By Liane Carlson
Earlier this summer, a cluster of headlines briefly flared up amid articles on Brexit, food riots in Venezuela, and the endless machinations behind the Republican Convention.
“Hundreds of Witches Hex Stanford Rapist Brock Turner.”
“Stanford Rapist Brock Turner Hexed by Angry Witches.”
“Will a Mass Witch Hex Really Make Brock Turner Impotent?”
The articles were short, formulaic, and in agreement on a few basic points. The hex’s organizer, Melanie Elizabeth Hexen, was moved by the same rage at Turner’s scant six-month sentence as much of the feminist blogosphere. The hex itself was promoted over Facebook and drew in, by some estimates, as many as a thousand witches. As for the witches, no one much knew or cared who they were, but almost everyone had a different lurid detail of what they did. According to Vice, some anointed candles with their menstrual blood before tying them to a picture of Brock Turner and chanting maledictions. New York Magazine quoted one witch who casually admitted to “sourcing dog shit from the neighbor to throw the curse away with.” The New York Daily News was relatively restrained in its brief mention of pictures showing Turner’s mugshot engulfed in flames, but apparently thought better of it and added a stock photo of what seems to be a window display at Anthropologie for the Day of the Dead, featuring candles in a ring of skulls, a perfume bottle with a pink heart pasted on, and a demented canvas Pillsbury Dough Boy voodoo doll back from a rough night at an artisanal bondage club.
Most of the articles were written with the slightly-too-serious sincerity of a reporter who knows she doesn’t have to explain the joke to her audience. Only The Huffington Post even bothered to ask the question running beneath all of the articles: so are we supposed to take this seriously, or what? The answer it got back from Ben Radford, the deputy editor of Skeptical Inquirer was a reassuring “mostly not.” Curses, Radford explained, only work in cultures that actually believe in them. A hex or the evil eye might do something in Africa, Asia or Europe but in America a victim simply wouldn’t care. The sentiment behind the mass hex, he went on to add, was understandable and even admirable, but in twenty-first century America it amounted to another form of “slacktivism.”
That might have been the sum of the story — another marginal religious community discovered, gawked at, and dismissed — except for one strange detail. Like Radford, nearly all of the other articles pull back from dismissing witchcraft altogether when it touches on the experience of sexual assault. Most even end by respectfully quoting Hexen about her belief that many of the women participating would cast curses of special power because they themselves had been raped.
It might not seem like much to avoid mocking rape victims but it’s another tiny moment of respect amid a growing interest in witchcraft. The last year has seen articles on the rise of chaos magic and hipster witches in the trendier parts of Brooklyn, a new book on Salem by New Yorker writer Stacy Schiff, and a controversial memoir by Alex Mar about her time spent in American pagan communities. Witches aren’t respectable, exactly, but they’re not being dismissed out of hand either. This mainstream interest in witchcraft offers an opportunity to ask what it looks like when a culture first starts taking seriously a marginalized religious movement. What are the forms of analysis that are seen as respectful and what are the ones that are seen as dismissive or reductive?
Stacy Schiff’s previously mentioned The Witches: Salem, 1692, is one of two recent volumes that offer some insight into this question. Schiff suggests that sympathetically understanding the role of witchcraft in our collective American imagination means grappling with how much we’ve gotten wrong. And we’ve gotten a lot wrong. Thanks to touchstones of education and culture such as Arthur Miller’s Crucible, we imagine the witch trials were the unremarkable outgrowth of a Puritan culture brined in bigotry and the Bible. But, the truth is, the Massachusetts Bay Colony was notoriously lenient when it came to accusations of witchcraft. Of the 103 trials that occurred in its history, only 25% ended in convictions and of that only six people were ever executed. We envision judges steeped in the lore of witchcraft, but at one point the governor of Massachusetts had to write to authorities in New York to ask if witches could assume the guise of an innocent person. Most of all, we confuse the sensationalistic for the interesting when we focus on accounts of women seducing men in their sleep, suffocating infants and flying to dance with the devil. Scapegoats always reflect the fears of their time, Schiff seems to think, and people will always betray those they love most in a terrorized society where silence means death.
