For most of us, our impression of witches comes from things like True Blood (remember the Wiccan leader Marnie getting possessed by the evil witch Antonia?!), Charmed, Salem, and Wizard of Oz. You know – brooms, wands, cauldrons, and a whole lot of cackling.
Obviously, Hollywood loves to exaggerate, and pop culture witches aren’t the norm. In filmmaker and writer Alex Mar’s new book Witches of America, you get an in-depth, nuanced look at witchcraft in America: from a California priestess named Morpheus (OK, yes, she has long red hair) to Pagans who get tipsy off vodka grapefruit in the Midwestern wilderness to a group in New Orleans who follow the teachings of notorious British occultist Aleister Crowley (the man who inspired a few Led Zeppelin songs).
For Mar, it all started six years ago when she set out to make the documentary American Mystic. That’s how she met Morpheus, and it’s how her interest in witchcraft and magical practice began.
The book comes out on October 20, and Nerdist talked to Mar about pop culture stereotypes of witches, the darker aspects of the occult, and the fact that, as she writes in the book, “Groucho Marx would have understood the witches: their clubs do not necessarily want you as a member.”
Nerdist: American Mystic and Witches of America go deep into these occult groups that are way outside the mainstream. What initially drew you to them?
Alex Mar: I’ve always been fascinated with belief systems, whether it’s a religious community or any situation where a group of people are defining themselves apart from the mainstream, where they feel bonded to a belief system that doesn’t necessarily make their lives easier. I was intrigued by the concept of magic and witchcraft and where it might take me.
N: Morpheus is a major part of the film and the book; she’s a powerful presence. Did she inspire the book idea? How did you first meet her?
AM: The film shows three intertwining portraits of people in their twenties around the country who are part of a fringe community. I thought it would be interesting to talk to someone who identifies herself as a witch. I didn’t really now what that would mean, but I thought the word was really mysterious and dark and intriguing. I was curious to see what that might lead me to and I eventually met Morpheus after meeting with different people and different covens. She was living way off the grid in Northern California. They had erected their own Stonehenge on the property.
In getting to know her I realized that the film was not going to be enough. I literally woke up one morning and realized that there was an entire book there.
N: This is the first thing I’ve read that gives you a real sense of what witchcraft really is. Like a lot of people, what I know about witches in America comes from things like True Blood and a corny Wicca book I checked out the local library as a teenager. And obviously the Salem witch trials.
AM: I think most people have a vague sense of chanting and crystals and sitting in a circle, or they watch a bunch of horror films and believe whatever they show. Although most of the Pagans I’ve met have a pretty good sense of humor about Hollywood horror movies. It’s kind of impressive how much they’re able to laugh at the whole thing.
N: Is there any truth to the pop culture stereotypes we’ve seen?
AM: There are certain things that you see in TV or in films that are actually fairly accurate, like the amount of drama. Some people will wear fairly simple clothes for rituals, but the idea is that you’re dressing in a way that’s going to help you step outside your normal life. People will wear robes and leather and corsets and whatever their version of ritual gear is. People use ritual daggers or wands or a chalice or a sword. When some people are with their coven in private they may practice magic naked; they call it going skyclad. Sometimes people will speak in other languages. Morpheus taught herself Gaulish, which is a dead language. There’s an exotic scene that’s created sometimes for ceremonies. The big distinction is that it’s really unfair and totally false to claim that just because someone practices witchcraft they are out to harm other people or undermine the local Christian community or something. The M.O. isn’t to go out and recruit more witches.
N: You must have gotten close with Morpheus making the film and writing the book.
AM: When you have cameras rolling you keep a physical distance. There can be a limit to how intimate you can get at times. My friendship with Morpheus continued to deepen and I admire how she’s a really diehard priestess. She walks the walk. I really respected that. She lives on her own terms.
N: You’re incredibly open minded throughout the book, and there’s a great line about the fact that you feel like you’re burning calories just trying to keep an open mind as you’re traveling around the country and experiencing so many forms of witchcraft. Was there anything you were skeptical about that ended up surprising you?
AM: The whole concept of praying every day was pretty foreign to me. As attracted as I was to spells and ritual and getting together in a circle and having these kind of ecstatic group experiences, there was something satisfying about it on a primal level. There’s a group decision to let go of all that and try to connect to something bigger than any one of you. I really did love and appreciate that feeling.
The serious witches and the serious Pagan priests and priestesses that I met are devout people. This is something they study and practice with the same kind of seriousness as a rabbi or a monk.
N: Are you still practicing?
AM: I became involved with the society Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO), which was made famous by the notorious Aleister Crowley, and there’s a lot of that practice that’s still intriguing to me.
N: Towards the end, the book gets into some dark territory. There’s one person, whom you call Jonathan, who is doing things that actually could be in a horror film.
AM: [Jonathan] is on the outermost fringes of magical practice and you’d be hard pressed to find anyone in the witchcraft or occult community who is going to be completely comfortable with what he does. That said, I had this intuitive sense that if I wrote a book for a mainstream audience about witchcraft, people would have a lingering feeling of, ‘Is there a darker side to all of this? Is black magic a real thing?’ I think if you’re writing about any kind of religious group it’s fair to assume that there are going to be extremists. I got to know him during my time in New Orleans before I knew the realities of his most private practice, which involves necromancy and working with the bodies of the dead. He’s using heads of bodies that he has no permission to be taking. It’s so far out there and really pushes the boundaries and it’s incredibly disturbing. At the same time I took pains to write that with as much sensitivity as possible. I’m not going to write about someone if I can’t find some point of empathy with them. If he were dismissed as a sociopath, there would have been no reason to write about him.
N: He’s definitely not painted as a monster, which is what’s so intriguing about it. Morpheus isn’t going that far, but she was still really open about her practice.
AM: She’s working with this war goddess called the Morrigan and there’s a ratcheting up of her relationship with witchcraft and the people who are drawn to her. She shared so much with me about things like her initiation or sex magic or blood offerings – it’s not the kind of stuff people talk about lightly but I think she saw the importance in making it possible for a reader outside the community to get an idea about witchcraft.
N: What do you hope people take away from the book?
AM: I think I come to some sort of revelation by the end of this book, but it’s sort of a messy one. There are aspects of witchcraft practice that I still hold onto and that I’m still open to.
For me this is a process and I call bullshit on the popular American memoir form where someone confesses to you how much of a mess their life is and then they go on this journey that they describe in these neat chapters and then they wrap it all up with a message for the reader. I just don’t buy that. I knew in the process of writing this that it was unlikely that I was going to come to some revelation or conclusion. It was important to be honest about how embarrassing and sloppy the whole process of asking yourself what you believe in is.
Image Credit: Alex Mar; Beowulf Sheehan
GIF Credit: Tumblr