just got introduced to the topic of occultism and really confused with the term 'western esotericism'.

    how do you locate wicca in the context of western esotericism? could you help by explaining this a bit more???

    i would really appreciate it if you reply the explanation to


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