Alex Mar has been compared to a kind of modern Virgil for providing a tour through the world of American practitioners of the occult. Just in time for Halloween, we asked her a few questions about her experience writing Witches of America, her favorite horror movies, and the difference between Samhain and what the rest of us celebrate with candy and pranks.
WiP: How did you celebrate Halloween before writing the book? Are there any Halloween customs that the average American might not realize are rooted in Paganism?
Alex Mar: I don’t really celebrate Halloween at this point. But for years, it involved a weekend night of dress-up and partying—typical stuff. Complete silliness. At this point, with what I know now about the Pagan movement, this time of year has really changed for me. Because for most Pagans—and that’s possibly as many as one million people in this country—Halloween season is Samhain. That’s the time of year when they say “the veil,” or the barrier between this world and the next, is thinnest, making this a time for communicating with the dead, reaching across to lost loved ones and even distant ancestors. So right now, there are some very intense rituals taking place all around the country.
WiP: What are some of your favorite horror movies to watch around Halloween?
AM: I am a massive fan of horror movies—but more in the arthouse vein, and often what’s called “metaphysical horror.” I seriously recommend Dario Argento’s 1977 film Suspiria, in its restored Anchor Bay edition if you can find it (yes, I can be that much of a geek). Technicolor scenes of girls at a Swiss ballet school being manipulated by a secret coven of witches—can you ask for more? The original Halloween, by John Carpenter, is completely underrated as an art film—I’m not kidding. Long, slow wide shots that are a lot more Euro than American-slasher. And I’ll re-watch Rosemary’s Baby almost any day. It’s a perfect film: the black humor, the performances (Ruth Gordon!), not to mention the great glimpses of 70s Manhattan (my hometown).
WiP: What books did you read as research for Witches of America?
AM: So much of the book is deliberately active and present-tense—but that did not save me from historical research. I lost count of the books on the reading list a couple years back!
And let me say without hesitation that some very essential, historical occult texts made for the flat-out worst reading experience I’ve ever had—just on a sheer prose level. However fascinating the information contained therein, the prose style can be so stilted and the language can often have this “ye olde” English affectation. I discovered that sitting down to write straight after that kind of reading was a bad idea: I’d end up sounding like a nineteenth-century British occultist myself. But for readers of Witches of America who might want to know more about the history of modern Paganism, its European roots, and how it was absorbed into American culture, I’ll point you to three more recent, well-written and deeply researched books: Margot Adler’s Drawing Down the Moon (1979, with a 2006 update), Ronald Hutton’s The Triumph of the Moon (1999), and Chas S. Clifton’s Her Hidden Children (2005).
WiP: How long did you research the book and why was it important to you to immerse yourself in the community and its practices firsthand?
AM: I wrote and researched simultaneously, taking notes about my experiences as they were unfolding. Sometimes that meant scribbling things out at 3am when I’d just returned from a ritual, wanting to capture my impressions, my excitement, my frustrations—whatever felt the most accurate and honest in the moment. This is how I work in general, in my longform magazine stories as a journalist: trying to keep things as immediate and present-tense as possible. The major difference with this book was the strong memoir element—that made it more of a hybrid: the early chapters contain some of the history of the Pagan movement, but everything is tied to portraits of people who are living and practicing magic now, and that’s all tied together by my own search. I’ve never been a “confessional” writer, but I knew I had to find a way to be honest about my own spiritual search—no matter how embarrassing that might feel at times—and to use that as a way to create a bridge between this community and the “mainstream” reader.
As far as my own immersion in the community, this wasn’t a gimmick or technique. After making my documentary American Mystic (which features Morpheus, a Pagan priestess who became a central subject of my book as well), I realized I had a very personal curiosity about witchcraft. I needed to get closer, to know more. And as a writer it was natural that I’d want to document that exploration along the way while also trying to create this portrait of the larger witchcraft movement. It’s how I process things. I’m built this way.
WiP: Did your work as a documentary filmmaker influence your writing?
AM: A lot of emphasis has been placed on my earlier documentary work in the press around this book. But I personally think of my doc, American Mystic, as a standalone project that ultimately helped to propel me forward as a writer, not as a filmmaker. It was just such a monster of an undertaking! Three subjects in three very distinct communities in far-flung parts of the country, with a crew of three (including myself). At the time, it was simply the largest thing I’d ever attempted to do. And the process of establishing those relationships and spending so much time observing and conducting deep interviews and coming to understand how the interview process worked best for me—all of that gave me the guts, in the months after the film came out, to start sketching out my first book. I suddenly knew I could take on something of that scope, that ambition. I should also say that carving out portraits through filmmaking helped me to realize, later on, that I’m a very visual writer. I have a deep literary background—I’ve been a real book-obsessive my entire life—but I often write with a visual, cinematic approach, as if I’m filming the scene. It wasn’t a conscious shift at the time, but I know now that making the doc freed me up in that way, loosened me up on the page.
Alex Mar lives in New York City, her hometown. She has contributed to The Believer, the Oxford American, Elle, The New York Times Book Review, Slate, New York magazine, and other publications. Mar is also the director of the documentary feature film American Mystic. Witches of America is her first book.
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