Reviews: Charmed, I'm sure

Culture | TV shows and books aimed at young people are building up the latest fad: pop-culture paganism

Issue: "Turkey: A terrible toll," Sept. 4, 1999

Forget the Blair Witch. What's truly horrifying is the hottest teen fad these days, witchcraft. As the poised, well-dressed witches of The WB's hit series Charmed tell a friend, "Welcome to our little shop of horrors." It's the poised and well-dressed part that explains the spell being cast on American teens by "the Charmed Ones," Sabrina, and other pop-culture pagans. And the ads that run during Charmed remove all doubt: acne medications and breath mints--we're talking about shows that appeal to adolescent insecurity. The terrifyingly wicked Blair Witch, in fact, is the odd Magus out--the new teen take on witchcraft is that it's an effective course in self-improvement. Sabrina, though she has her magical mishaps, always has something new and fashionable to wear. And although there were bad witches in 1996's sleeper hit, The Craft, witchcraft itself is never portrayed in a bad light--just the selfish use of it. And this, I think, is where multiculturalism has brought us--to the point where we're happy to be inclusive of even necromancy (the Charmed trio regularly consult their dead mother). In the first season, the girls inherit an aunt's Victorian mansion in San Francisco. When the sisters find The Book of Shadows in the attic, they begin their careers as witches by reciting a chilling invocation: Hear now the words of the witches The secrets we hid in the night The oldest of gods are invoked here The great work of magic is sought In the night and in this hour I call upon the ancient power Bring your powers to we sisters three We want the power Give us the power The show's premise is that these three are "the Charmed Ones," a trio of sister witches who will only use those powers for good. And they make occultism attractive; in the Charmed world, the demons are handsome, the ghosts are good-looking, and even their cop friend wears designer suits. (Det. Andy Trudeau, by the way, learns their secret, and responds, "I have always believed in another world beyond this one." By the end of the season, he learned even more about that subject; he was killed off and presumably won't be returning for season two--but you never know.) Of course, Charmed is not very far removed from Melrose Place and Party of Five. There's plenty of premarital sex, and everyone seems to have a glamorous job with lots of time off for chasing evil spirits. The same appeal explains why books such as Sabrina, The Teenage Witch: Magic Handbook are hot sellers. By itself, Sabrina's book is relatively inoffensive. It doesn't really contain spells--just a few science tricks such as making invisible ink, and a few math tricks of the "pick a number" variety. But it's not a big jump from Sabrina to Jennifer Hunter, the spooky author of 21st Century Wicca: A Young Witch's Guide to the Magical Life. Another top-seller for, 21st Century Wicca is a pseudo-scholarly instruction manual complete with spells and suggested gods to call upon. It lays out the basic belief of Wicca: "There is no separation between creator and creation." In other words (words used in several ceremonies, in fact), "Thou art God." Which of course is the very temptation Satan offered to Eve; there's nothing new in this fad. Even the New Age influences in the book show themselves to be old-time sorcery (the Hebrew word translated as sorcery is also the root word for pharmaceutical). Instructions are given on how to "experience the Divine." You must alter your consciousness, the book says, and "this can be done through drumming, dancing, chanting, quiet meditation, exercise, sex, sleep, and yes, even some drugs." One point 21st Century Wicca and similar books try to make is that Wicca is a separate religion, independent of Christianity (and therefore is not Satan-worship). But this claim is belied by the rituals and imagery of witchcraft--it's all steeped in Christianity, and the mockery thereof. "One Lughnassadh [Midsummer night], my group was doing a ritual in a public park," Miss Hunter writes. "We had baked a loaf of bread in the shape of a man, to represent the dying and reborn God. I decided to make the bread blessing particularly dramatic, so I lifted my athame [ceremonial dagger] up high, and plunged it into the heart of the bread-man." A similar book (and another hot seller) is Silver Ravenwolf's Teen Witch: Wicca for a New Generation. Its cover is a clone of the movie poster for The Craft, by the way, just to make it clear to teens that adolescent witches get to dress cool and don't have acne. It, too, has step-by-step instructions for calling up demons ("We summon the elements, stir the ancestral dead, and call the totem animals"). There are spells for love, for glamour, for health, for money, and--perhaps most telling of all--a "Happy Home Spell." That's one of many indications within this fad that this divorce-scarred generation is desperately in need of some serious parental involvement. There are spells to cast on crabby teachers, mean bus drivers, bullies, and parents. In a particularly offensive closing chapter, Mrs. Ravenwolf counsels kids not only on how to deceive their parents about their involvement in the occult, but also on how to try to undermine their parents' beliefs. "Talk about God," she writes. "What would it be like, Mom, if God was REALLY a woman? ... Did you know that the early Christians believed in reincarnation? Yes, indeed they did.... If Adam and Eve were the first humans, who or what did Cain marry? ... If they still don't budge, pray. The Mother will hear you."

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