Forty years ago, when the current occult revival was beginning to gain strength, the wisest thinkers in the land predicted that faith in the supernatural was shriveling and would soon die back to insignificance. The scientific worldview demanded such a shift. Who could possibly withstand it? Organized religion, mystical meanderings, and magical ideas could not hold up against scientific ideas that were so self-evidently true, or so they reasoned.
Religion reporter Christine Wicker is open about having long lost her faith. What may seem like a bit of a problem for a journalist on the religion beat really isn’t one though, she promises. She’d come to consider religion a type of magical belief, or at least operating along the same principles magic does. That is, its value and power lies in the belief the practitioner ascribes to it.
With this thinking, she realized how surprisingly deeply pervasive “magic” and forms of magical thinking actually are in modern, scientific times – it’s why many read horoscopes, cling to superstitions, attribute meaning to good luck charms and talismans, and ask angels for good parking spaces. And many thousands more in America belong to subsets of religions or magical communities that practice magic, dark or otherwise, of a more serious nature.
Wicker sets off to explore these various magical communities, learn about their belief systems, and throws in some examples of historical precedence and how beliefs have changed over time. She visits with those who identify as vampires, witches, hoodoo practitioners, chaos magicians, “otherkins” – people calling themselves werewolves, fairies, and miscellaneous otherworldly creatures.
[Some] greeted my enterprise with derision. You’ll be on a journey, they said, but don’t expect to arrive at the heart of darkness. The epicenter of silly will be more like it. And they were right too. All the warnings proved true, and yet … I was soon to find that magic is not only of ancient and illustrious pedigree, not merely an astonishingly alive and widespread way of thinking, but also a valuable, even irreplaceable, part of human experience.
She attends a “vampires and victims” party and witnesses a vampire mistress drinking (willing) human blood, visits now-gimmicky but historically important Salem, has her energy manipulated both successfully and less so by otherkin energy workers, palls around with a hoodoo practitioner who runs a successful shop purveying magical goods in northern California, and accompanies another hoodoo conjurer through the Deep South to purchase, for a dime, some of Zora Neale Hurston’s grave dirt for use in hoodoo spells.
Some of the historical tidbits woven in were fascinating, although I get the impression they may be less so to someone better versed in this subject area than me. I was delighted to learned that: “Another early magical tool was the chain letter, which became popular among the Pennsylvania Dutch and by 1725 had an English version. This letter, which was supposedly written by Jesus, promised that those who carried it could not be damaged by guns or swords, but anyone who did not copy and pass it on would be cursed by the Christian church.”
That’s right, Jesus is the demanding originator of the chain letters that your great aunt flooded your inbox with. Wicker also relates that when Nazi Rudolf Hess parachuted into Scotland, hoping for peace talks with the Allies, he’d decked himself out in occult symbols – a detail of that story I never knew.
The most interesting parts to me were her glimpses into how the success of certain spells is confirmed by their conjurers, and the haziness between outcomes as a direct result of magical intervention and coincidence. It’s a topic I’ve wondered about often in some form, like in these situations:
A plane crashes, and the guy who missed the plane because his car had a flat tells reporters that God saw fit to save him. If you put a God-tagline on it, it’s more acceptable, but it’s still magic. The reporters are thinking, What did God have against all those other schmucks? but they don’t ask that question. They would be insulting God, ruining a nice story, and disillusioning thousands of readers who think there’s a good chance God or intuition or whatever might do the same for them.
This firm belief that we can control more than we do has dangerous consequences:
Some of the best reasons not to do magic are the people who have done it. The promise of power can lead to paranoia and delusions of grandeur. It can also cause people to dwell on avenging slights when they would be better off forgetting them. It can cause people to imagine that others are responsible for bad fortune or illness when in fact they are responsible themselves or no one is responsible.
She cites a believer who said he did a spell to bring him a storyteller; two years later, Wicker was interviewing him. It’s a complicated crossroads between magical thinking/religion and what others call coincidence or nothing special at all. “Religion and magical thinking are so intertwined that scholars still argue over where the dividing line is,” Wicker writes.
This, along with explorations of areas like chaos magic, which entails “charging” certain symbols (sigils) with your mind’s power then letting go and waiting for the magic to work, were highlights. Wicker’s own experimentation with some practices shows how open-ended certain beliefs are. It all involves a lot of patience and willingness to be flexible in how the magic happens.
The book is highly entertaining, if it does ultimately feel a bit unsatisfying or underwhelming. It has ups and downs – fascinating stories followed by ones that seem purposely extreme or fringey, engaging writing alongside some that’s chipper and chatty without much substance.
But the biggest drawback is the conclusion (spoiler alert): it ends with Wicker attending a church service at Westminster Abbey, where she realizes what she was seeking all along in this journey through magic’s modern incantations was the light of faith that she’d lost after a youth spent in the church. After receiving communion in the Catholic ceremony, she’d found her way back to that faith – that’s her preferred magic. Oh blergh.
To be fair, this wasn’t a book-length bait and switch, meant to show all the weird, crazy elements of alternative faiths and beliefs, then settling the reader back comfortably in the confines of Big Religion. And Wicker filters her travels and experiences through her own perspective and preconditioned ideas, so fair enough to end up where the journey eventually led her – but still. A crashing disappointment.
And it can feel scattered, with interesting points raised but not thoroughly researched or always followed through, and a bit too much time spent with the white hoodoo lady dispensing sex candles and relationship advice than on other potentially interesting and researchable topics. And as these subsets, even considered as a whole, still only number in the thousands by Wicker’s estimates, I don’t think it qualifies as “transforming America”, although throwing religion into that equation certainly tells a different story.
In the chapter detailing Hurston’s work and hoodoo practices, Wicker writes: “Unlike other anthropologists of her time, she didn’t merely study conjurers, she became one, according to her books. White folks scoff at hoodoo and say it’s superstition, but “white folks are very stupid about some things. They can think mightily but cannot feel,” she observed. I wasn’t born when Zora wrote those words, but she could have been describing me. Anytime I start to feel, I try to stop and think. It’s so much safer.”
I do the same, but unlike Wicker, I remain comfortably unconvinced of any belief system that needs clinging to for protection, prosperity, comfort, etc. It’s a mostly amusing, fun journey to accompany her on, with some great historical segues. Read it and find out what Zora Neale Hurston’s grave dirt can do for you.
Not in Kansas Anymore:
A Curious Tale of How Magic is Transforming America
by Christine Wicker
published October 4, 2005 by HarperOne