If Schiff’s long, plodding book has a single thesis, it is that what we ought to find interesting about America’s iconic mass execution are the judges who sanctioned the trials and acted as the gatekeepers of terror. Her Salem is really a story about powerful men harnessing mob passions to further their own agendas — in this case, proving to skeptics back in England that the Massachusetts Bay Colony could govern itself after staging a coup against the royal governor three years before.
While her approach has merits, it ends by marginalizing the accused witches at the center of the story. When Schiff finally turns to the girls who started having visions, the explanation she offers for their behavior is at once remarkable and bizarre. She diagnoses them as hysterics. All of their hallucinations, contortions, and stammers, she argues, “conform precisely to what nineteenth-century neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot, with Freud following him, termed hysteria.” Charcot even had photographs of hysterics that matched the behavior of the Salem girls, she argues.
Hysteria, she confidently goes on to explain, still exists as a psychological diagnosis; we have just renamed it “conversion disorder” and redefined it as the body transforming feelings into physical symptoms. Everything the records tell us about the home life of the afflicted girls fits the classic conditions for that. Their home life was grim, filled with dark rumblings about the devil, monetary worries, and powerful intracommunity resentments. Even the weather was bad, Schiff tells us, cold, dark and bleak. The wonder is not that these adolescent girls in a patriarchal society translated their emotional suffocation into physical symptoms; the wonder is that so many powerful, educated men believed them.
This diagnosis, coming in 2015 from a respected biographer of underestimated women, is flabbergasting. To understand why, it’s worth stepping back to look at those images from Charcot.
To be fair to Schiff, Charcot’s photographs of hysterics look like the sort of unworldly writhing you might picture happening in a darkened Salem meeting house. In one, a woman arcs her back, her mouth open in a rictus (a scream? a moan? silence?) half-buried by the pillows of her hospital bed. In another, a different woman clasps her hands in what looks like prayer, staring at a space above the photographer’s head with wondering, softly unfocused eyes. In a third, a woman’s back faces the camera, a thin cotton shirt lined with lace hooked around her elbows and pulled taut across her lower back to reveal the date traced in bold letters on her back by her doctor’s stylus; in a fourth, the date has been replaced by “SATAN.” Unfortunately for Schiff, the photographs she so confidently points to as evidence are as contested as any historical record we have.
Charcot hadn’t meant to build his career around hysteria. He was a pioneering neurologist born in 1825 in Paris, famous for discovering multiple sclerosis, ALS, and writing groundbreaking studies on Parkinson’s. His brilliance made it surprising when he swore to return to the mental hospital Salpêtrière at the end of his internship in 1852. At the time, Salpêtrière was a dumping ground for dispossessed women of all types, insane, crippled, pregnant, old, and violent alike. Charcot saw it as an opportunity to begin classifying an uncharted range of mental illnesses and, by bureaucratic accident, wound up in charge of hysterics.
Hysterics were notoriously baffling for their shifting array of symptoms, ranging from visions, seizures, localized paralysis, unstoppable laughing, temporary muteness, spots of insensibility on the skin, self-starvation and a tendency to deception, among others. For centuries, doctors had attributed this baffling array of symptoms to the uterus traveling inside the body and often recommended as a cure pregnancy to weight down the womb. The word itself memorializes this defunct theory; “hysteria” literally means “wandering womb.” By the time Charcot entered the scene, doctors had largely abandoned the old explanation of hysteria, but held fast to the intuition that hysteria had something to do with women and sexuality. While Charcot certainly wasn’t immune to those assumptions, he broke with conventional medical theories by insisting that hysteria was a neurological disease. If he could just isolate its stages, he might be able classify it as a biological disease like any other.
And this is where the problem with Schiff’s use of Charcot’s photographs begins. As part of his studies, Charcot gave public, wildly popular lectures on hysteria. To make his lectures work, he needed women who reliably exhibited the same sort of symptoms in the same, predictable order. So far as I am aware, there is no definitive evidence that Charcot colluded with his patients to deceive the public — not that he needed to. The incentives were all there for a patient to mold her symptoms to fit Charcot’s expectations, whether consciously or from the power of suggestion.
