Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Kathy Dempsey: Justice at Solstice, 20 Years Later


On August 23rd, 1992, Kathleen Dempsey (known to friends and loved ones as Kathy or KD) was brutally murdered in her apartment in Lexington, Massachusetts. Neighbors in this well-to-do suburb of Boston were shocked, and her many friends in the Boston pagan community were heartbroken.

Perhaps most shocking and heartbreaking of all: Kathy, who had been stabbed fourteen times, managed to call 9-11 and ask for help. But the dispatcher on duty did not send anyone to help her. Questioned by journalists, at first this emergency responder said they could not make out Kathy's words and didn't know where to send help, despite "listening frantically" to the tape over and over again. But eventually it became obvious that Kathy's words were sufficient; the dispatcher thought the call was a hoax and failed to send anyone. The supervisor who came on duty the following morning sent an ambulance immediately, but by then, Kathy had bled to death.

It's impossible to know if earlier intervention would have saved her: but it is possible the identity of her killer, who lived in her neighborhood, might have been revealed: something which has taken nearly two decades to unravel. That lost opportunity weighed heavily on the minds and hearts of those of us who knew and loved this woman. This article in the Lexington Patch mentions that 9-11 was not in place when Kathy made her call; but the ensuing debate about enhanced 9-11 (which allows location identification) was merely a smokescreen to obscure the real issue: a very bad decision made by the dispatcher in charge. But I am sure this worker has suffered enough over the years for this oversight, and the real blame lies in the hands of the killer who took her young life.

The case proved difficult to solve: there were no signs of forced entry (perhaps not unusual for a suburban neighborhood), and there was speculation the killer was someone Kathy knew. Police investigated the crime for years, and despite a number of leads, no suspects were apprehended. Until now.

A man in prison for another murder, of a 49 year old woman in the same Lexington neighborhood, two years after Kathy's murder, recently confessed to the crime after nearly twenty years. The Boston Herald reports that Craig Conkey, 45, broke into Dempsey's home to rob it but "was startled when he found Dempsey sleeping and attacked her." Conkey was 25 when the crime was committed; Dempsey was 31. She would be 50 years old now.

Kathy was a graphic designer by trade, who worked for Musician magazine (the editors wrote a moving tribute to her in the magazine that fall). Prior to her untimely death, she had begun studying at Lesley College in the hopes of becoming an educator, focused on teaching children about nature. Kathy was an active member of the EarthSpirit Community. She was also a singer, and former member of the choral group MotherTongue. I joined the group soon after Kathy died; in an instance of sad irony, I was the soprano who replaced her.

I remember KD as a kind, funny, sweet, talented woman: always friendly, always upbeat. She loved animals, did not consider cleaning a priority, loved to dance, and seemed to think the best of everyone unless she had a reason not to. I saw her for the last time a mere three weeks before she was killed. Her smile, glimpsed in a hallway, still haunts me. I recall the Earthspirit Samhain gathering that year: the tears and wails of loss during the ritual as we named those who had passed that year. I don't know who it was but one male voice screamed out "Kathy!" after a number of other names were recited. It was a soul-shattering moment I will never forget.

I recall a dream I had in late 1992: Kathy in a black skirt and red shirt, a peaceful smile on her face, her lips closed, her eyes twinkling. I have thought of her from time to time over the years, when there have been leads in her case, when a song or a work of art have reminded me of her talents, when a random prick of fear late at night made me think of the many sleepless nights I spent after her murder. But today, I feel a bit less pain thinking of her. I hope this latest development in her case brings peace and closure to her loved ones. Be at peace, Kathy.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Pixar, does she HAVE to be a princess?

Exciting news about Pixar, the excellent purveyor of animated films...their newest project will feature a FEMALE hero!

Not only that, she is SCOTTISH!

And an ARCHER!

AND A REDHEAD!

Oh...and a princess.

Sigh. Really? It's not enough for her to be a badass with a bow and arrow? She has to be a PRINCESS, too?

Brave looks to be a fun historical romp, obviously inspired to some degree by Braveheart (it was previously titled The Bear and the Bow), and will be a nice way to have some kind of Celtic culture trope out there that's not related to pirates or drinking or dancing. (But I bet there will be some dancing and possibly some subtle suggestion of drinking in this one).

There are some trailers available online, like this one, showing the fierce maiden Merida riding her warhorse through misty forests and stone circles. If nothing else, the use of landscape should be very satisfying for pagan audiences. Also, Merida is more interested in archery than in men...at least at first. Will she remain independent? Or wind up with a man? We'll find out next summer.

The characters, on the other hand...well, despite the lead character being very beautiful, the others are cartoonish and exaggerated in typical Pixar fashion, like these tough guys with their woad tattoos and subtly-shaded tartans.
Princess Merida's main challengers is a blue ball of light referred to as a will o'the wisp, and a huge black bear (a powerful animal in Celtic mythology). But she apparently unleashes these harmful forces when she defies tradition to forge her own path.

Maybe this means she is not really into the idea of being a "princess" after all? (Wow, does this mean little girls will start wearing some color other than PINK for a while? It does clash with red hair, after all). The idea that little girls should aspire to be princesses is a tired an annoying stereotyoe and we really need to get away from it. I sincerely hope this film will put a different message out there. Maybe there will be a positive new role model offered for girls: a nature-loving, athletic, independent gal who knows her way around the forest and a bow and arrow. Now we like the sound of that! We also like the sound of some of the actors whose voices will be featured: including Kelly Macdonald, Billy Connolly, Emma Thompson, Kevin McKidd, Craig Ferguson and Robbie Coltrane.

Oh, and did I mention there will be a WITCH? Voiced by Julie Walters (aka Ron Weasley's mum). She's old and ugly. But they do also refer to her as a "wise woman." Then again she grants a hasty wish to Merida, which ends up being more like a curse. Hmmm, careful what you wish for? Well, we wish for this movie to give us something to cheer about.

Can't wait...

Saturday, November 12, 2011

BLAIR WITCH PROJECT Reunion

I received a short press release on this event:

The 2011 Monstermash Expo is hosting the BLAIR WITCH PROJECT REUNION at their horror convention at the Wyndham Indianapolis West Hotel on December 16th-18th! (***UPDATE November 12: The organizer has informed me that, due to medical emergency, the convention has been postponed until further notice.***)

Special guests will include original cast members Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard and Michael Williams, along with the producers and director Eduardo Sanchez, Gregg Hale, Robin Cowie and Daniel Myrick! This is the first reunion since the 1999 premiere and, according to the organizers, "will be the only reunion they will ever do." A once in a lifetime opportunity for Blair Witch fans worldwide! To preview the other guests at this convention, check out the Monster Mash website.

One thing occurs to me...I wonder why they did not try to hold this in or near Burkittsville?

