There Are No Hipsters in This Book: An Interview with Alex Mar about Witches in America
Witches of America, Alex Mar’s first book, began as a curiosity and a film. Mar, interested in what being a witch could possibly mean in this day and age, began making the documentary “American Mystic” years ago, following the lives of otherwise average American 20-somethings who were involved in fringe mystical religious communities. Given an “in” with the Pagan community thanks to the Pagan priestess and star of her film–Mar’s once subject, now friend Morpheus–Mar continued her studying, watching and learning about the Pagan community, most notably, the Feri tradition of witchcraft after the cameras stopped rolling. Soon, Mar found herself personally drawn to the practices of the community, the strong mysteries and even the core-shaking fears the religion seemed to offer. Witches of America follows that journey, Mar’s personal look into the occult, as well as her research into other Pagan sects thriving in America. Haunting, vulnerable and deeply open and intimate, it’s a story not just released for cheap October spooks, but a look into what it means to be defiantly and inconveniently religious in America.
Kati Heng: What was your initial draw to studying witches in America and writing this book?
Alex Mar: I’m someone who has always been very drawn to different systems of belief and the question of why we build our lives around belief systems. The more inconvenient those are, the more intrigued I am by them. If someone joins their local mega-church or synagogue, there are all kinds of social benefits that come from that, you find yourself with a whole network of supporters; they can help you find jobs and create a sense of mainstream community. But with something like the Pagan community and witchcraft practice, there are a lot of people practicing in private, leading in some cases, almost a double life. So I was curious what was it that makes it worthwhile and what draws these people to create this whole other identity for themselves along with their more public life.
For me personally, I was raised a really kind of confusing combination of Catholic and Liberal feminist, plus I’m born and raised in Manhattan, so I’m also sort of a diehard New Yorker, and the combinations of all of those are really a strange and heady one. I was really attracted, from a young age, to all of the renaissance and the mystery of the Catholic church, the art, the stories of the martyrs, the robes–all of that ceremony was incredibly mysterious and attractive to me, but once I got old enough to form my own opinions, I had a really hard time with the position of women in the church and a lot of their social policies and sort of the practical side of how things shake out for a practicing Catholic. But I missed those sort of capital M “Mysteries” associated with it.
When I set out to make the documentary “American Mystic” five or six years ago, I realized that what I wanted to do was make a documentary that combines portraits of different people in their 20s who were parts of fringe mystical communities who were still fundamentally American. At the time, I knew nothing about witchcraft really, but I loved the idea of including someone who called herself a witch. That word just seems really powerful and foreign. I wanted to know what the hell that could possibly mean.
I spent a long time casting the film. It took about six months of traveling around the country on and off, and I finally met this woman Morpheus who was about my age and really funny and interesting and intense and she worked a sort of regular government type day job. She was living way off the grid in California where she had built this other sort of sanctuary for witches and pagans in the Bay Area to come and have rituals on the weekends. She even built with her partner at the time their very own Stonehenge by dragging these huge rocks from different parts of the property. I wanted to know what that was all about, and she became my way in.
By the time the book project occurred to me, it was a result of me becoming a lot more personally invested, a lot more curious on a personal level. Once we stopped filming, what I decided I wanted to do was start taking part myself and see where that might lead me.
KH: Lately it seems like witchcraft has almost come into fashion, like its cool to wear crystals and dress in gauzy black. Do you know how the Pagan community feels about how items they once were persecuted for now being trendy?
AM: It’s funny because when I started on the documentary, when I would mention someone involved in the film was a witch, my friends or people I knew in the media would just kind of make a shocked face and ask what that could possibly mean. Then a couple years ago, as I was in the middle of working on the book, my conversations about the book started to change. I would say, “I’m working on this book about present day witchcraft all around the country,” and the reactions started to become, “Are they Pagans, are they Wiccans?” People knew the words and they had some kind of context.
Now that the book is about to come out, it’s completely amazing because it seems to be coming out at a moment when this is suddenly talked about and hip to experiment with. People in New York are suddenly talking about some coven in Bushwick or different trends related to the occult. This is all really new, and its really interesting that sort of by accident, I’ve been able to chart this shift that’s taken place.
But as far as fashion and the mainstream acceptance–most of the witches I know have a real sense of humor and don’t think much about it. In the 90s, there was that movie, “The Craft.” A few of the witches I knew mentioned that when that movie came out, it was so popular with a young crowd that all of a sudden, a lot of their friends were talking about how it attracted these young women who were showing up curious, asking questions, wanting to know more about the public rituals that they were hearing about, seeking different communities, going online, trying to find a new chat room. They’d show up, be very curious, and after a little while, just kind of fade out. They used the term “Craftlings” to describe the moment when a wave of these girls showed up. They’re used to it becoming trendy to become interested in the occult.