The best of his patients were stars on par with the most famous actresses of the day. To be sure, the work was often degrading and exploitative. Hysterics were hypnotized and made to play out the fantasies of the doctors in front of large crowds. There is a story of two doctors telling a woman under hypnosis that the right side of her body was married to the first doctor and the left side to the second. When the first doctor caressed the right side of her body, the patient would respond enthusiastically to her ‘husband.’ Yet as soon as his hand began creeping over to the left side of her body she would slap away his fingers. At other times, in a treatment calling back to old theories of hysteria as a problem of wandering wombs, hysterics were subjected to an “ovarian compressor” to calm their attacks, a vise of sorts with two screws that pushed down on the ovaries. (The ovarian compressor was seen as progress. Previously, doctors had climbed on top of women and punched them in the ovaries until their attacks subsided, but apparently that felt too much like assault for their consciences.)
For unruly patients, doctors always had the threat of sending them away from the comparatively humane ward for hysterics to the much grimmer hospital wing where the insane were kept. If that threat didn’t work, doctors could always leverage the power of a drug addiction. Women who were not on drugs when they entered were regularly dosed with ether until they often became physically dependent on it.
Even if a patient did not decide to cooperate, she still had the chance to attract the approving attention of doctors if hysterical attacks had a religious dimension. In Medical Muses, Asti Hustvedt tells the story of one of Charcot’s prize patients, Geneviève Basile Legrand, who became famous for exactly that reason. Poor, illegitimate, and raped at least twice, Geneviève was first committed to Salpêtrière in 1864 at twenty-one. When she arrived, her doctors were delighted to discover her symptoms were coupled with devout piety. She had visions of Jesus and attacks by demons? That just made her a modern-day Teresa of Ávila. She suffered from anorexia nervosa? So did Catherine of Siena. In a fit of self-mutilation she had snipped off her left nipple with a pair of scissors? It was the fanatical Russian sect, the Skoptzy, all over again. Of course, her propensity to scale the hospital walls and run away was unfortunate, especially since she would one day make that escape permanent, but in the meantime they had their very own religious fanatic to use in their battle against the authority of the Catholic Church. Geneviève proved that mystics and witches were just hysterics by a different name.
These are the circumstances under which Charcot’s photographs were taken; these are the women Schiff takes to be illustrating the symptoms of the young girls from Massachusetts. 324 years after Salem, Schiff uses eroticized photographs of coerced and captive women on a different continent to reach the same diagnostic conclusion as a nineteenth-century psychologist at war with the Catholic Church.
Old diagnoses are not necessarily bad diagnoses, except in this case. As soon as Charcot died, his theory of hysteria fell apart. Skeptics began questioning the orderly stages of hysterical attacks he had pieced together from his thrashing, wailing patients. His most famous student, a young Viennese doctor named Sigmund Freud, abandoned Charcot’s quest to find a neurological cause for hysteria altogether. Instead, he argued in his 1896 piece, “The Aetiology of Hysteria,” that every case of hysteria could be traced back to “premature sexual experiences” — that is, molestation. Hysteria was the psyche’s effort to protect itself from trauma, creating an outlet for pent-up, unacknowledged stress through physical symptoms. Freud eventually repudiated his early explanation, convinced that there was no way to separate repressed memories of assault from imagined ones, and unwilling to believe that sexual assault could exist on the scale his theory suggested.
In the years since, hysteria has largely fallen out of favor as a diagnosis, with one or two strange exceptions. Some of its most characteristic symptoms have now been recategorized as separate illnesses, like epilepsy, post-traumatic stress disorder, and schizophrenia. Other axiomatic beliefs, notably that hysteria was a feminine disorder, collapsed after millions of young men came home from World War I trembling and stuttering from shell shock. Schiff is right that something similar to hysteria persists under the name “conversion disorder,” but it is not at all clear how much Charcot would recognize of hysteria in this stripped-down disease or, for that matter, what Schiff gets out of making such an old and fraught diagnosis.
