but there are
of Wicca in the
Are We Pushing Witchcraft On Girls?
|By Matt Nisbet|
Matt Nisbet is Public Relations Director for the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP). This article first appeared on the Skeptical Inquirer Electronic Digest, October 28, 1998, and is reproduced here by permission.
Sometimes the games that children play can have serious consequences. On October 20, at a Maryland high school, fifteen-year-old Jamie Schoonover was sent home from school with a referral slip noting that she was disciplined for “casting a spell on a student.” A classmate had accused Schoonover, an admitted practicing witch and the daughter of a witch, of placing a hex on her.
The news may sound bizarre or like something from Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, but the incident is the latest in a brewing national fascination with witchcraft. Estimates vary, but there are between 400,000 to 3 million practitioners of Wicca in the United States. Adherents to the religion, male and female, call themselves witches or Wiccans, and are actively battling for religious acceptance and tolerance for their beliefs. Some claim that Wicca is the fastest growing religion in the country.
In sorting which witch is which in this matter, anthropologists identify four types of witches common to popular Western imagination. The “satanic witch” was persecuted as a devil worshiper during the Inquisition and the Salem witchhunts, and the image still abounds among evangelical Christians who warn of the existence of widespread satanic cults in the United States.
The “tribal witch” represents the dualism of good and evil magic found in the native religions of American Indian, African-Carribbean, and Pacific Islander cultures. The tribal witch is thought to be the opposite of the benevolent healer or shaman and is often made the societal scapegoat for ill fortune or hardship. Recent political turmoil in South Africa and Java have sparked national witchhunts resulting in hundreds of murders fueled by jealously, fear, superstition and prejudice. The “fairy tale witch” is the hideous crone found in fables such as Hansel and Gretal and The Wizard of Oz.
Wicca, however, falls under the category of what anthropologists call “neo-pagan witch,” with most Wiccans tracing their origin to pre-Christian times and Celtic druidism. Wicca has nothing in common with so-called satanic witchcraft, and Wiccans do not profess a belief in Satan, but rather in a female goddess that resides within all things natural. Most Wiccans maintain a belief in psychic ability including clairvoyance, psychokinesis and spirit communication. The feminist movement has found an agreeable companion in Wicca, with the religion’s emphasis on self-empowerment (often through supernatural means), matriarchal deism, and female spiritual leaders.
Like many things in culture straddling the boundary between the mainstream and the fringe, Hollywood and other sectors of the media, including book and magazine publishers, have co-opted the rich subject matter of Wicca and witchcraft into an explosion of books, films and magazine articles. Currently in theaters is the sister-story-turned-supernatural-yarn Practical Magic with Nicole Kidman and Sandra Bullock. Television has taken notice with the top-rated ABC sitcom Sabrina the Teenage Witch and WB Network’s Charmed. Book sales have jumped since the late 1980s, with today’s hottest titles in witchcraft, typically a combination of memoirs and New Age self-help, approaching 40,000 copies sold. Spin Magazine in its “Grrrl [sic] Power” issue ranked witchcraft as the top interest among teenage girls. Even advertisers are trying to charm consumers as Finesse Shampoo, Cover Girl cosmetics and Camel cigarettes feature witches in their ad campaigns.
The result is that the cottage industry of Wicca, by word-of-mouth growth, has been mutated into the latest Hollywood-driven fad. But do we really need all this magical thinking? Why are we pushing witchcraft on teenage girls when we desperately need to be selling girls on science and math?
Even without the burden of the magical thinking of witchcraft, long-existing cultural barriers already hold back girls from performing on equal ground with boys in math and science. According to a 1992 report by the Wellesley College for Research on Women, on Advanced Placement exams girls lag behind boys in math, physics, and biology. On the 1991 SAT, girls scored 44 points lower than boys in math. The National Sciences Foundation reported that in 1991 girls earned only 29 percent of the science and engineering doctorates awarded in the United States.
Unfortunately, the late 1990s is a postmodern world where reality is conceived as multitudinous, and taken as the latest image flashed across the television screen or the hottest billion dollar ad campaign to arrive from Madison Avenue. Parents and schools are responsible for providing a solid grounding in the sciences and math and for teaching critical thinking. But the media also shares some of the burden. Society is constantly and relentlessly bombarded with media presentations of pseudoscience, fantasy and the paranormal. Witchcraft is only the latest example of a media-driven paranormal fad and certainly not the last.
Return to Archive Index