This could be a very interesting event. I have wondered why there was not a scholarly film conerence ever organized around this film, as I think it had enormous impact on the world of cinema. I mean, do you really think films like Cloverfield or Paranormal Activity or The Last Exorcism or the recent Norwegian arthouse hit Trollhunter
(slated for an American remake) would exist if not for The Blair Witch Project? True, the "found footage" conceit (in which the disappearances or deaths of victims are explained by video or film footage that captures the events that led to their demise) was not original to the 1999 blockbuster hit, but, really, no one had ever even heard of Cannibal Holocaust before that. The Blair Witch dudes were fans of obscure horror (their production company is called Haxan Films, after all), and they used this obsession to create something wholly new and original. They also initiated a very creative internet campaign to publicize the film before its release (it is amazing how creative people get when they don't have much money to work with; the film was made for less than $22,000 and made over $240 million.


I was invited to speak at a web-based promotional event (filmed in Los Angeles) upon the release of the second Blair Witch film (Book of Shadows), (and also did a bit of script advising for co-writer and director Joe Berlinger)and sadly that film received fairly negative press. But how could any sequel live up to the phenomenon of the original?

I think a reunion is a great idea; but there is much interesting discussion and analysis yet to take place on the film; so why not a conference? Come on, scholars and film buffs: who's with me?

Saturday, October 29, 2011

A Witchy Walk Through the Neighborhood

Hallowe’en was a sensory holiday for me as a kid, and still is. The colorful costume parades, the chill air, leaves crunching underfoot, juicy apples and home-made doughnuts, the smell of burning leaves: these sensual memories mean autumn to me. I loved carrying that plastic pumpkin for trick or treating, feeling it grow heavy with treats. The sight of a tree without its leaves against a violet sky filled me with spooky dread, but also a sense of awe. When November arrived, I looked forward to that in-between feeling, of autumn clinging fast, its last golden days giving way to winter, and that first snow that was much more thrilling than a basket of candy.


And Hallowe’en was always that point when it was clear winter was really coming: you had to prepare a costume that you could layer an extra sweater under, in case it got cold. The gathering of sweets mirrored the hoarding of nuts by the crazed squirrels scrambling through the fallen leaves. Children dressed as fantastical beings in diaphanous gowns, silvery suits, clothing we’d soon forgo in favor of wooly skirts and itchy pullovers. One last decadent night of hell raising before hibernation! Hallowe’en came one week after my birthday, and it was like celebrating non-stop for a week.

But being a practicing witch means I have a very different perspective on this holiday as an adult. For modern witches, Hallowe’en is known as Samhain, a Scottish term meaning “summer’s end” that marks that halfway point between autumn equinox and winter solstice. We also call it Hallows, or sometimes All Souls Night. Growing up a Catholic, I attended church on All Saints Day, the day after Hallowe’en, But I didn’t quite understand the connection between the two, and assumed the church held their mass the day after simply because Hallowe’en was too busy and who would want to go to church when they could go door to door gathering candy?

These days, I tend to celebrate this feast of the dead in somber and often unusual ways. The coven I work with has an elaborate cycle of rituals beginning in spring and culminating at Samhain with a rite called “Harvest Home,” (based in part on the wonderful novel by Thomas Tryon) in which a young Harvest Lord is symbolically slain by his consort, as a sacrificial offering to fertilize the crops and balance the cycle of life, death and rebirth: the Eternal Return. I have been to large public rituals where guests were invited to speak of their loved ones who had passed over. And I have attended vigils that were peaceful and serene, with candles everywhere and plates of food left for the dead and denizens of the Otherworld.


Some witches celebrate this holiday as the Celtic New Year; and do rituals and rites appropriate for new beginnings. This year, Samhain occurs just after the New Moon in the sign of Scorpio, a very portentous timing. The sun has also just entered the sign of Scorpio, a sign associated with death and regeneration. It is said that at Samhain, as at Beltane (May 1st), the “veil between the worlds,” or the barrier separating the realms of the living and the dead, grows thin and permeable, and allows us to commune with our beloved dead and our ancestors. For this reason many witches and pagans create altars dedicated to their ancestors and dead loved ones, with photos and mementos, favorite foods or flowers.


Hallowe’en has become ridiculously popular, and it’s big business for retailers (a number of whom specialize in Hallowe’en year ‘round). Related holidays are receiving more notice too, such as Mexico’s Dios de la Muerte/Day of the Dead, and I know a few witches of European ancestry who decorate sugar skulls with their children. Horror movies abound on television in October. Is it that our culture is becoming more interested in occult matters generally, a sort of second occult revival? Or are we merely so susceptible to social trends and their trappings that we have no idea why we’re so obsessed with the baubles and symbols of death?


Or perhaps, in our yearning for some decadence in frightening times, we grab hold of outrageous forms of fun. We recall what used to thrill and delight us as children (horror and sugar), and even if it’s about death, it makes us feel alive, and somehow comforted. We occupy our neighborhoods with treats, and flashlights, and gaudy clothes, and glee. And know we’ll make it even more fun next year.

And the witches among you (we’re there, oh yes), we’ll also decorate our doorways with cornstalks and pumpkins, and put candle-lit skulls in our windows. We’re staving off the darkness, too.


(Samhain altar image from "Dancing Beneath the Moon" blog)

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory at the New York Film Festival


Although it won't be shown on HBO until sometime in early 2012, and has not yet had any theatrical release, the third film in the Paradise Lost series has had two major premieres at film festivals so far. The first was in Toronto, in its original version, and more recently in New York, with the premiere of the recut version, including footage shot after the West Memphis Three were released on August 19th.

I was fortunate enough to attend the New York premiere on Columbus Day, with a crowd of hundreds in Alice Tully Hall AT New York's Lincoln Center. Filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky were in attendance and introduced the film by giving thanks to their families, crew and producers. The third film marks a superbly satisfying completion of this long ordeal, ending as it does with the release of these three unjustly-imprisoned men.

After the film screened (I will review it closer to its theatrical release date, but I will say there is a good deal of focus on the fact that new suspects are being considered in the 1993 murders), the audience gave a standing ovation to the West Memphis Three, seated in the balcony. Then Joe and Bruce came back up on stage accompanied by the NYFF director, and with Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin (Jessie Miskelley, Jr. declined to come up as he experiences anxiety in large crowds). There wasn't time for many questions as another screening was happening shortly, but four questions were asked and fielded by NYFF director Richard Pena, one of them by a former schoolmate of Damien's who asked why he had changed his name back in high school.

I felt lucky that I was called on to ask a question of my own. First I said thank you to Damien, Jason and Jessie, along the lines of "Thank you for surviving what must have been an unimaginable eighteen years, that most of here can barely imagine, and for being here so that we can all celebrate your freedom and your courage." That got some applause, then I said, "You were convicted in part because of your beliefs, Damien: your beliefs as a Wiccan and a pagan. Then you became a Buddhist. I'd like to ask both Jason and Damien, what part has your spirituality played in your ability to survive the last eighteen years?"