It is strange to turn to a defunct category like hysteria to diagnose long-dead girls. It is absurd to imagine hysteria looked the same in 1692 Salem as in nineteenth-century France. It is naive to think photographs might offer unmediated proof of the past and something worse than that to think Charcot’s photographs might show us what hysteria “really looked like.” Schiff’s appeal to hysteria is all of these things and more, but it is also interesting.
From Charcot, to Freud, to the present, diagnosing women with hysteria has been overwhelmingly a way to delegitimize their religious experiences. A vision of Jesus no longer proves divine favor; it indicates a neurological disorder in Charcot’s case or some repressed sexual trauma, as in early Freud. Geneviève’s doctors, like the nineteenth-century German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach who understood religion as imaginary compensation for real psychological lacks and Marx who called religion the opiate of the masses, were not sociopaths. They recognized that people turned to religion in response to real suffering and, in their own ways, respected that. But they also saw that recognition as the first step in stripping away religion’s power by addressing the socio-economic, psychological and medical causes that gave rise to belief. So it marks a genuine shift that Schiff invokes hysteria and popular presses reference the sexual assault of the witches who hexed Turner as sympathetic gestures that legitimized their religious experiences. Why she does it is a different question.
Is the answer that we now see assault survivors’ trauma as possessing some deeper truth we’re not comfortable dismissing? Is it that there’s an affinity between the language of mystical experiences we inherited from our Christian culture and the way we describe assault as an experience that breaks and molds the self? Is it a case of crass self-interest on the part of journalists who know they can mock witches but not assault survivors?
Whatever the case, it seems to suggest that the old Feuerbachian-Marxist line that religion offers imaginary compensation for real psychological needs is no longer taken as a criticism. I would be inclined to leave the puzzle as a commentary on the sorts of suffering that preoccupy us, if it weren’t for the peculiar case of Alex Mar, who blundered into the problem of poverty and inadvertently demonstrated that not every form of suffering wants recognition.
If Schiff’s analysis and the reactions to Brock Turner’s hexers signal the expansion of sympathetic explanations for religious commitments to include trauma, Alex Mar’s book is a case study for understanding what sorts of analysis are received as dismissive and reductive, at least among the growing community of witches in America in 2016. To be fair, Mar meant to write that sympathetic account of witchcraft in America. The opening pages of Witches of America, her memoir about seeking spiritual belonging among various North American pagan practitioners, plead with the reader to take her subjects seriously. She doles out facts about her past carefully chosen to appeal to the initiated and the uninitiated alike. To the lay reader she offers a rueful smattering of shared cultural references as the sum total of her mental associations with witchcraft going into the project. (Halloween, Salem, The Wizard of Oz, blonde witches good, brunette witches bad.) To the witches in her audience, she shares a few stories about her parent’s backgrounds in Greece and Cuba respectively, including one about a no-nonsense aunt ringing up Mar’s mother to tell her that the ghost of their dead mother was roaming the apartment trying to warn her about a problem. The problem turned out to be breast cancer for Mar’s mother, caught and cured just in time. Throughout all of these tidbits, Mar seeds appealingly earnest confessions of her own longing for and lack of belief. “This hidden dimension of myself,” she writes, “this curiosity about the outer edges of belief, is not something I can recover from […] When I put my work aside, I have to admit that I am searching — hopefully, and with great reservation — for proof of something larger, whatever its name.”
However generous Mar intended to be, witches hated her book, flooding amazon.com with negative reviews and posting long diatribes calling her a spiritual tourist on sites like Patheos. Their complaints form a relatively coherent narrative: Mar is a privileged rich woman who gained the trust of witches under false pretenses, betrayed their secrets, and shamed their bodies. The image of Mar that emerges from her critics is brutal, unsympathetic and at least somewhat understandable.
