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.