Hollywood has always had a fascination with romanticizing witches, resulting in a large pool of fictional characters that run the gamut from green-faced, pointy nosed type to the Hocus Pocus trio to everyone’s favorite teenage witch, Sabrina. But most pop culture portrayals of witches perpetuate the stereotype of evil, cackling, broom-toting women that shriek dark spells. Frances Denny, author and photographer, is on a mission to demystify misconceptions about witchcraft in her portrait series Major Arcana: Witches in America.
"The word 'witch' has a place in our culture as this stereotypical, hooked nose character and I really wanted to dismantle that and put forth a representation of something slightly more complex than that," Denny told ELLE.com. "The word has a kind of mysterious, internal power and self-possession and it’s usually cultivated through a belief or a personal practice. Witchcraft conjures a power to effect change in the world. I think the word witch conjures the notion that you're resistant to the patriarchal social order."
While conducting research for her 2015 novel Let Virtue Be Your Guide, Denny discovered that her interest in witches wasn't just a coincidence; she actually has a direct connection to the Salem Witch Trials. Denny's ancestor was a judge during that time, and another ancestor was actually an accused witch elsewhere in Massachusetts years prior.
"I kind of filed that coincidence away while working on my book even though I knew there was something juicy there that I should and wanted to explore," Denny said. "So I returned to it and started thinking about what the word 'witch' meant back then and then of course, I started thinking who is a witch now? Who is she? What does she look like?"
The answer lies within Denny's portrait series, which captures images of witches from across America (on display at ClampArt starting on Oct. 4), a project that took almost three years to complete. Major Arcana: Witches In America shows that the modern witch is your next door neighbor, your nurse at a hospital, your local librarian—women of all different sizes, races, and backgrounds.
Ahead, Frances Denny breaks down some of the stories behind her subjects.
Wolf (New York, NY):
"She busted out that cigar like, 'Is it okay if I smoke?; and I’m like, 'Absolutely!' She has been identifying as a witch since she was nine years old and she told me that there were several books that were kind of an entree into her interest in witchcraft like Women Who Runs With the Wolves. Wolf is a young witch who doesn’t necessarily ascribe to one religion and doesn’t have a label for her religion but said it’s a balance between science and spirit. She feels most a witch when she’s with other woman. When I met her she was in a polyamorous relationship with another woman and a man."
Barbara (Oakland, CA):
Barbara is a librarian. I photographed her in Oakland, CA—she’s wearing black and has red shoes on for a specific ceremony for the religion she’s apart of which is called, Open Source Order of the Golden Dawn. Her backstory is that she grew up middle-class and Episcopalian in Massachusetts. Growing up, she realized that she liked the form of ritual but not the context—she liked history and literature and old things--but she studied medieval in old english and old Irish and became interested in Irish mythology. And then in college, she met a Gardnerian Wiccan who then initiated her. She said when she was initiated into witchcraft, it felt like she was ‘coming home.’ "
Erica (New York, NY):
"Erica owns this very cool store in Salem, MA called Haus Witch. It’s a shop that’s devoted to helping people heal their spaces and love their homes. They combine the principles earth, magic, meditation, herbalism, union, psychology, and interior decorating to bring healing to everyday spaces. When we were talking, she said that she doesn’t see witch as a religious term at all. For her, it’s a political distinction of radical feminism and empowered femininity. She said: 'For feminism to work, we have to tap into what haunts us,' which I loved. Calling herself a witch is a feminist declaration, a reclamation of a word."
Deborah (Nyack, NY):
"Deborah is a filmmaker and she is a master acting instructor. She told me that she liked the idea that witchcraft shouldn’t be explained or demystified and it's okay to leave it on the fringe as something esoteric. She told me that witchwork for her is about including and embracing the dark sides of ourselves so that we can face them to integrate them—like grief, sexuality, rage, etc.—and part of her job is holding darkness for others so that they can come to embrace it and face it. She also talked about how mainstream religions are set up to disempower women so what she writes about her beliefs and her witchcraft is that it’s about a divine woman taking that power back and that pagan belief and goddess worship allows us not to respond to patriarchy with niceness. Her intuition helps her unburden and unblock the people she’s working with so she has this innate ability to see where trauma is living in people’s bodies. She practices energy shifting and works with people to shift their energy so they become more aware and address their trauma."
Karen (Brooklyn, NY):
"Karen owns her own apothecary in Brooklyn and she is a urban herbalist—but her kids call her a witch. Herbalism is her religion and she has practiced traditional herbalism for 20 years. She’s originally from Guyana in South America and her parents are Chinese, African, and American. She believes integrated holistic healing is not just physical but it’s emotional and psychological. Her grandfather was a plant healer, so she learned part of her craft from him.
Pam (Brooklyn, NY):
"Pam is currently writing a book called Waking the Witch, coming out next year but she’s the creator of Witch Emoji, which you can download on the app store and has all these amazing witch emojis. She also started a podcast a year ago called the Witch Wave. She identifies as a pagan witch and has a self-defined, eclectic practice involving ritual and spell craft--and she’s a super-charged feminist. She links witchcraft to feminism and said that witches are icons of justice and freedom, change-makers and a catalysis for metamorphosis, transformation, and manifestation. A witch is the only female archetype that has meaning and power autonomous from men, like there’s no male counterpart to it."
Lindsey Jo (Woodstock,NY):
"Lindsey founded something called Moon Church in 2013 and I see it as the first urban witchcraft movement in Brooklyn that started gaining steam. She’s the real deal, she was very interested in ghosts as a kid, played with Ouija boards, worked in a magic and healing shop growing up with a witch who taught her spell-crafting, magic, and healing. Then she moved to NYC and went to art school but dropped out of it. Shortly after, she met a group of other young women in Brooklyn and they began to convene together and host moon ceremonies and magical events and that’s what became Moon Church. They published magazines and events and gathered on full moons and holidays to do rituals."
Shyne (New York, NY):
"She lives in a haunted house in the Bronx. She has seen herself as a witch since age six and sees herself as a Shamanic Witch infusing Yoruba, Egyptian, and Shamanic drumming into her practice. She’s not part of a coven, she’s a solitary lone wolf practitioner. She creates products like flower essences for bathing and ritual self-care to help women awaken the 'wild feminine.' To her, the word witch means to reclaim power and sensuality, and reclaiming what was stolen. It's a word that was once used to demonize and persecute women. But to her, it's about taking back power."