Jason answered first. He spoke to the difficulty of accepting the fact that he could be found guilty when he was innocent, and looked to his faith (he is a Christian) to help make him strong enough to face his despair. Damien then said, "Two things helped keep me alive while I was in prison: my wife, and my spiritual practice." He then said it was not only his practice that helped him mentally or emotionally, but physically as well. He said that he suffered physical torture of all kinds to his body, and that adequate medical and dental care were very hard to obtain in prison. He then added that one had to look out for oneself, and that his practices of reiki and energy work helped him keep his body healthy.

The crowd gave at least two standing ovations to the Three, and to the filmmakers, and this felt like such a momentous occasion that many of the details are fuzzy. I did hear one fascinating and delightful bit of gossip in the lobby, however: that Damien had gotten a huge tattoo recently, while sitting next to Johnny Depp, (who reportedly got the same tattoo, an I Ching symbol). Now if that's not the coolest thing Johnny Depp has ever done, I don't know what is.

This week, Damien was in New Zealand visiting filmmaker Peter Jackson, and rumor has it he will be given a small role in the new "Hobbit" film Jackson is directing. From the rural trailer park of his youth, to 18 years on Death Row, to being friends with the likes of Peter Jackson and Johnny Depp? How wonderful that these men finally have the chance to live large and enjoy their hard-won freedom.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Secret Circle: review

Well, it was about what I was expecting: derivative, not very well-written, and obviously designed to appeal to teenage viewers. But that's okay: it's been over a year since the premature cancellation of Eastwick with no new shows about witches in all that time, so we'll take whatever we can get, right?

I felt like I had already seen a fair amount of the episode, having watched the seven minute trailer which featured the beginning and a few major plot points. Cassie, the beautiful blonde teen who is our heroine (actress Brittany Robertson bears a striking resemblance to Michelle Williams), is the new kid on the block and in school (sounds like The Craft, right?) in a charming coastal town in Washington state. She is immediately recognized and set upon, albeit slyly, by a handful of attractive students who react her variously with kindness, disdain and infatuation (sounds like The Craft, right?). We learn prior to her arrival that Cassie's mother has been killed (sounds like The Craft, right?), burned to death in her home, by someone who ives in Chance Harbor and who obviously has his eye on Cassie, too. Cassie's father is also dead, and she has gone to live with her grandmother in the house her mother grew up in. This theme of "absent parents" is common in stories where a young person is involved in dangerous and occult goings on.

Cassie is invited by one of her classmates to a deserted house, where a group of students inform Cassie that she is a witch, just like they are. That their powers date back to the 1600s, linked through their family line (Sounds like Charmed, right?). One girl in the coven of witches (Diana, like the mood goddess, get it?) likes Cassie, and her boyfriend Adam likes Cassie, too, maybe a bit too much--we know this because the forest lights up with colors and sparkles right before they almost kiss, which is bad because of course he has a girlfriend. Oh noes! Teen hormonal angst! Another girl, Faye (Phoebe Tonkin, an Australian actress who is kinda awesome) seems to dislike Cassie either because she's jealous, or just plain mean to everyone (kinda like Nancy in The Craft). But then, her name is Faye, like Morgan le Fay, get it?

The man who burned Cassie's mother's house shows up suddenly, expresses his sympathies to Cassie and looks at her in a creepy way. Cassie finds an old, magical book (sounds like Charmed, right?) and learns that it dates way, way back to the olden days, when the ancestors of this group of witches first came to Chance Harbor.

The mean girl Faye makes it rain! Then Cassie makes it stop raining! They all stand around in skimpy wet clothing! They're witches!

As other reviewers have pointed out, the show is nothing special but since it airs immediately after the wildly popular The Vampire Diaries, it should do all right. I will probably keep watching just to see where they take it.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

THE SECRET CIRCLE premieres tonight!


This new show about young witches premieres tonight at 9 pm EST on the CW network. The Secret Circle is the story of a young woman named Cassie (Brittany Robertson) whose mother dies in a mysterious house fire, prompting Cassie to move back to her mother's small hometown, Chance Harbor. There she meets some new friends who inform her they are witches, and that Cassie is, too.


Yes, it's all VERY reminiscent of the 1996 film The Craft. Robin Tunney's character Sarah has also lost her mother, moved to a new town and met friends who helped her understand her "powers." Cassie is "the sixth" just as Sarah was "the fourth." Oh, and just like in the WB television show Charmed (which is, of course, also loosely based on The Craft), there's an old book! And the tradition of witchcraft in Chance Harbor goes back to the olden days. Oh, and if you're not familiar with the British series Hex, that one also features a young blonde college student named Cassie who discovers she is a witch. Yes, The Secret Circle would appear to be derivative of a number of things we've seen before.

So what's new about this one? Well, there are also male witches in this group, which makes for some sexy possibilities. Instead of men being merely clueless outsiders or vengeful enemies, they're in cahoots: in The Secret Circle, witchcraft is not just for the ladies (as it was in Eastwick, the short-lived ABC series very loosely based upon the novel (and to a lesser extent the film) The Witches of Eastwick, and which I rather enjoyed for its sly humor and nod to Desperate Housewives. Of course, like Eastwick, The Secret Circle is also set in a sweet little coastal town.

Check out this video preview for a taste of what's in store. I'll be tuning in tonight, so watch for my review later! I don't have particularly high hopes for this series, but it will be interesting to see if the producers and writers decide to lift details from modern Wicca practice (as The Craft did), and how much the depiction of magic will depend upon over-the-top special effects.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory


Filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky didn't know, when they started filming the documentary Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, that after they'd finished editing and submitted the film to festivals, that the story of Damien, Jason and Jessie would, after eighteen long years, suddenly take a dramatic turn. Purgatory is that place where people are stuck, suspended, between this world and the next, and given the biblical allusions in the titles of the first two films about the West Memphis Three, Paradise Lost and Revelations, this seemed like an appropriate if pessimistic title.


After the film had already been accepted to at least two very high profile film festivals, in Toronto (where the film aired this past weekend) and New York, the three young men were unexpectedly released from prison, in a strange and, some say, insultingly-unfair deal that made admitting their guilt a condition of their release, thereby protecting the state of Arkansas from any legal action.

Now, a re-edited version is being prepared for premiere at the New York Film Festival in October, as well as for limited theatrical release later this fall (so that it may qualify for Oscar consideration). HBO, who has produced and shown all three documentaries on television, will also be showing the film beginning in January 2012.

As I have said before, it is impossible to overstate how much impact these filmmakers have had on this case and on the fate of the three wrongly-imprisoned young man. Without the increased awareness that Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills created, without their thorough and thought-provoking coverage of this story over the last eighteen years, it is extremely doubtful this happy but bittersweet ending would have occurred.

And the story is not over, so it is very likely that Joe and Bruce will continue to help document it, until justice is done for the three young boys were brutally killed in 1993.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

The West Memphis Three: Now What?


