Last night's British Witchcraft Documentaries of the 1970s at Conway Hall was the most well attended London Fortean Society event I'd yet to been to. In fact host Scott Wood announced from the stage, to a sold out audience, that it was, by some way, the most popular they'd hosted.
Perhaps slightly overawed by such a large, attentive crowd speaker Gary Parsons was a little nervous at times as he related a tale of a strange period in the 70s when witches and witchcraft became at first a cult, and then a more mainstream, concern.
Parsons felt the roots of this flowering lay, in similar fashion to the second wave feminism of the era, in the counterculture of the late sixties. The Beatles Sergeant Pepper album, The Rolling Stones Their Satanic Majesties Request, and, most of all, The Incredible String Band's acid-folk masterpiece The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter.
The use of psychedelic drugs, the concept of expanded consciousness, and the new interest in Indian religions had all helped bring about an openness to new ideas and experimentation. The then Dr Who (Jon Pertwee) could be seen on television at teatime dealing with black magic in The Daemons while Children of the Stones, often seen as the scariest kids tv show ever, dealt with surprisingly advanced themes of psychic bubbles, time rifts, and folk magic.
Gary wasn't here to talk about that so much as the rather more niche documentaries concerning witchcraft at the time. A not inconsiderable problem being that there's very little footage remaining of them. It's believed the BFI have a treasure trove but it's only on rare occasions that they grant access.
The Power of the Witch, featuring Basingstoke as I was informed by Edward Higgins, is available in its entirety on YouTube and I plan to watch it one day soon. A lot of the other documentaries featured large amounts of nudity but unlike the contemporaneous feminist idea of taking back control of one's own body image this was designed primarily for titillation.
Maxine Sanders featured heavily. After being initiated in 1964 her and husband Alex ran the first training coven, The London Coven, in modern witchcraft from a Notting Hill basement. She appeared in the documentaries Legend of the Witches and Witchcraft 70 which were both touched on, though not in huge detail, in Gary's talk.
Husband Alex went under the craft name Verbius and formed, with Maxine, Alexandrian Wicca. They became minor celebrities in the seventies and would perform rites on stage with Leicester jazz rock band Black Widow who, on their debut album Sacrifice from 1970, sung about Satanism and occultism.
There's so many movements involved in witchcraft, devil worship, and the occult that it all starts to get a bit Judean People's Front/People's Front of Judea. It didn't seem to matter to many of the seventies new devotees to all things Wiccan. You could pick up magazines like Witchcraft in WHSmiths alongside the Beano and the TVTimes.
The few clips of documentaries we were treated to featured nice middle class ladies attempting spells that didn't work and then blaming the presence of cameras and a nude and nubile young lady guiding an equally bare, and blindfolded, young man across rocky pathways and dousing his head in water so he can become more at one with the elements. Like mindfulness. But sexier.
The talk was as frustrating as it was fascinating. I'd like to have heard more about the larger interest in witchcraft that was affecting society at the time, if this in any way precipitated the rise of evangelists like Billy Graham, why the craze was so brief, and, maybe most of all, why so many people are taking an interest in it again. In crazy times people seek crazy solutions? Or, at the very least, escapism.
I feel I need to do a bit more homework before I can write anything even remotely authoritative about the subject but I'd definitely be interested in hearing Gary speak on this subject again and, hopefully, next time I'll be better informed and he won't be so nervous.