There’s a dizzying array of podcasts dedicated to the occult, from everyday practitioners tapped into all sorts of arcane traditions to historical overviews from outsiders. Although there are plenty of femme witch-centric broadcasts to tune into, all with their own charms, Pam Grossman’s The Witch Wave stands out among the pointy-hatted crowd. Grossman is a writer, curator, and lecturer who I’ve come to think of as a mystical Terry Gross — her mellifluous voice plays a major part in warding off my Sunday Scaries as she interviews everyone from Jinkx Monsoon to Circe author Madeline Miller, alongside witchy experts Rachel True, art adviser/curator and color magic witch Sarah Potter, and astrologer Jessica Lanyadoo.
In addition to keeping a lively lecture schedule and maintaining the art and occult blog Phantasmaphile for well over ten years, Grossman’s second book,Waking the Witch, flies onto shelves today. In it, she writes eloquently about witchy fine artists like Hilma af Klint, whose Guggenheim retrospective captivated museum visitors, the feminist underpinnings of The Wizard of Oz, Macbeth’s weird sisters, and more.
I met with Grossman in a tiny tea shop in the East Village to chat about pop occulture, what it’s like to marry a Muggle, and “Grand High Witch” RuPaul.
What kind of reader do you hope to attract with Waking the Witch, beyond the witch community?
When I was writing this book, it was important to me that it wasn’t just for people who practice witchcraft or even necessarily identify as witches. Absolutely, I want those people to read the book too, but the witch is an archetype that resonates with feminists, it resonates with artists, it resonates with anybody who I believe is tired of being told that women are supposed to be passive and non-dynamic. My theory is that the reason we’re seeing so much of the occult and magic and these figures in the zeitgeist lately is partially because people who are creating the current zeitgeist — TV, media, music, fashion — are all of a generation that were the outsider kids being weird, reading all of these creepy books.
I think that’s definitely part of it, and certainly when I was growing up in the ’90s, there was the third wave of feminism happening.
There was interest in the occult, in Buffy and Charmed and The Craft, and all of the pop occulture that was happening, not to mention there were so many comic books and so many bands that I loved that had an occult tinge to them. My holy trinity was Tori Amos, PJ Harvey, and Björk, and I read Sandman comics and I loved Alan Moore, so I think that’s part of it. Whatever subculture you grow up with, once you start becoming the people that are making the culture, you are going to have homages to that, you’re going to infuse whatever you’re making with the things that inspire you.
But I actually think it’s bigger than just that. A few of the reasons that witchcraft is on the rise right now is that it is distinctly anti-patriarchal, and whether you love witches from a spiritual standpoint or a political standpoint or a cultural standpoint, it’s a symbol that rebellious women can latch onto because it symbolizes resistance against hegemony and oppression by the white cis heteronormative patriarchy.
I’m familiar with the term “pop occulture,” but can you define it for me?
To me, pop occulture is when anything with an occult, a magical or esoteric bent to it, suddenly starts appearing in fashion or film or music or TV shows — when the mass culture starts to incorporate some of these threads of the occult into their story lines and symbols. The Chilling Adventures of Sabrinais a great example of pop occulture, not just because she’s a witch, but because the writers have done their research. They’re name-checking famous occult grimoires, and they’re name-checking alchemists and real historical figures that magic nerds like me get really excited about. They’re using a lot of the symbols and the aesthetics of the occult but doing it in this fun, pop-culture way.
It’s really interesting, too, to see how the language of magic is surrounding us all the time. The idea that “manifesting” is something that Oprah says now, and it’s pretty amazing when you think about how magical of a word that is. So many of my pop-culture heroes, like RuPaul, talk all the time about shape-shifting and how their art is a spell or how they’re using their creativity to transform their identities or transform the world. The idea of glamour is a magical idea. The words “glamour” and “grimoire” and “grammar” all come from the same root, so you can really see this idea of creativity and magic being interlinked.