In the wake of sad jubilation, of righteous anger at justice deferred, of wild speculation about true guilt and feature films and celebrity activism and monetary reparations, I imagine that Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, Jr. have little else on their minds beyond holding their loved ones close, eating a decent meal and sleeping in a comfortable bed.

What will tomorrow, and next week, and next year, bring for the West Memphis Three? And for those who have followed the case for so long, the journalists (certainly Devil's Knot author Mara Leveritt, whose book is the basis for a forthcoming feature film, is to be commended; she kindly allowed me to interview her back in 2002), the lawyers, supporters, the celebrities and musicians, activists who became friends and advocates of the men during their long incarceration?

Well, fellow supporter, I hope you've celebrated this bittersweet victory with a decadent beverage or comestible of your choice. I hope you've reflected on the piss-poor quality of justice in the United States of America, especially for those people can't afford crack legal counsel. Of course, the many lawyers who have worked pro bono on the case for so long are to be thanked and commended, for certainly the men would not be free without their help. Will more criminal defense attorneys be inspired by this victory to donate their services? Let's hope so.

And what of the community members and expert "occult crime" witnesses who condemned these men, believing them capable of these grisly acts of murder fuelled by satan worship? What of the so-called news reporters who, to this day, slaver over the words "satanic cult killing" as if they're introducing a saturday afternoon horror movie marathon on the SyFy Channel? What of Hollywood, and its surprisingly positive impact upon the public awareness of this case? (There is no overestimating the impact of the documentary film Paradise Lost on their case; now a third film entitled Purgatory is in about to open in several high profile film festivals.) What of social network media, our lifelines to what's actually happening in the world, and their transformation of our culture in ways those three young men (nor, indeed, any of us) could have foreseen back in 1993.

And what of the cultural bugaboo that many would rather pretend never happened, but which surely sealed the fate of these three men in 1993: Satanic Panic?

In an impassioned blog post today, Star Foster states that media figures like Geraldo Rivera, Dan Rather, and especially, Oprah Winfrey should apologize for their part in stoking the fires that led to years' worth of ludicrous speculation, rumors and bigotry aimed at anyone involved in spiritual pursuits that didn't conform to Judeo-Christianity. She points to Winfrey's starry-eyed acceptance of the claptrap in the book Michelle Remembers as the basis for at least three episodes of her talk show devoted to the topic. I recall watching one such episode on video wherein Oprah, discussing the murders of a number of people, including an American tourist, by a drug gang in Mexico, in this way: "the only possible explanation is that they were possessed by the devil." To be fair, Rivera did, in 1995, apologize for his part in the media hoopla that helped convict the persons convicted in the Fells Acres Daycare scandal. But he recanted too late to help the West Memphis Three.

Damien Echols' interest in Wicca, his preference for black clothing, his love of heavy metal bands like Metallica, his passing familiarity with Aleister Crowley (whose has a number of poems included in the Norton Anthology of English Poetry), were all held up as evidence of his being satanic cult member who was also a killer. Never mind that there was absolutely no evidence at the crime scene or on any of the victims that could be described as remotely connected to cultic, or indeed even occult, activity.

Of the many questions, challenges and uncertainties remaining for Damien, Jason and Jessie, certainly one that occurs to me is the enormous importance of not forgetting about the horrific superstitious atmosphere that pervaded the community of West Memphis, and by extension, our nation, in the early 1990s. Attitudes about spirituality and religious practice have definitely come a long way, but how can we prevent this from happening again?

I know that these three men will do what they can to clear their names, with the help of the many supporters they have gathered over the years. It is my fervent wish that this case and its legacy serve as a reminder to us all of how easily fear can pervert justice, how easily ignorance can lead to bad decisions, and also how easy it can be to open our minds and hearts, even if it's only a little bit at a time.






Further Reading:

The Arkansas Times has compiled a long list of news articles spanning the case.


Friday, August 19, 2011

THEY. ARE. FREE.

More detailed analysis soon.

But for now: This is the breaking story on CNN.

This day is the finest day I've seen in almost 18 years.

The news of course is still using that word "satanic" to describe these crimes. May justice be done and the actual killer be apprehended as soon as possible.

Rest in peace, Christopher, Stevie and Michael.

Enjoy your new lives, Damien, Jason and Jessie.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Breaking News on The West Memphis Three!


The last time I posted on the West Memphis Three here, a new hearing was in the works. But in a shocking turn of events, it was announced today that a hearing will take place tomorrow in Jonesboro circuit court that could possibly result in the RELEASE of Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, Jr. The Arkansas Times news blog states that the court will hear pleas from the defendants in exchange for release, and that these pleas might still allow the defendants to maintain their innocence. Many major news outlets are reporting on this stunning story, and of course we'll be tuned in tomorrow to learn the results.


This is HUGE. Partly because all three defendants are being brought into court together (originally Mr. Baldwin and Mr. Echols were tried separately from Mr. Misskelley). But also because the possibility of release for reduced charges (which seem to be consist of a guilty plea) is an option never before reported in the eighteen year history of this case (which is summarized as well as described in detail here at the original supporters' website founded by Burk Sauls, Kathy Bakken and Grove Pashley).


The case has been big news in the pagan community from the beginning, when rumors in the community of West Memphis, Arkansas painted the 1993 murders of three young boys as some kind of satanic rite. Local high school student Damien Echols, a practicing Wiccan, was implicated, as were his friends Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley. The resultant trial and convictions (resulting in life sentences for Baldwin and Misskelley, and a death sentence for Echols) comprised a major portion of an award-winning documentary film shown on HBO and at film festivals in 1996, Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, directed by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky. The filmmakers produced a follow-up film in 2000 (Revelations), and are currently working on the third and final film, entitled Purgatory which is premiering at the prestigious Toronto Film festival. I have communicated with Joe Berlinger this evening and he confirmed that he and Bruce will be on hand in Arkansas tomorrow for filming.

It is impossible to convey how important these films have been in raising awareness about this case. Before Paradise Lost came out, Damien Echols was contemplating asking to be put to death because of his horrific treatment in prison. These films have not only told the story of this incredible case, providing content that is stunning and revealing, but have lent hope to the three incarcerated men and brought countless supporters to their cause (including high-profile celebrities such as Johnny Depp, Margaret Cho and many musicians like Eddie Vedder, Steve Earle and the members of Metallica who donated songs to the films' soundtracks).

I've been writing on this case for many years (you can see some of the Witchvox coverage here) and it's been quite demoralizing at times to realize how slow the wheels of justice turn. The suffering of the three innocent young men in prison, as well as the families of the three murdered boys whose killer or killers have not yet been apprehended, has moved many people and inspired many followers and supporters of the case. May all who have yearned for justice for the West Memphis Three, and for Stevie Branch, Michael Moore and Christopher Byers, be convinced tomorrow that justice is possible.

