Feature taken from "Time Out" London's weekly guide
- October 24-31 1990 -
OUT OF SPIRITS
Superstition is lining pockets, and occult shops and
publishers are thriving in the current atmosphere of New Age
credulity. Is an interest in the supernatural a harmless
expression of mankind's curiosity, or a dangerous delusion?
For the covens of Tufnell Park, Hackney and Clapham, the feast
Hallowe'en or `Samhain" is one of the most important dates in the
calendar. October 31 is also ringed in the diaries of WH Smith, John
Menzies and all the other stores selling Hallowe'en and occult
The supernatural is big business in Britain. Books, computer
programmes, crystals, astrological charts, tarot cards, runes, New
Age music tapes, talismans and pendulums are peddled in West End
emporia; hotels and even Town Halls rent out rooms for New Age
seminars or gatherings of clairvoyants. The profits are hard to
measure according to the Inland Revenue, whose so-called ghostbusting
units are kept busy checking on the tarot card readers, palmists and
clairvoyants who form the black economy alongside the more mundane
workers like bricklayers and freelance journalists.
Interest in the occult is nothing new. A bookshop like Watkins in
Cecil Court which stocks supernatural and occult works is 100 years
old. But in the last few years this interest has no longer been the
province of a cranky minority. Superstition has become publicly
In the classified pages of "Prediction" magazine - weekly circulation
30,000 - a small group of magical warriors appeals for an extra male
member. `The Witches' Book of Spells, Rituals and Sex Magic' is
offered for sale, while Ceridwen, Celtic clairvoyant and healer,
assures readers that her traditional potent workings will change your
According to the magazine's editor, Jo Logan, interest in the occult
and the supernatural is now widespread: `Our magazine used to be read
by older women, but now our surveys show that interest in this field
is across the board. There are plenty of full-time astrologers now
meeting the demand. It is human nature to be curious, which is why
people get interested in this sort of thing, but there is also a more
holistic attitude now. People are worried about being isolated from
Mysteries in Covent Garden's Monmouth Street is eight years old, and
in the last two years business has boomed. The store not only stocks
books but also contains consulting rooms where you can talk to
astrologers (30 pounds for a comprehensive chart) or to psychic
healers (40 pounds for one-and-a-half hours). Co-owner Matthew Geffin
said: `It's a massive industry. It has some throwback to the '60s,
but in the New Age people are much more practical rather than totally
hedonistic. And yes, it is profitable. I do make a comfortable
Mysteries manageress Jane Ford said: `People want to explore
themselves and get in tune with their own bodies. They want a form of
counselling. They don't find answers through orthodox religions.
Going to a doctor is much more dangerous than going to a tarot
reader. Their attitude is nothing to do with loving your body or true
healing. They pump you with dangerous potions.'
It is this kind of belief, this rejection of science, and almost
palpable longing for the pre-Age of Enlightenment world, which
disturbs many observers. Jonathan Miller, who trained as a doctor
before becoming a theatre director, said: `It really makes me very
angry. People mouth these follies because they don't want to open
their eyes to the real world. What is really annoying is the fact
that they often borrow the terms of science and are in fact against
science. They must be very poorly educated.'
But according to Tanya Luhrmann, an American anthropologist who
studied ritual magic and witchcraft in England during the '80s, those
engaged in witchcraft are well-educated, middle-class professionals.
She estimates in her book `Persuasions of the Witch's Craft' that 20
per cent of magicians are computer staff, the sort of people who are
fascinated by science fiction and playing Dungeons and Dragons.
London's witches combine the exotic with the desperately ordinary.
They wear robes, chant, stand in magic circles, and cavort on heaths
and hillsides. More cosily, tea precedes most rituals, witches Xerox
their notes, make fuzzy amateur tape recordings or their activies and
use dustbin lids outdoors when the traditional cauldron is too heavy
Joining a coven is a lengthy process, involving months of study - and
that "after" you have convinced other witches that you are
acceptable. Gay people are often not welcome; homophobia is always
explained in terms of the theory of magic, and the inevitable
attraction between male and female to provide the `opposite charges'.
`I have nothing against homesexuals,' said a member of the Hornsey
group, but you can't work magic with a homosexual. Homosexuals just
can't create a current.'
Once you are recruited, your life becomes governed not by Easter and
Christmas and package holidays to the Greek Islands, but by the
movements of the moon. Covens meet at full moon and new moon and the
eight great sabbats, or festivals, of the year. Samhain - October 31,
Imbolc - February 1, Beltane - May 1, Lammas - August 1, the winter
and summer solstices - December 22 and June 22 - and the vernal and
autumnal equinoxes - March 21 and September 21.
Tanya Lurhmann describes the Hallowe'en celebrations of the typical
London coven: `Full moon. November 1984. The sitting-room has been
transformed. The furniture has been removed, and a 12' chalk circle
drawn on the carpet. It will be brushed out in the morning. Four
candlesticks stake out the corners of the room, casting shadows from
the stag's antlers on the wall. The altar in the centre of the circle
is a chest which seems ancient. Flowers and herbs surround a carved
wooden Pan; a Minoan Goddess figure sits on the altar itself amid a
litter of ritual knives and tools.'
Could those who indulge in the pre-Christian rituals, who have
nothing to do with Satanism or ritual abuse of small children, be
doing anything damaging to themselves or society? Canon Dominic
Walker is an Anglican priest and exorcist experienced in dealing with
the occult. He helps train parish priests to counsel those troubled
by their involvement in supernatural or psychic activities.
`For some people these activities are dangerous. I know of a woman
who goes to see a clairvoyant every day. She can't afford it. If the
clairvoyant says she should not go out, she refuses to leave the
house. Her life has been taken over. There are people out there who
are dabbling in things in which they have no expertise.'
Although Canon Walker deals with more that 100 occult `casulties' a
year, he has carried out exorcisms only four times in 15 years.
According to him, most of those presenting themselves as possessed
are suffering from severe psychiatric problems.
`It is difficult to assert whether there is a link between satanism
and ritualist abuse. That may again be due to psychiatric
disturbance. I have no doubt that satanists do exist, but because
they demand total confidentiality it is hard to find out anything
Dr Louis Appleby, a lecturer at the Institute of Psychiatry, stresses
that while there is no connection between clinical madness and
dabbling in the occult, the fantasies of a disturbed individual
nevertheless tend to reflect the cultural concerns of their society:
`If nobody ever talked about the Devil, you wouldn't get people
claiming to be possessed by him.' In certain extreme cases of
personality disorder, he suggests, the widespread availability of
occult material could have an adverse effect.
While men and women fearing for their lives sometimes come to Canon
Walker begging him to help them escape the clutches of satanism, the
clergy he trains busy themselves with those unable to cope with the
fringe world with which they have dabbled. `Some of those things,
like tarot card readings, might seem perfectly harmless, but I would
say from experience it is a bit like hard and soft drugs. Often
something which begins quite innocently through a bit of fun or idle
curiosity can snowball into a dangerous obession.'
Comment: Not to bad an editorial for a change - but I do wish they
would research things a little better, especially the dates.