As Halloween approaches and you scramble to find a last-minute costume, you may want to think twice before giving up and putting on that witch’s hat. Local witch and Department of Fine Arts professor John Threlfall will host a Continuing Studies course, Bell, Book & Camera: Witchcraft in Popular Culture, that he hopes will clear up some misconceptions around practicing witches. The course will run from Nov. 2–23, and will look into why witches have survived so long in pop culture while practicing witches have been persecuted and stigmatized.
What movies and books often portray as mythical beings are actually everyday people who practice a recognized religion: Wicca, which has many different traditions depending on which types of rituals the witch performs.
Though the exact numbers are difficult to track, it’s been estimated that anywhere from 50 000 to 800 000 people practice Wicca worldwide. However, the numbers could under-represent the Wiccan community as not all witches feel safe when “out of the broom closet,” as Threlfall puts it, because of the stigma attached to the movement.
“The longstanding misconception is that we’re somehow linked with the Devil and Satanism, although both are Christian concepts and have absolutely nothing to do with witchcraft in the slightest,” said Threlfall via email.
Victoria is commonly recognized in the Wiccan community as the witch capital of Canada. UVic has also had a long-standing relationship with witches in its efforts to promote a diverse campus.
“Really, if any campus was going to be supportive of witches, it would have to be UVic — given that we’re on the edge of the west coast, situated on Indigenous land, respectful of multi-faith practices, and have built our reputation on creativity and the environment,” said Threlfall.
Many religious rituals are done outside to promote a physical connection with a witch’s surroundings, an important aspect of Wicca. While UVic has an interfaith chapel, which has hosted Wiccan chaplains before, Threlfall feels that the community would be better suited with a dedicated ritual circle outdoors on campus.
“I’ve done ritual in everything from forests, beaches, labyrinths and hilltop cairns to backyards, Beacon Hill Park, the lawn outside of the MacLaurin building and — most dramatically — a ring of 3 000-year-old standing stones,” said Threlfall. “It’s less about what it looks like and more about having a dedicated and respected place to get together.”
While the forms of Wiccan practices vary, one main concept is feeling one with nature, including animals. One local Wiccan blogger and animal rescuer who goes by CatLadyMori (CLM), knew she felt a deeper connection to the Earth from a young age, and found she connected with nature and animals better than most people do.
CLM thinks that a ritual circle on campus would be a great way to bring the community together. However, she warned that mainstream media can give a less than ideal image of practicing witches, and that these misrepresentations may put the site or even the witches at risk. In particular, she said there would be a need for more campus security to protect the ritual circle.
Though Threlfall and CLM practice different types of witchcraft, both agree that with Halloween coming up, stereotypes can be very problematic for the Wiccan community.
“One of my big pet peeves about Halloween is the whole black cat thing comes out and animals are mistreated,” said CLM.
Popular witch costumes continue to enforce misconceptions around Wiccans’ spiritual beliefs, especially when costumes get into the territory of the ‘sexy witch’ or ‘old hag witch,’ or when those representations are normalized.
“A lot of folks still put witches in the ‘mythical monster’ category along with vampires and werewolves — as evidenced by Halloween costumes,” said John Threlfall. “I typically wear street clothes and when people ask what I’m dressed as, I say, ‘I’m dressed as a witch. A real witch, which is what I am.’ That doesn’t usually get me any candy, though.”
If you would like to learn more about the course being offered in November, visit continuingstudies.uvic.ca/arts/courses/bell-book-camera-witchcraft-in-popular-culture.