UPDATE August 19th: The Arkansas Times blog has breaking updates on this case so this is a good place to check in for news.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Deadline Approaching for Starhawk Film Donations

Just four more days remain for making donations to Starhawk's film project, The Fifth Sacred Thing, based on her novel. The Kickstarter page has many donations but more are needed! The $60,000 goal has been met but since films of this scope will surely need a much larger budget than this (even small indie films typically cost several hundred thousand dollars), more money will come in handy. Even a dollar or two helps.

This could be a very big deal for the pagan community and its representation on film, so be sure to become a part of it!

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Fifth Sacred Thing: Make the Dream a Reality

If you haven't heard, Starhawk's 1993 novel The Fifth Sacred Thing is being made into a film. The script is apparently already written, and there is a new Kickstarter campaign to raise funds to put together a package to pitch to a major filmmaking studio to secure funding. The money will be used for securing music rights and creating sketches of costume and other designs. The group organizing the campaign is also including a "Green Plan" for environmental accountability, in keeping with the worldview of the novel.

The Kickstarter goal is $60,000, of which $3500 has already been raised on the first day. There are various incentives that go with donations, too, like t-shirts, posters and water bottles.

Starhawk is a longtime environental activist and pagan author whose nonfiction books The Spiral Dance and Dreaming the Dark were integral to the beginnings of neo-pagan movement in the 1980s.

Best of luck to Starhawk and her team, and let's all help to make this film project a reality!

Monday, June 13, 2011

Theofantastique Podcast: Conversation about BLACK DEATH


Finally, I got to see this hard-to-find film! Despite receiving fairly positive reviews (even the Final Girl blog gave it some positive press), the film has not been very enthusiastically distributed in the US. It didn't play very widely in theatres this year (only played at a Salem theatre near Boston, and not at all in the Albany area), so I finally found it at Red Box. John Morehead of Theofantastique asked if I'd like to do a podcast discussion about it, so we talked today. You can check out links to our conversation here: Listen by clicking this link, or you may download it here.

John is an academic specializing in religious studies, with a focus on paganism studies, and has a special interest in the horror genre. Of course you know this if you read his excellent blog regularly! John is also a Christian, and we've had some interesting conversations regarding different religious perspectives in film. It was great to finally talk to him "live" today about BLACK DEATH, a film I've been looking forward to seeing for months, and I look forward to more discussions with John about cinema and religion!

I also plan to post a review of the film this week, so keep an eye open. I'm sorry I haven't been posting here much in the last few weeks, I've had soem other projects and deadlines in the way, but there have definitely been some interesting developments in pagan media. More soon...

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Drop Everything But Your Pants!


The news is that The Wicker Tree (Robin Hardy's new film based on his 1973 cult hit The Wicker Man has a distributor. Anchor Bay Entertainment will be distributing the film in the United States, and the film will also be a selection at this year's Cannes Film Festival. This according to Fangoria magazine (as reported by The Wild Hunt blog--which has given the film's development some excellent coverage--and shared at the Witchvox Facebook page, too).


For a film that has struggled to procure funding, this is wonderful news indeed. One earlier title, Cowboys for Christ (after The Riding of the Laddie had been considered and rejected), misled some right-wing Christian investors who, after learning of the film's pagan themes, decided to pull their funding. The Wicker Tree conjures memories of the earlier film and so is a better title, anyway, in my opinion.

Will the sequel heal the wounds of the travesty of a "remake" helmed by sexist miscreant Neil LaBute? Well, it certainly could be no worse.

I've recently been in touch with Mr. Hardy and am hoping to arrange some sort of screening event stateside. More news as events warrant...

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Getting Medieval


Are we suddenly caught up in a flurry of things medieval? What with Game of Thrones and Camelot on television (this fun article weighs the merits of both shows), not to mention Your Highness and Vision: From the Life of Hildegard von Bingen in theatres, and both Centurion and The Eagle a few months ago (okay, those two weren't strictly medieval, but you get my point), you'd be not all that crazy to think so. Then there was Black Death which didn't really make the rounds as I'd hoped it would.

This summer brings a healthy crop of sci-fi and fantasy films, but only one of them is even vaguely medieval: the new Conan the Barbarian. I think we can expect to see plenty of films based in the ancient world, however, as cinema reaches out to us to try and spirit us away from the increasingly-distressing here and now.

I am waiting patiently for John Boorman's new film about Hadrian.

Friday, April 15, 2011

American Gods Shapes Up to be...Good?


The announcement a few weeks ago that this adaptation of Neil Gaiman's best-selling novel (about gods from the "old world" who send their avatars to America to foment a revolution to revitalize their potential devotees) would be directed by a "genius" filmmaker who has won "many many Oscars" (Gaiman's words) was exciting but confusing. You see, not very many directors have won more than one or two Oscars. And we were so hoping it wouldn't be Spielberg. But maybe for Gaiman, "winning" is the same as "nominating" which leaves a lot more directors in the running. Certainly Scorcese would be a very interesting choice. As would Guillermo del Toro. Peter Jackson is a possibility. So is Ron Howard (nothing again the man, but he would probably fail to capture this book's black humor and dark sensibility). Then there's...Clint Eastwood? You know, I could see that. Eastwood's recent foray into the metaphysical with Hereafter might just signal his ability to approach a multi-faceted fantastical story like this.

But news today from the Indiewire blog reveals that the Director of Photography for this HBO film will be none other than the award-winning cinematographer Robert Richardson, a collaborator with Martin Scorcese and Quentin Tarantino, who has photographed such beautiful films as Shutter Island, Kill Bill, Inglorious Basterds, and who won Oscars for his work on Oliver Stone's JFK and Scorcese's The Aviator.

No news yet on who will be directing, or the cast. But if you want a shot at being chosen to read the multi-voiced audio book version in the works, check this out.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Is Harvard Anti-Witch?


You may have seen this story making the rounds on the internet: Harvard University is hosting a "Social Transformation" conference put on by a student leadership organization known for its right-wing Christianity and anti-pagan views. The group's website doesn't present any obvious anti-pagan rhetoric, but stories on The Daily Kos (which includes a video of a scheduled speaker engaged in a beatific invocation aimed at driving out witchcraft from the land) and elsewhere (the Harvard Crimson calls the scheduled speakers "incendiary") reiterate the group's known anti-witchcraft activism.

A recent article in Newsweek (linked on Social Transformation's website) explores the ways in which Harvard, founded as a training ground for Christian ministers, has become increasingly secular and cannot even support its own "department of religion," instead relegating degrees in religion to the Divinity School located a half mile from the main campus.

From the look of it, this conference may indeed have some anti-occult sentiment lurking beneath the neutral and oh-so-forward-thinking language on its website. The main thrust seems to be that secularism is the dominant mindset in the United States, and an institution like Harvard, founded on Christian doctrine, is in a unique position to address the loss of spiritual integrity in America. To drive out the darkness, as it were.