I think now what’s different is that the trend is here to stay. It seems to have more to do with Paganism being accepted as a legitimate new religious movement in this country and where we go from there.
But if someone wants to dress up in sexy, witchy gear, I don’t think anyone thinks there’s something wrong with that. It’s simply that no one’s gonna take that person seriously as a Pagan priestess unless they have the training to back them up or somehow prove themselves in the community in some way.
KH: One thing that wasn’t mentioned in the book was your friends and families reaction to you doing this project and even studying deeper into witchcraft. Did they know what you were doing?
AM: To be honest, I really kept a lot of this from my friends and my family. People in my circle and my personal life are used to the idea that I’d be out reporting something, doing research for a story, but very few people had any idea how personal this had become. Part of it was just that there is something a little bit intimidating about exploring witchcraft. I’m extremely open minded, my friends are mostly artists and writers. It’s not like I come from a conservative town and all of my friends are conservative Christians, but in spite of how open minded my own people are, I felt the baggage that comes with that word “witch.” What does that mean? What does it mean to say that you’re experimenting with magic? What does it mean to consider initiation to a witchcraft tradition? What kind of person does that make you?
Also, I was really questioning the idea of whether I could really think of myself as someone devout. The reality of being a witch or a Pagan priest is that you’re actually a religious person. You believe that there are gods and goddesses and you work with them directly in order to change things in your life or do good in your community. It was a big leap for me to be taking, to go from someone who was just attracted to the mystery of this world to then being asked to pray and make offerings to certain gods and goddesses. That was a lot for me to grapple with. I went through a lot of that in private or just with people within the Pagan community.
I’m not someone who takes a lot of pleasure in wearing a super alternative lifestyle on my sleeve. I don’t dress goth or have a lot of piercings or wear dramatic clothing or make any vivid statement about my personal life to the world, so this was something that I really tried to compartmentalize for a while. As a result, now, I have many close friends who are reading the book realizing they had no idea what I was up to for the last few years.
KH: I can just imagine being scared to tell people in general “I’m investing in this new religion” without knowing for sure that you’re fully going to commit to it, and later, getting all those jabs like “remember that time you thought you were super into witchcraft?”
AM: I think part of it is there’s a little bit of tension, depending on where you live certainly, there are a lot of people who might argue that, if you’re a very religious person, you can’t also be an intellectual, that there’s some part of you that’s a sucker who bought into this belief system that doesn’t make sense. Like, “If you can talk to this goddess, then make stuff happen.” “How do you explain that, you don’t have proof, you went to a fancy college, how can you justify this point of view?” There’s also that. But most of the Pagans that I spent time with–there’s no interest in converting you. It’s seen as very much a practice that people come to on their own. There’s no interest in “selling” witchcraft to you. I found that to be comforting. People respected the fact that I had doubts and questions and was searching for myself. I didn’t feel threatened by that. It’s something that makes me feel suspicious of certain religious communities when there’s no room for someone to come in and ask questions or for someone to openly say, “Look, I don’t know how I feel, I’m exploring.”
KH: What is one misconception about witchcraft and the Pagan community that you wish you could get rid of?
AM: You brought up earlier how hip witchcraft seems at this second. I’d say that although the occult has started to take hold of younger people in New York and LA, there are no hipsters in this book. These are mostly acceptably regular seeming people. What I learned through the course of spending time in this community and writing the book is that there are several hundreds of thousands of Pagans in this country right now, possibly as many as a million, and the vast majority of people I met, there was not a way for you to tell on a surface level that they were Pagan or considered themselves a witch or the high priestess of a coven. You just wouldn’t know.
I met people who had incredibly boring regular day jobs, and I met people who were working in technology or psychologists or grade school teachers, the whole gambit. I met people who were very sweet, dedicated parents with a couple of young kids. There wasn’t an obvious stereotype that people fit into. I also spent a lot of time with people on the West Coast who were more upfront with the way they wanted to dress. I talk about the Feri tradition in the book, and that’s a tradition that on the West Coast, attracts people who are very drawn to the Arts, and they wear a lot of black leather and red and purple and black, and have more of a flair for the dramatics, but otherwise, what I found really amazing was that I found so many people that seemed in some cases just like suburban moms and it wasn’t until we sat down and started really talking in intimate ways that I realized this person had a complete other dimension to her life that I otherwise would never have guessed from seeing her buying groceries in her sneakers and rushing to pick up the kids. How would I have known, or how would someone else in her public life have known that she’s also the high priestess of a coven for the last 12 years? For me, it just made this country that much more interesting and reminded me that you can miss out on a lot of the complexity of people when you make those kind of surface assumptions.