Halloween fever is upon us again, and thanks to Buffy, Sabrina and Harry, witches and wizards are more popular with kids than ever. Is there any harm in it? Sophie Parkin reports
The Guardian (England), Oct. 30, 2002
There was not a lot of Halloween excitement in England when I first went trick or treating, in 1967. Any memory of the pagan Celtic festival, Samhain – which originally celebrated the beginning of winter, and was later modified by Christians as All Hallows Eve – had faded. The only people then who carved out pumpkins were American.
But my sister had a friend from the US. The fun for us of joining in with their strange rituals of apple-bobbing and eating chocolate brownies, was the dressing-up and, of course, the ghost stories. Accosting neighbours when draped in drag, heavily made up in my mum’s Fenella Fielding wig and Macbeth make-up, trying not to giggle, was a hoot.
Certainly more fun than fireworks, which were dangerous and dull, or bonfires, which you weren’t allowed anywhere near. When you happened upon the home of an American, they were so happy you were part of their “religion”, they’d throw £5 notes at you, and apologise for not having enough chocolate in the house. The English were less than generous, occasionally aggressive (“Trick or treat? I’ll give you treat!”), and sometimes even expected you to perform! My sister was once forced to dance in full witch regalia in a pub. Brits just didn’t get it. Another time, though, we struck lucky and got invited into Julie Christie and Warren Beatty’s house, where they were having a fancy dress party. For five minutes, we were stars among the stars.
Now that my kids do Halloween, I understand that the idea behind it is to celebrate the festival by rewarding the children with the best costumes and those you feel sorry for with large amounts of chocolate, candy or cash. Forget the fruit. Any apples (even toffee apples), once more significant than pumpkins, are treated with suspicion, as sadistic adults have been known – by legend, at least – to stick razor blades in them.
These days, kids seem to think Halloween has taken over from fireworks as a fundraising opportunity – apparently because they don’t have to make a Guy Fawkes effigy and they can do door-to-door mugging with no more costume than a bank robber’s ski mask. In recent years, I’ve even had kids throw sweets back in my face saying they don’t like mini Mars Bars. “Neither do I – why do you think I’m giving them away!” I shouted after them as they pelted raw eggs at my head. And where does that nice custom come from? Northern Albania, apparently, where they throw eggs at new-born babies to protect them from the evil eye.
But while many kids are in it for the laugh, many more are taking it seriously all year round – with a little help from the internet. Just type the word “witch” into your search engine and see Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Bewitched, Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Harry Potter pop up before your eyes. There are countless spells to be had for every occasion and dilemma. Witches, it seems, are now consulted as if they were agony aunts.
Marina Baker, a “white witch” who lives on the south coast, is just bringing out her third book of helping spells. Her first, Spells for Teenage Witches, sold over 200,000 copies. Her latest, the Teenage Survival Guide, is packed with advice on everything from how to deal with your parents’ brawls and petty behaviour, to bullying and eating disorders, and even environmental matters. Over the past two years, not only have her books been in demand, but also her advice, via email. She has provided reassurance on such bewitching questions as “Is it possible to be a Muslim and a witch?”, “Can boys be witches without being gay?” and “How can I get rid of the bad vibes in my house?”
“Often the house thing turns out to be that they just don’t like where they are living, or didn’t want to move in the first place, or aren’t getting on with their family,” says Baker. “Ordinary solutions, yes, but magic can play a part in everyday life and, in many ways, a spell is just a prayer chanted over a candle.
“The ritual of magic is what draws children. I think it’s fine to involve my three-year-old in full-moon rituals, but I would start to worry if my kids ever expected miracles from using their pointy fingers, such as turning other kids into toads.”
But isn’t all this dangerously close to Voodoo? “Absolutely not,” she responds. “Witches work with the Earth and the creatures on it. We believe in the sanctity of life in all its forms. A rite such as sacrifice is very much in the past for today’s witches. I think it’s very sad when religions can approve killing.
“Teenagers can gain a lot of confidence when they feel that they have an energy backing them,” she insists. “When you feel out of control within, with all the hormones rushing about your body, it puts you back in charge and makes you think positively towards the future.”
This sensation generally begins around the age of 11. At other times in history, the urge might have been more directed towards the church and religious enthusiasm. But one mother I spoke to, author Anouchka Grose Forrester, who dabbled as a teen witch, says: “I’d be happier if my daughter got into witchcraft than Christianity. Of course, if she got really serious, I’d tell her to stop being so flaky.”
The bookseller Waterstone’s reports that the phenomenon has grown over the last three years. The positive role models of witches on television shows have made spell books very fashionable among pre-teens and teenagers, along with books such as Carole Mortimer’s bestselling novel Witchchild.
Mysteries, a shop of 20 years’ standing in Covent Garden, London, is dedicated to all things psychic and has seen a huge surge of interest in witchcraft. Staff say it’s not just a “girl thing”; about a third of their spell books are bought by males – and they are not all goths dressed in floor-length black lace and leather.
Louie, 11, is an ordinary football-playing boy who loves spell, dream and wicca books. He started buying them, he explains, because, “it’s a bit like Pokemon, but with spells.” “Everybody at school likes it,” he says. “Now my favourite bit of any bookshop is the ‘mind, body and spirit’ section. My mum doesn’t mind; she thinks it’s interesting too. And it’s stopped my bad dreams.”
But not all adults are so sanguine. “For impressionable children, it can be damaging and frightening to know there is a bigger power that can be used against them,” warns psychologist Marissa Peers. “Since we are what we believe and kids can be suggestible, responsible parents shouldn’t encourage it. The affirmations and visualisations used in spells have great power, but anyone has the facility to see themselves succeeding; kids don’t need witchcraft. Halloween should just be taken as party fun.”
When, at this Halloween, my daughter Carson and her teenage friends get down to some chanting under the moon for their wish list, they are more likely to be dressed as extras from the Rocky Horror Show than as ghosts, ghouls and broomstick-riders. She has collected so many spells that her classmates treat her as a resource centre of “love spells”. “I don’t see it as an outside evil force,” she says. “Spells bring a sense of order; knowing what you want is good. Besides, I only ever chantpositive spells.”
“Any chance of a ‘tidy spell’ for your room?” I ask.
“Oh mum, get real!”