The book starts out by focusing on Morpheus Ravenna, a thirty-something priestess known as a “Big Name Pagan.” Mar first introduces us to Morpheus carrying a tray of pre-made enchiladas across the trailer she lives in with her husband Shannon. Their house is off-grid, located on a piece of property from Shannon’s family that the two have turned into the first Pagan ritual space in North America. In those first few pages, Mar coolly describes Morpheus as a “skinny redhead” in baggy jeans, her disappointment in her shabby life tangible. That feeling changes when Mar sees Morpheus acting as a priestess for the first time. Morpheus glows and, with only one significant exception, holds that aura for the rest of the book. She suddenly becomes taller, more commanding, more present, and the for the first time Mar sees her as a powerful spiritual figure at the center of a strange, exotic world. Mar is bewitched — if not by witchcraft, at least by Morpheus.
Soon Mar decides to pursue Feri training, seen as the most rigorous form of witchcraft. Feri traces back to a vision had in Oregon by Victor Anderson in 1926. At the age of nine Anderson, mostly blind, stumbled across an older woman in the forest who initiated him into magic and sex, transformed into a vision of God, rubbed him with butter oil and salt, then went on her way. Morpheus, trained in the Feri tradition, puts Mar in touch with Karina, a salty middle-aged teacher who conducts most of her initial training sessions online. Almost at once Mar goes wrong with Karina, asking if she’s willing to waive her fee since she’s just a poor artist. Karina shoots back an email crisply explaining that she is a single mother on welfare who takes students to survive. Mar apologizes, reflecting uneasily that she had never thought that a powerful teacher might be poor.
If that were the only collision between Mar’s privilege and her subject matter, the book might have been received differently. What really scrapes the bone as Mar twists the knife, though, is when that privilege collides with bodies. The most offending passage comes when describing a ritual dance Morpheus leads, meant to exorcise “Shame, Fear, Obsession, Rage, and Greed.” After lingering over Morpheus’s “flat, white belly” under her cropped leather corset, Mar turns her gaze to the dancers. With each word Morpheus shouts to the crowd, she stabs the air with a sword. Witches flood the dance floor, stomping, howling, sobbing, confessing. As Morpheus calls out “shame,” Mar observes, “One very obese woman has chosen to go topless: her breasts are so pendulous they hang nearly to her navel, flattened into thick slabs. It’s clear the words mean something to her. She’s dancingit off, waving her arms, her skin rippling, and her long, frizzed-out hair akimbo. A large-bodied misfit.”
Mar is the least sympathetic narrator imaginable for this scene: beautiful and, by comparison, wealthy. She knows it, too, but her efforts to reckon with her privilege come down to excruciating meditations about being the only brunette in a private school full of blondes and the shame of being New Money in old Manhattan. It might be that there’s no good way for an upper-class Harvard graduate to write about witches living in trailers, but I suspect the real problem is that Mar can never quite convince herself that being poor and fat are compatible with genuine spiritual power. Even her adoration of Morpheus slips, just long enough for her to wonder if Morpheus believes desperately in witchcraft because it is the only thing that allows her to transcend her reality as “someone with a low-paying job, someone with little or no influence” who drives a busted truck to the Dollar Store.
The book ends on an ambiguous note, as Mar emerges euphoric from a ritual initiation in a swamp. We are meant to think it remains an open question for her whether or not she can fully commit to paganism, but judging by their reception of the book the pagans might not give her the option.
For all of Mar’s moments of condescension, it’s still not exactly clear why. On the face of it, it’s not so obvious that acknowledging the poverty of witches is more degrading than recognizing their trauma. Poverty and rape are both forms of suffering that occupy increasingly large spaces in public conversation. Both are still stigmatized to varying degrees and subject to moralizing by spectators. Just look at the coverage of indigent Trump supporters or the comments strangers leave on the New York Times about how the woman Turner assaulted should have avoided situations where her “virtue might be questioned.” So why were Mar’s readers so offended by her efforts to be transparent about the moments when the assumptions she had from her own privileged background collided with the poverty of her subjects? Why is it worse to suggest someone believes in a religion because she’s poor than because she was raped?
