Paganistan: Notes from the Secret Commonwealth

In Which One Midwest Man-in-Black Confers, Converses & Otherwise Hob-Nobs with his Fellow Hob-Men (& -Women) Concerning the Sundry Ways of the Famed but Ill-Starred Tribe of Witches.

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witch•sploi•ta•tion n. In literature or cinema, the use of the Craft--or, more broadly, paganism in general--for sensationalistic (usually horror-inducing) ends.

You know the genre. Wicker Man I (“the one without Nicholas Cage,” as a local movie marquee put it during the midnight Samhain run last year), To the Devil a many to choose from. Somewhere off in the sticks there are (bwa-ha-ha) still real, live witches (or left-over pagans) and they still practice...(shudder)...human sacrifice. Whoa, dude, way scary.

A coven-sib recently confessed to me that her bookshelves are filled with trashy novels with the word “witch” in the title. Magenta, you're not alone. I resemble that remark myself, and I'm sure I'm not the only one.

The most amusing are the ones written by people who have done just a little research. Remember that 1964 cauldron-boiler Book of Shadows? In the opening scene, police are called to a gruesome murder in NYC's Central Park. A man has had his belly ripped open, his guts nailed to a tree, and he's been forced to walk around and around the tree wrapping a grim maypole with his own intestines. Yuck.

And he's just the first. Murders galore. Turns out all the victims had been on an inland cruise of England's canals when they happened to stop at a witch village somewhere in the Midlands. Turns out all the witches were off at some jamboree or other that day (must have been Pagan Pride or something), and someone stole a Book of Shadows from one of the houses. Everyone knows that the B of S is the spellbook that every witch needs to hold onto her power, and is something any witch will happily kill to recover.

The things they never teach you.

Do you know Marion Zimmer Bradley's Witch Hill? Yep, her first pagan (if you can call it that) novel, back before she became Lady of Avalon. A struggling young artist inherits an old house in the country from a distant relative, little realizing what she is inheriting along with the house. This is actually a pretty common scenario in the Witchsploitation genre; the same thing happens to Elvira in the film of the same name. (Elvira mistakes her aunt's B of S for a cookbook. You should see what happens at the church picnic.) Until I read this book, I never knew that at the sabbat Old Hornie's pizzle is painted red because it's his job to deflower the virgins of the tribe. Well now.

I have to admit that one of my favorites in the genre is still Tom Tryon's Harvest Home (the novel). (Speaking of Witchsploitation, please don't blame Bette Davis for Harvest Home: the Movie. It wasn't her fault.) Turns out that in a rural Vermont village settled by Cornish immigrants in the 17th century they still celebrate the Eleusinian Mysteries. Whooda thunk? (They brought them over from the Old Country, where they learned them from Minoan traders. Makes sense, of a sort.) And three guesses what they do every seven years to make the corn grow? What a hoot. I reread it in the fall every year, laughing all the way.

Recent years have even seen the emergence of a Witchsploitation sub-genre. Yep, turns out those spooky old viking ways have managed to survive way out in the country somewheres, and guess what they do every seven years to make the crops grow? I'm afraid one can only refer to this sub-genre as Norsesploitation. Sorry.

My friend and colleague Frebur Moore put his finger on the pulse of why Witchsploitation is important. Part of the power of the witch is that anything they say about us—no matter how scurrilous, ridiculous, or trivial—becomes ours, and we can avail ourselves of it. Just by claiming this identity, we enter a treasure-house filled with goodies that we can make use of, laugh at, or throw at each other at will. This is the laughter of those so secure in identity that they can afford to laugh at ridiculous stereotypes. How good is that?

As a matter of fact, when we paint up the hobman before the sabbat, we generally do paint his glans red.

But that's just coincidence.

What's your favorite example of Witchsploitation?




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Poet, scholar and storyteller Steven Posch was raised in the hardwood forests of western Pennsylvania by white-tailed deer. (That's the story, anyway.) He emigrated to Paganistan in 1979 and by sheer dint of personality has become one of Lake Country's foremost men-in-black. He is current keeper of the Minnesota Ooser.


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