Response from the pagan community has been predictably over-the-top, with many referring to the group as "witch hunters." Some are calling for protests. There are petitions decrying Harvard's decision to host the conference. Laurie Cabot's group has posted a rather long and byzantine Note on Facebook.

Are some of the scheduled conference speakers anti-pagan? Yes, it would seem so. Is Harvard at fault for allowing this group to use their campus for their conference? No.

Harvard itself is not anti-pagan. I myself have taken courses in Witchcraft and Celtic Paganism there, in two different departments. I also co-organized two academic conferences, in 2006 and 2007, focused on paganism in media. We received nothing but total cooperation and support from various departments at Harvard, including the Committee on Degrees in Folklore and Mythology, the Harvard Film Archive, and the Department of Celtic Languages and Literatures. Our guest speakers included Fiona Horne, R. J. Stewart, and Ronald Hutton. Clearly the campus is interested in hosting a diverse cross-segment of the academic community.

Here's the thing: as offensive as this weekend's conference may seem to some of us, the conferences put on in 2006 and 2007 were very likely offensive to others. Granted, Harvard was not bombarded with protests at that time (that we know of), but they might easily have been. As an institution of higher learning, they are expected to remain open-minded and neutral, and be respectful supporters of free speech.

Some might counter such statements by saying that hate speech isn't covered by the First Amendment. But what is and isn't hate speech is largely a matter of opinion. I have to say, given some of the anti-Christian invective I have seen spewed by the pagan community at times, I'd be hard-pressed to say that the right-wing witch-haters are any worse when it comes to hate speech. I'm not happy this conference is happening at Harvard, but I can't say they should be stopped from hosting it. And I think that protesting Harvard is a bit wrongheaded. They're not the ones who are anti-pagan; the "Social Transformation" folks are. And frankly, anyone who finds this kind of rhetoric compelling or reasonable is not likely to listen to a calm discussion of what does and doesn't constitute free speech.

The only way to really shift anyone's mindset is to behave with integrity. Don't get angry or indignant. Don't point fingers or call names. It just fuels the fire and allows our detractors to feel justified in their views. There is a constantly rising and receding tide of fanatical Christianity in this country; it does seem to be rising slightly at the moment, and it will do so again. The fact that it's all tied up with our national politics makes for some interesting and frustrating times. But we can rise above the insanity.

Just keep it in your pants, people: be respectful, listen, and disagree where you disagree. And educate where you can. And always, always, work towards understanding.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Wiccan Fired by TSA

This excellent article from MSNBC details the firing of a Wiccan employee by TSA at the Albany International airport. The fact that this is in my city is less interesting to me than the fact than this is a clear-cut case of religious discrimination and the fostering of a hostile work environment. The article makes it clear that he thinks the prejudicial treatment of this employee based on her beliefs is offensive; but the upshot of it all is that the employee lost her job for unrelated administrative issues. The fact that employee expressed concern about the incompetence of her fellow employees and the implications for passenger safety is troubling as well.

I am frankly surprised something like this has not happened before. I've seen some utterly appalling behavior from TSA employees towards customers, and on the same day and within arms-length, seen excellent, courteous and professional behavior.

I wonder how far this would have gone if these employees were unionized? Surely the proper grievance procedure would have been followed? And the employee would have known to document everything because a union representative would have encouraged this when she made her first complaint. Unionizing also makes the need for this kind of whistleblowing less likely, since there is generally more transparent support systems for employees from management.

And does anyone but me find it outrageous that TSA employees, who are famously overworked, underpaid and often under-qualified, do NOT have a union? Not only would these employees perform better, but any employees who wee not able to uphold union standards would lose their jobs, and perhaps that would make the skies safer for everyone. That this article notes this fired employee was very skilled at discovering concealed weapons means she was competent in at least one important aspect of her job. That she was comfortable with frisking passengers because her experience as a massage therapist is another point in her favor, since this has become a contentious issue of late.

I think it's obvious that the superstition and ignorance displayed by Smith's fellow employees created a tense and hostile situation, and that's on them. If they find witchcraft or Wicca repugnant or frightening, and complain to their superiors about working with a "Wiccan" then the supervisors in question should take the time to educate themselves on the matter, and insist their employees do the same. Regardless of whether the prejudiced employees think of Wicca as a "religion" or not is beside the point; their prejudicial behavior did, regardless, violate this woman's rights. Religion should not be an issue in the workplace. Period.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Whatever Happened to BLACK DEATH?


It may already be playing at a theatre near you, or will be very soon...if you're lucky. (Or not, depending on your point of view; reviews have been slightly mixed).

The film is playing at a very limited range of theatres now, perhaps because it is also available on DVD and various on-demand services.

This medieval tale of the disease that decimated Europe and provided yet another layer of occult superstition to the centuries of religious persecution stars Sean Bean and John Lynch, and is directed by young British director Christopher Smith. You can read more about it here on The Celluloid Bough.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Wake Wood


What could be more exciting than a new Hammer Horror film? You remember Hammer; the studio that produced some of the most memorable modern horror genre classics, like The Devil Rides Out; especially those gorgeous, dreamy vampire films of the 1960s and 1970s. Hammer seemed destined to fade into obscurity after their heyday. The studio more or less "hibernated" during the 1980s and regrouped at the dawn of the twenty-first century. They were sold, along with their vast film library, to a consortium, and then again to a new production company. They came back on the scene in earnest in 2008, and found a warm welcome from audiences and critics in 2010 with Let Me In, a very respectable American remake of the Swedish horror hit Let the Right One In.

Wake Wood, which began pre-production three years ago, is finally opening in the UK this week, is Hammer's first film in nearly three decades and promises to be very fine indeed. Advance reviews are starting to come in and are very positive. It had a gala premiere in Dublin and many UK horror fans have been buzzing about it for months. Wake Wood opens March 25th in the UK, and will be appearing in North America later this spring. It looks to be a delightfully Gothic story with occult overtones; can't wait! My friend Robert was fortunate to be present on-set at some of the Dublin shooting locations, and shares his experiences here.

Welcome back, Hammer! Looking forward to your forthcoming remake of Cat People, too, and other horror gems to come.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Love and Loss on the Misty Moors (A Review of JANE EYRE)


Charlotte Bronte’s well-loved novel introduced a heroine of such integrity, passion and flawed self-sabotage that it’s surprising more actresses aren’t clamoring to play her. But young Mia Wasikowska (The Kids Are All Right) did clamor, after reading the novel at age 18 and asking her agent if there were currently any film versions in the works. The pairing of this actress of astonishing gifts with a similarly-gifted and unique director (Cary Fukunaga, whose debut feature Sin Nombre, a Spanish language film about Mexican immigrants and drug gangs, won many international awards) has yielded a rich, memorable adaptation that just may make Gothic literature fashionable again, as fashionable as it was in the late Victorian era when Bronte’s novel first appeared.


