Halloween, which comes round again this weekend, is big business. Last year Americans spent an estimated $8.8bn on parties, costumes, sweets, pumpkins and paraphernalia.
But the fun party atmosphere is in perverse contrast to the origin of the Christian festival, which has its roots in death. It is the eve of All Saints’ Day, when the lives of saints are honoured. The day after that is All Souls’ Day, when the lives of all who have died are remembered. Liturgies are observed in many Christian churches.
The Irish tradition of Halloween, exported to America and then back to the UK, has morphed into a festival associated with darkness, horror and scares.
But in a Religion Media Centre online briefing, journalists were told that the picture of Halloween witches with broomsticks and evil intent stands at odds with contemporary Pagan witchcraft, where the earth is venerated and ancestors celebrated.
Academics and members of the Pagan Federation explained that the season of Halloween coincided with the Pagan festival of Samhain, considered the most important festival of the year, marking the conclusion of harvest, the end of summer and the beginning of a new year.
Jennifer Uzzell, from the Pagan Federation, explained that Samhain was associated with remembering and celebrating the lives of the dead, particularly from your own family and how they were still connected to those still living.
Pagans who observe this festival include many different groups including such as druids, witches and goddess-worshippers. Each is different but have similar traits.
Dr Melissa Harrington, from the Pagan Federation in the northwest, who is a witch, said the modern revival of witchcraft was relatively recent, dating from the middle of the 20th century, as an antidote to industrialisation.
The world wars provoked new interest in spiritualism and magical alternatives with educated wealthy people bringing back stories of classical gods. Goddess worship was revived, but not everyone who is a Pagan regards it as a religion.
Paganism has continually evolved and there is no one set of beliefs, for example, in the nature of the divine.
Dr Ethan Doyle Williams, who has studied Wicca (Pagan witchcraft) explained there had been an idea of “duo theism” with a horned god and goddess; or a prime mover, a creator god. The ideas moved through second-wave feminism to a goddess monotheism. Beliefs were diverse, he said.
Jennifer Uzzell said Pagans tended to be united by what they practised — their rituals and common gatherings — rather than beliefs. There was a tendency, she said, to dislike authority, and so charismatic personalities emerged and were regarded as leaders, but there were no votes or election processes and there were no scriptures as such.
Recently, the growth of #Witchtok on the social media platform TikTok has led to suggestions that social media is fuelling renewed interest in witchcraft, with reports that there are 500 million teenage “baby witches” on social media.
Dr Harrington’s daughter, Lucia, 21, disagreed. She said social media gave people opportunity to experiment but just because someone read tarot cards or used a pendulum to make a decision did not mean they were a witch. Just by liking Fleetwood Mac, or posting about candles, suddenly she will find her TikTok feed filled with witchtok videos. Social media has also made a commodity of witchcraft, with sales of crystals and candles.
Dr Helen Berger, from Brandeis University near Boston in the United States, studied the phenomenon of teenage witches in 2007, years before TikTok came on the scene and said many were witches for four weeks and then lost interest.
She was interested to hear the story that a group of “baby witches” hexed (cast spells) on the moon, but believed they didn’t know what they were doing. The moon, she said, was an important feature in Pagan rituals and a source of divine inspiration. The event caused concern among some older witches initiated into traditions, but Dr Harrington said it did not cause conflict.
Later, Ms Uzzell explained that most witches practised magic and many used the terminology of “spells”, in the belief that it was possible to influence the material world or the workings of fate, according to your will, using ritual means. The idea was that they were tapping into a neutral source of power, not an interventionist deity, which could theoretically be used for good or evil. It was usually used to heal others or the earth.
Dr Berger said there was a belief that to use this power to harm would mean it would return threefold. Ms Uzzell said magic was not used for harm on ethical grounds. A lot of magic was concerned with healing others and the earth.
Occasionally witches will use magic to bring about what they see as justice or social justice. For example a group of witches in America hexed Donald Trump and, famously, the New Forest coven used magic during the Second World War with the aim of protecting the English coast from Nazi invasion by sending the intention “You shall not come” using magically raised energy.
Ms Uzzell was adamant that there was no association between witchcraft and the devil. Witches did not worship Satan, she said. This was a basic fundamental misunderstanding — but there was connection. The horned god mentioned in some branches of Wicca, however, was not the devil.
Dr Harrington warned against tenuous links that were repeated in the press, for example false lurid stories of mutilated horses associated with witchcraft.
The concerns over climate change and environmental campaigning have led to an increased interest in Paganism. Dr Berger said that in America, Pagans were more environmentally active than average, but “of course that’s a low bar”. And though they claimed environmentalism was the most important movement for them, this was rarely demonstrated in action, she said.
As Samhain and Halloween rituals move online this weekend, Pagans will remember those who have died in online ceremonies and light candles on their altars at home. Meanwhile most will also celebrate Halloween with pumpkins and sweets and “decorate houses frivolously”.