An interview with sociologist Helen A. Berger about paganism, how young people get into spells, and coming out of the "broom closet."
A week ago, in a fit of Halloween-inspired whimsy, my friend Helen and I gathered $100 worth of herbs, tea candles, and a tiny cauldron and tried our hands at sorcery. It didn't exactly work out—after we cast a protection spell, the door creaked opened and suddenly slammed shut, freaking us out enough that we blew out the candles and called it a night.
Whether it was due to our rank amateurism or something else, the spells didn't "work" any way you slice it—in the following week, both of our bikes were stolen, as was my editor's, and nothing seemed to go right for just about everyone I know.
I know real Wiccans don't dabble in black magic, but it's undeniable that witch-y stuff is in vogue right now. Urban Outfitters sells books on moon spells, Tarot cards, and something called "Wiccapedia" next to volumes of the Rookie Yearbook and bound collections of mac and cheese recipes. Girls walk around Brooklyn wearing T-shirts with pentagrams. You can rent a witch on Etsy. But is this just a surface-level trend, or is paganism really having a moment?
To learn more, I called up Helen A. Berger, one of the only scholars who studies the pagan community, and probably the only one who has studied its appeal to teenagers and young women. "It's definitely not a micro-trend," the sociologist who works at Brandeis University told me. "It's not something I'm surprised to hear is popular in Brooklyn, though."
VICE: How many people are pagan in America right now? And how does that number compare to the past?
Helen A. Berger: It is growing, but it was growing at a very fast rate in the 1990s and into the early 2000s. And every indication is that rate has slowed down. It continues to grow but not quite as fast as it had been. That's at least the best estimate. We in the United States do not include religious affiliation in our Census, which makes it more difficult to figure out.
How do you measure this without a Census question?
Most scholars, myself included, look at things like attendance of pagan gatherings and purchases of pagan books, like The Spiral Dance, which has sold millions of copies, and books by Scott Cunningham. The latest American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) had the number of pagans in the US at around 360,000, but I think that's low and there's well over a million at this point. It's still a minority religion.
During the teen-witch craze, when they were first airing Sabrina and all those shows, there was a large increase. The media has an effect on people's behavior. That doesn't mean, by the way, that they weren't all serious. Some were and some were not. We looked at participation in online sites—new people joining discussion groups—and saw there was an increase but in a slower rate than there had been in the 90s and early 2000s.
Were any of these girls who loved Charmed doing witchcraft in covens or just in their bedrooms?
Disproportionally people were doing this alone. I did one survey that showed a little under half were doing it alone, and then another one later that showed 75 percent were solitary practitioners.
People who were doing it in groups were getting involved in one of four ways. You can go on something like WitchVox, which is the largest international site. There's also notices in metaphysical bookstores. If you're a college or university student, or to some degree a high school student, you can find groups through your school. The last major way is through friends.
I'm assuming that there are more people walking around New York wearing Pentagram shirts than there are in the Deep South? And how is popular opinion toward magical religions changing in general?
Most of the data does suggest that it's an urban/suburban phenomenon. US pagans are more likely to say that they had experience discrimination, but they were also more likely to be out of what they call the "broom closet."
In Boston, where I live, I would say there's not much discrimination. Some Wiccans may disagree with me, but I think it's rather mild here and in places like San Francisco, where there's a large community of witches. But in some parts of the country, like the Bible Belt, yes [there is discrimination]. I think part of the reason we have gay marriage is because so many people came out of the closet, if you're objecting to gays, you're objecting to your cousin, your niece, your child. I think that as pagans come out, more people will say that's their religion and they're perfectly normal people.
What about Wicca appeals to teens besides Sarah Michelle Geller?
When anything appears in the media, particularly something that is widespread, it gets people's interest. It's just like how if we went to war with a country, everyone would suddenly be looking up that country. But what we found was that the people who stayed in the religion said they were more interested in the rituals and feeling connected to the Goddess and to nature and to getting a sense of empowerment in their spiritual path.
Those weren't the ones who ended up staying. Something typical would be four girls—boys tended to do it alone—and the majority of them dropping out. As one young woman who stayed told me, "I originally came in because I had a bad relationship, and I wanted to turn my ex-boyfriend into a frog. That was actually the first book I got." Of course it didn't work. But she came for the magic, but she stayed for the spirituality.
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