Jane’s story is sad and layered: she is born into wealth, cast off by her cruel aunt, raised in a cruel orphanage, and finds employment as a governess for a stern but good-hearted man, Edward Rochester, who develops feelings for Jane, but who harbors a terrible secret. This version begins about two-thirds of the way into the story, a flash-forward sequence of Jane’s flight from Rochester’s house into the wilderness, exposed to the rough weather on the windy moors, when she is discovered by St. John Rivers, a minister who lives with his sisters. Jane is soaked to the bone, shivering, lying in the bracken under the pouring rain. That Fukunaga chooses to open the film with one of the novel’s most evocative passages, but one of minimal action and no dialogue, signals viewers that watching this film will, uncannily, feel a lot like reading the book.

And I mean that in the best possible way. Two qualities set this very literary adaptation apart from the many excellent ones that have come before. First, it is truly gothic in every sense of the word: dark, spooky, psychologically intense and at times terrifying, from the heartless cruelty of Mrs. Reed to the murderous eyes of Bertha Mason. Second, it captures the natural world with rich detail: the stormy moors, the gardens of Thornfield Hall, the blossoming trees that hover over the newly-engaged lovers. Seasons, weather, time spent outdoors: these function as seamless story aspects rather than signposts of "atmosphere" as they might in a less thoughtful film. Very few heritage films manage to convey the centrality of nature in such stories without seeming precious or artificial. Jane Eyre unfolds in the mind as it unfurls before the eye, again, in much the same way one experiences reading Bronte's novel. The stunning cinematography by Adriano Goldman (Sin Nombre, Conviction) and original score by Dario Marinelli (Atonement, Agora) further enhance the weather and lyricism of this film.


And then there are the fine performances. Miss Wasikowska is beguiling as the socially-awkward, soft-spoken Jane, whose intelligence and imagination belie her horrific childhood. An actress must somehow seem both plain and beautiful in this role, and Wasikowska’s otherworldly looks are suitably haunting. As Edward Rochester, Michael Fessbender (whose diverse resume includes a noble Roman soldier in Centurion, and a cheeky demon in the BBC series Hex) is compellingly rough, gentle, and constantly one mental step ahead of everyone, except the doe-eyed governess who bewitches him. Supporting players Imogen Poots (Fassbender’s pagan helpmeet in Centurion, as Rochester’s intended Blanche Ingram), Judi Dench (the assiduous but warm Mrs. Fairfax), Sally Hawkins (Mrs. Reed), Jamie Bell (St. John) and young Freya Parks (as Jane’s childhood friend Helen Burns) round out the excellent cast.

I cannot recommend Jane Eyre highly enough. Fukunaga has crafted a bona fide heritage film full of freshness and nuance, one that brings alive one of the finest novels ever written in the English language, a story of love, loss, courage, independence, forgiveness and triumph over adversity. Now, when’s the last time a film invoked the highest of human emotions in you? Reader, you’ll love it.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

The History of Pagans in the Media: A Cautionary Tale


It's always kind of disturbing when some aspect of contemporary witchcraft is misrepresented in the media. And so it's natural that some folks want to be good representatives and spokespersons, and share with the world the "truth" about what "we" do. Of course, "we" is relative. And definitions of various permutations and practices of the pagan community vary widely. Because complexity is anathema to news sound bytes, the short-sharp-sexy statement tends to rise to the top of the midden heap of pagan public relations.


The latest example: Christian Day, self-described "warlock" and successful retail and culture merchant of Salem, Massachusetts, becoming the go-to spokesperson on...Charlie Sheen? Yes, Sheen's use of the word "warlock" might have passed unnoticed but for some "journalists" at TMZ who did some googling and realized they had some infotainment gold. Other news outlets followed, some of them as far afield as Australia, where the Daily Telegraph's headline claims that Sheen has "insulted America's pagan community." Day has responded to Sheen's "warlock" comment by stating the following: “I am going to magically bind Mr. Sheen, not to harm him, but to simply prevent him from using this word in such a negative manner in the future.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, the pagan community is all in a tizzy, claiming such remarks make the community look bad, as well as criticizing what many perceive to be Day's ill-advised reclaiming of the word "warlock" (which is believed to mean "oathbreaker" and thus not an accurate or desirable term for referring to oneself as a male witch).

Day and cohorts Lori Bruno and Laurie Stathopoulos have been interviewed by many media outlets in the last 24 hours, and Day is clearly delighted, even speculating that his New Year's resolution of hiring a "midget assistant" (something he aspires to in part because comedienne Margaret Cho has apparently done the same) will soon be fulfilled due to all this extraordinary publicity.


Pagans who want media attention are nothing new. Look at Aleister Crowley; he was a public sensation and scandalous topic of conversation throughout society in the days before Facebook, before television, before radio. His desire for fame and fortune certainly marred what might have been a respectable career as a talented poet and brilliant occultist and author. Well, maybe also the drug addiction, unpaid debts and sexual enslavement of women held him back just a teeny bit.

Then there's Gerald Brousseau Gardner: who decided it was necessary to reveal the secrets of witches and who offered up his "Ye Bok of Ye Arts Magical" as a found text of ancient origin, when in fact he wrote it himself (in all of its poorly-spelled glory). Gardner might have become widely-admired for his originality and creative synthesis of many sources to create a new spiritual tradition; but his desire for a certain level of authenticity and notoriety has tarnished his legacy considerably (well, also all that skyclad scourging).

Gardner's protege and founder of Alexandrian Wicca (the second best-known modern witchcraft tradition after Gardnerian Wicca), Alex Sanders, was an apparently contentious and ego-driven man who proclaimed himself "King of the Witches" and generally inspired widespread ridicule and disapproval as rumors of his antics spread. Again, but for his ego, the man might have contributed a great deal to modern paganism.


Look at Sybil Leek: an Englishwoman who wrote many books, and who appeared on many radio and television shows to be interviewed about being a witch. She eventually moved to the United States to enjoy wider recognition among young would-be witches who were fomenting the occult revival of the 1960s. Sybil was smart and down to earth, but dressing all in black and wearing her pet crow (Mr. Hotfoot Jackson) on her shoulder did mark her as a bit loony in the eyes of the general public.


But why should not witches simply be themselves in the public eye? Why not answer the nay-saying, superstitious public outcry by being upfront and honest about who we are? Enter Laurie Cabot: The Official Witch of Salem. We know she's official because she requested the title from then-governor of Massachusetts, Michael Dukakis. Dressed in flowing black robes, with a Celtic spiral tattoo on her face, her Salem shops have been famous, and her crime-solving psychic abilities are well known. She's been in numerous cable-TV videos and news documentaries. Too bad she had some trouble with the law in the late 1990s, allegedly threatening a former friend and housemate with the concealed weapon she kept on her person for protection against death threats. Despite being cleared of any wrongdoing, Cabot's public reputation suffered mightily.