It might be a problem with Mar, not poverty. Her tone, the inadequacy of her efforts to account for her privilege, even her choice to write a book about the superstars of the pagan world, rather than more ordinary practitioners, all might be enough to explain the hostility of her readers. It might be that the social stigma for poverty is greater (though that seems unverifiable). I suspect, though, that the deeper problem is that witchcraft, with its emphasis on spells and rites, invites some of the same expectations as the prosperity gospel. Morpheus’s low-paying job and rundown truck aren’t just facts about her life, or adversities to overcome; they’re data points against the efficacy of witchcraft. After all, why would a powerful priestess who knows spells to make a man fall in love live in an unheated trailer? Shouldn’t honest-to-god magic at least get you indoor plumbing? The whole conversation about poverty reduces witchcraft to utilitarian measures, where its value lies in what material gains a practitioner gets out of it. And so witches, understandably, bristle.
Mar dances around the topic by nodding to the idea that spiritual and temporal power are not synonymous, but she never really resolves for herself whether or not witches are deluding themselves. By acknowledging the material conditions of belief but never deciding if they matter, she inadvertently creates a tragic theory of religion. Morpheus believes because she has to, the implication runs. Her source of faith is deeper than Mar’s but compromised because of its desperation. Only Mar, freed from any material want, can experience pure religious longing, but because she lacks Morpheus’s driving desperation she can never reach the solace of true belief. The longing that she experienced as envy and solidarity with believers turns out to be another class marker, leaving the faith of witches a shabby and diminished consolation prize.
I don’t have any good answers for the question, “Why witches now?” If I had to guess what thread runs through Schiff and the critics of Mar it would be the rejection of guilt and shame. The very desultoriness of Schiff’s explanation for why the witchcraft accusations started in the first place is in some sense a refusal to accept that the possessed girls bear responsibility for the trial, when it took the support of powerful men to legitimate their accusations. So too with Morpheus and the hipster witches of Brooklyn, who repeatedly reject language of sin and shame in favor of a vocabulary of power.
If that is all that’s going on, though, the rise of witches ultimately isn’t that interesting. Witchcraft becomes a stalking horse for feminism, which it has been in popular imagination for decades anyway. This incarnation of witchcraft might have a few more prurient details than the network-sanctioned versions in pop culture, like “Bewitched” and “Charmed,” but ultimately becomes a story about women fabricating a history of subversive spiritual practices to suit their present needs — mostly at the expense of the history of African witchcraft in the Americas that they so blithely appropriates. Who knows, the need for a new, feminist-friendly form of spirituality might even be strong enough to sustain the genealogy of witchcraft these practitioners pieced together for themselves, making it respectable. But that form of explanation ultimately comes at the expense of taking seriously religious experience as its own motivation.
And that last question is why I find it so hard to draw any definitive conclusions about the flurry of publications around witches lately. The respectful nods to assault in the pieces about Brock Turner’s hexers and Schiff’s surprisingly sympathetic invocation of hysteria might signal a shift to a more open-minded, feminist treatment of the relationship between trauma and religious commitment. It could mark a genuine change in what sort of explanations we see as disenchanting and a willingness to think that religious experience doesn’t have to be heroically painful to be authentic. But it might also just mean that reporters and scholars of religion are so very far removed from the idea that people might actually practice a religion because they believe it’s true that any set of practices can be treated with respect if we think the “real” motivation is persuasive enough. If religion is always about social bonds or collective effervescence or compensation for psychological lacks or economic inequality, it doesn’t really matter what a particular religion teaches, because the content of the religion isn’t what it’s “really about.” If that’s the case, witches aren’t suddenly being taken seriously; they’re just more visible because nobody else is being taken seriously either.
Liane F. Carlson is Stewart Postdoctoral Fellow and Lecturer in Religion at Princeton University. She received her PhD in philosophy of religion from Columbia University in 2015. Her research interests include continental philosophy, with emphasis on theories of religion, embodiment, evil, and the intersection of religion and literature.
Published with support from the Henry R. Luce Initiative on Religion in International Affairs.