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Witches are in. Really. (And it's not just because Halloween is around the corner.)

First came the summer movie "The Craft," a tale of teen witching gone awry. Now "Sabrina the Teenage Witch," the modern-day "Bewitched," airs on Friday evenings. Soon, "The Crucible," Arthur Miller's dark tale of the Salem witch trials, will be in movie theaters everywhere.

All this witchysteria piqued our interest. So we sent a reporter to a coven meeting to find out the truth... (Wha-ha-ha-ha!)

      "The Crucible,"
      the screen adaptation of
      playwright Miller's famous drama

      See what a
      witch consultant
      told Hollywood

Taking back the "W" word
by Amanda Pike

Kaitlain Creed holds up a bowl and calls the Goddess to bless its contents.

She slowly makes her way around the circle, anointing each celebrant's forehead with oil, tracing the pattern of a pentagram. The 23 novice witches gathered in this small New York City garden to celebrate the Autumn Equinox range in age from early 20s to late 50s. They are teachers, paralegals, writers and computer programmers.

In the distance a motorcycle screeches, and a plane roars overhead. A group of singers rehearses an off-Broadway show. But here the witches are "between the worlds."

"This is like Wicca 101," says Creed, the "head witch" at the ceremony.

"Wicca" is the religion of witchcraft. Most practitioners worship a goddess and god, which they believe are manifest in all things. They celebrate the changing of the seasons and believe the earth is a sacred place.

In fact, let's set the record straight:

    Witches are not Satan worshippers. They don't subscribe to Christian deities or demons.

    Witches say they do cast spells. But they're very similar to prayer. Witches cast a spell to get rid of a migraine or successfully complete a pesky project at work. It's not quite Samantha crinkling her nose to conjure up a pot roast for Darrin.

    Witches have their own version of the Golden Rule -- they call it "the threefold law." It holds that any spell a witch casts comes back to her three times over. So if a witch sent a nasty case of boils to her neighbor, she better stock up on some boil balm herself.

    Some 30% to 40% of witches are men. They prefer the term "witch" over "warlock" -- a derogatory term meaning "oathbreaker."

    Many witches worship naked -- they call it "skyclad." But because the ritual today is public, celebrants wear jeans, T-shirts, skirts and shorts.

    There is no cauldron on the premises today. The only broom is of the mundane variety and it's shoved in the closet with the vacuum cleaner. A black cat prowls the grounds, but he seems more interested in catching a pigeon than transforming into a familiar.

    In the course of the ceremony, there is no cackling. No thunder slices the air. No one is sacrificed. No one levitates.

Believe it or not, ceremonies take place in backyards and living rooms across the country. While no one knows exactly how many witches practice in the US, estimates range from 50,000 to as many as 200,000.

There has never been an official witch survey and even if there were, many witches probably wouldn't respond. They fear being fired, risking their reputations, even losing custody of their children. Wiccans, the people who do openly practice witchcraft, joke that those witches are "in the broom closet."

Real-life witches are in an ongoing battle to take back the "W" word. Many of them say they still identify with "the burning times," the era of persecution dating back to the Inquisition, including the events at Salem.

While some men did suffer during that period, the victims were primarily women. The authorities feared anyone with access to power outside official channels, including women abortionists and healers. Other women were persecuted simply because they were especially ugly or beautiful. (Seems you can't win either way.)

Despite or perhaps because of this loaded history, something about witches captures our imagination and fuels our creativity. The witch ideal seems especially tantalizing to women. Traditionally, "witch" is a term reserved for women. In olden times, "witch" referred to healers or wise women. Now it's a derogatory term for strong-willed, commandeering and independent women.

But in either context, the word retains a ring of power. It is a desultory insult spoken out of fear or a rubric for special powers not easily conquered or understood. In both instances, femininity is not an obstacle to that power, but a channel for it.

Each witch is her own priestess and is responsible for her own magic. Therein lies the real beauty of witchcraft -- it's an inherent world view in which the magic we imagined as children does exist and the power to access it is within each of us.

As the evening draws to a close, the witches-in-training bid farewell to the spirits and break for pretzels and punch. Looking over her class blithely munching on snacks and joking about the latest Ikea commercial, the high priestess Creed looks at me and shrugs apologetically.

"When you take away the human sacrifice and the thunder and lightening that everyone thinks is involved," she says, "we're just as boring as Episcopalians."

Well, not quite.

Witch cams
(downloadable videos
filmed by Amanda Pike)

Watch Kaitlain Creed cast
the coven circle

Calling the spirits
to join the circle

Celebrating the Autumn Equinox

Could it be?
So says a recent tabloid.

"If you want to show the truth, it would be a bunch of ex-hippies sitting out in the forest arguing over the last piece of chicken at a ritual."

Winona Ryder and
Daniel Day-Lewis
in "The Crucible"

Abigail (Ryder) accuses
her lover's wife
of witchcraft

Hysteria in Salem

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