The Brits have their share of contemporary pagan attention-mongers, too: like Kevin Carlyon, a media-savvy man who has proclaimed himself "The High Priest of British White Witches," and therefore a spokesperson for all of the pagan community, who seems to always be the go-to guy for quotes on any topic regarding paganism or witchcraft in the Britiish tabloids. Unfortunately he tends to say and do some very ridiculous things, and his general arrogance and outrageous demeanor has alienated his entire community.

Are you noticing a pattern here?

Not only have these attention-seeking pagans, witches and occultists received their share of negative media attention, but a great many of them have earned the scorn of the pagan community as well. Now, that scorn may be the result of jealousy or resentment, unconscious or otherwise; sour grapes is sour grapes. But when well-meaning people are targeted with derision as a direct result of their public speech, it might be time to reflect upon what kind of impression we want to make to the public. There's nothing wrong with being a pagan pariah if you want to be a pagan pariah; but since modern witchcraft is already a topic riddled with prejudice and stereotypes, it'd be nice if the rest of us didn't have to constantly do damage control just so we can be taken seriously or, you know, keep our jobs.

I have nothing against Christian's desire for some attention; he's a smart guy, a savvy and successful businessman, and he's worked hard to be where he is today. But I do think the pagan community at large tends to not appreciate it when one person speaks for all of us in the context of a sensational media story. Sadly, such outlets tend to misquote or manipulate what is said, so that even if someone does not claim to be speaking for the entire pagan community, the media will spin it that way because, oh I don't know, they love to piss us off. So it's advisable to think twice before you talk to the media, because they're not always interested in portraying us sympathetically. Obviously.


It's not hard for contemporary pagans to brush off these kinds of silly stories when they appear. But unfortunately, a goodly portion of the general public formulates their perceptions and opinions based on what they see on TV or the internet. The media loves a good juicy occult story; look at how they tried to make mass murderer Jared Loughner into an "occultist" when bags of potting soil, rotten oranges, a plastic skull and burned out seven-day candles were found in his backyard. As if being a mass murderer wasn't bad enough!

Charlie Sheen is no warlock; but he's a Hollywood celebrity whose words are the source of rabid media attention right now. This could possibly be an opportunity to explain the origins and diverse connotations of the word "warlock." But I don't think it's a good time to suggest magically binding someone. It's far too easy for the media to spin this in ways that make contemporary witches and occult practitioners look even loonier than we usually do.



For move coverage on this story, check out Patheos.com, and The Wild Hunt blog.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Spirit of Albion: a new pagan film!


A number of years ago, I met a pagan musician named Damh Smith (also known as Damh the Bard) at a summer solstice ritual at the Rollright Stones in Oxfordshire, England. That's when I first heard the song "The Spirit of Albion" from his third CD of the same name. We struck up an occasional email correspondence, and when I learned he would be playing in Glastonbury while I was going to be there, he offered to put me on the guest list. little did I know this event was nothing less than the annual OBOD Eisteddfodd! It was grand, food and drink everywhere and some of the best bardic performances, both singing and spoken word, I've seen by pagans anywhere. Damh's music is well-loved among UK pagans and finding an audience in the U.S. Plus, Damh is just a cool guy.

Damh is now involved in making a pagan-themed film called THE SPIRIT OF ALBION with producer-director Gary Andrews. Gary graciously agreed to an email interview about the project.

TWH: How did the idea for making THE SPIRIT OF ALBION come about? Is it mainly based on Damh's song of the same name?

GA: The film began life as a devised theatre piece for a Youth Theatre Workshop that I run. Every summer we put on a show and in Sept 2009 we decided we would like to do a 'musical' for performance in July 2010. I have been a long time fan (and friend) of Damh and have always found his work to be very inspiring so I played some of his stuff to the group and they instantly fell in love with it. We decided to choose 10 tracks (5 for each act) that when we put them in a certain order told a story. From these we developed characters and improvised scenes and slowly put together the final script. It was performed for three nights in a tiny studio theatre and went down very well, especially with the members of the pagan community who came to see it. It was their suggestion that I should take the show further that got me thinking about adapting it into a film. We also did another 'live' performance of the show in November, this time at Witchfest International, at the Fairfield Halls, Croydon to an audience of around 200. Again - it met with a very positive response.

The song 'The Spirit of Albion' itself is used as the finale in the play - a summing up of the joy and energy of the story and as such seemed a fitting title for the show itself.


TWH: What kind of challenges are you facing making this independent film?

GA: I guess the usual challenges faced by all independent film-makers, the main one being how to get the best results of a very low budget! I am very lucky in that I have many friends who are actors and artists of all sorts, as well as many student friends studying media and so on - so casting and crewing has been fairly straightforward. We have given the film a fairly lengthy pre-production period in order to make sure that all the details are well in place so that once filming begins, things can go as smoothly as possible. Another challenge will be dealing with the British weather through the summer (we start shooting on 30th April and wrap on 11th Sept, with 20 shooting days dotted about in there) as much of the film happens outside. We shall just have to hope that the Gods are smiling on us!!


THW: Do you think your work might inspire more pagan filmmakers?

GA: I hope so. It would be lovely to think that people would be inspired to go out and be creative themselves having seen our film. And not just film-makers - playwrights, singer songwriters, painters too. We (Damh and I) have chatted about how there really aren't that many films out there that show the modern pagan lifestyle in a true or positive light, so the sense of responsibility on our shoulders whilst making this film is ever present!


TWH: What makes the story told in this film relevant to contemporary pagans?

GA: Well, the 3 main characters are young, modern people with the kind of problems that are very real today. One, Esther, is working in a high powered, pressured job with no real life outside of work and has reached breaking point. The second, Annie, is a damaged young woman who works in a job she hates (animal testing) and has taken refuge in drugs and casual sex rather than face her reality. Finally we have George, an anti war activist who is fighting the guilt that his soldier brother was killed in Afghanistan and the last time they spoke they had a fight about their life choices. All 3 of them, on the same day (Oct 31st) have a meeting with a stranger who turns out not to be what they first appear. Added into the mix is Annie's brother, a Christian priest who is having doubts about his vocation. All of these characters are given a chance to see things a different way, through the filter of the Pagan perspective and all of them have a life-changing experience, although not everything turns out as you might expect!

Our aim was, first and foremost, to tell a good story - if at the same time the 'message' gets across too, then that is a bonus.


TWH: What are your plans for exhibiting and distributing the film?

GA: Well, first and foremost it will be a DVD release (both PAL and NTSC) and will be available to buy online via the official website. DVD will be the best way to experience the film as there will be plenty of extras on the disc (commentaries, behind the scenes and more). I am also starting to turn my thoughts to film festivals and so on. Perhaps later on we will also look at other online outlets (itunes, DVD baby etc) but right now I am mostly focused on making the film to the best of my abilities!


Stay tuned for more updates on this exciting project. And be sure to check out THE SPIRIT OF ALBION website for great photos of the locations and actors, and more information on the production.