Journalist and documentary filmmaker Alex Mar records her fascinating five-year journey into witchcraft and the occult in America in her new book Witches of America (Sarah Crichton Books, Oct.). In it, Mar walks readers through a pagan conference, a weekend with a Feri coven in a “faux castle,” an initiation ceremony that used teachings from Aleister Crowley, and more.
Both your new book, Witches of America, and your previous documentary, American Mystic, focus on the occult. How does this book differ from your documentary?
The documentary is three intersecting portraits of people in their 20’s who are members of fringe mystical religious groups. The book is just vastly more detailed. You are going to get through the book a really intimate, accurate slice of what it’s like to be someone who calls themselves a witch or a pagan priestess today in America, and a great snapshot of the pagan community as a whole. Along with that, I’m present throughout the book as sort of a reader’s guide because it ended up doubling as sort of a record of my own kind of search and personal exploration. I took part in, over the last five years, dozens of rituals. Some of them involved dozens of people and some of them very intimate and secret. I think those types of details will be really interesting to a lot of readers whose main point of reference to witchcraft has been horror films.
What rituals and/or beliefs did you find most bizarre?
There were plenty of practices that on the surface I thought were pretty exotic or alien. I entered this community through personal relationships and having an understanding of what the logic was. I see the witchcraft religious movement as a continuum. It is connected to a larger picture of faith in America. I don’t see pagan practices as any more exotic at this point than I see Catholic practices that I was raised with. The idea of supposedly eating the body and drinking the blood of Christ is… if someone describes receiving the sacrament in that way, it would seem kind of insane. There is a need for context and a need to understand what the intentions are with these ceremonies.
In what ways did your experiences with this book cause you to reexamine your own beliefs concerning the supernatural?
I’m someone who has always been open-minded. Over the course of five or six years after spending time with this community, I met so many individuals and took part in so many ceremonies. During that entire time, I met maybe a handful of people who really made me question what is possible through magic. I’m still very open to the possibility that witchcraft has something to offer. I didn’t leave my skepticism at the door at the end of this process. I am someone who is going to be searching for a long time.