October 30th, 2013
03:32 PM ET
By Daniel Burke, Belief Blog Co-editorFollow @BurkeCNN
(CNN) - Like lots of people, when October 31 rolls around, Trey Capnerhurst dons a pointy hat and doles out candy to children who darken the door of her cottage in Alberta.
But she’s not celebrating Halloween. In fact, she kind of hates it.
Capnerhurst says she’s a real, flesh-and-blood witch, and Halloween stereotypes of witches as broom-riding hags drive her a bit batty.
“Witches are not fictional creatures,” the 45-year-old wrote in a recent article on WitchVox.com.
“We are not werewolves or Frankenstein monsters. We do not have green skin, and only some of us have warts.”
Warts or not, many witches say they have mixed feelings about Halloween.
Some look forward to the day when witchcraft is front and center and no one looks askance at big black hats. Others complain that the holiday reinforces negative stereotypes of witches as evil outliers who boil children in black cauldrons.
Capnerhurst falls into the latter camp.
Hanging up witch decorations at Halloween is no better than wearing blackface costumes or taking a slur, like “Redskins,” as the name of your football team, she says.
“Unless one actually is a witch, dressing up as stereotypical witches is bigotry,” Capnerhurst said.
In June, the wife and mother of two started her own church for “traditional” witches called Disir, an old Norse word meaning “matron deities,” she says.
(Capnerhurst draws a distinction between “traditional” witches, like her, who were born into the religion, and Wiccans, most of whom are converts.)
Most Wiccans identify as witches, and they form the largest branch of the burgeoning neo-pagan movement, said Helen A. Berger, a sociologist who specializes in the study of contemporary Paganism and witchcraft at Brandeis University.
A 2008 survey counted about 342,000 Wiccans in the United States and nearly as many who identify simply as “pagans,” a significant increase from the last American Religious Identification Survey, taken in 2001.
Three-quarters of American Wiccans are women, according to Berger.
“It’s harder to train male Wiccans,” Capnerhurst said with a cheery sigh. “Most men just aren’t going to sweep the kitchen and think about sweeping out the bad energy.”
The faith is fiercely individualistic. Although there are umbrella groups like Wisconsin-based Circle Sanctuary, most Wiccans practice their own blends of witchcraft.
After centuries of persecution in Europe and colonial America, modern witches still bear a sharp suspicion of authority. The rede, or ethical statement at the core of Wicca, is: Harm none and do as you will.
Despite the rising popularity of their faith, many Wiccans remain “in the broom closet,” fearful of losing their jobs, their families or their reputations, said Berger and other experts.
Capnerhurst said she was “outed” in 2005 while running as the Green Party’s candidate for local office. A reporter noted the pentacle - a five-pointed star often mistaken as a satanic symbol - hanging around her neck.
“I kind of became the poster girl for paganism,” Capnerhurst said.
But the notoriety came at a cost.
Neighbors have threatened to burn down the house she shares with her family, Capnerhurst says. She’s lost jobs. And people keep asking her whether the “Blair Witch Project,” the 1999 horror movie, is real.
“I’m like, What the frick! No!”
Raising her 12-year-old daughter, Maenwen, as a witch is not easy either, Capnerhurst says, especially around this time of year, when just about every classroom turns into a coven of construction-paper crones and black cats.
In the United States, Circle Sanctuary has founded the Lady Liberty League to advocate for Wiccans' religious freedom and to fight discrimination.
Unlike Capnerhurst, however, some witches see Halloween as a treat, not a trick.
“Considering that I usually slap on a pointy hat at this time of year (and I have a black cat too), I’m fine with the image of the Halloween witch,” wrote Jen McConnel, a poet, novelist and Wiccan from North Carolina, in an e-mail.
“Even though the word ‘witch ‘ is loaded, I have embraced it,” McConnel said, “but it is only one of many hats I wear (pun intended).”
McConnel says she enjoys the yearly confluence of Halloween with Samhain, an ancient Celtic festival that marks the end of the harvest and winter’s coming darkness.
It’s a time when the veil between the living and the dead grows thin, according to Wiccan theology, and spirits can easily cross the divide.
Many Wiccans hold “dumb suppers,” to which they invite deceased ancestors, making sure to prepare their favorite foods, said Jeanet Lewis, a witch who lives in Northern Virginia.
“It’s a meditative, silent meal,” Lewis said.
Other witches light memorial candles and cast spells for the new year.
What do witches wish for? The same things as everyone else, apparently.
“Health, wealth and love,” Capnerhurst said with a laugh. “Every single spell falls into one of those three categories.”
Even though she dislikes Halloween, Capnerhurst has found a way to blend it with her own sacred days, Samhain.
According to some historians, at this time of year, as the days grow darker, ancient Celts would don costumes as stand-ins for deceased spirits, going door-to-door and performing tricks in exchange for treats.
Capnerhurst prefers to see the children who come to her door on October 31 as a re-enactment of that ritual.
“I’m doing my ritual and they get candy,” she said. “Everybody wins!”
And even though she bristles at the thought that some neighbors might abhor her religion, Capnerhurst tries to take it all in good cheer.
As October 31 approaches each year, she places a sign on her lawn that reads, "This House Practices Safe Hex."
About this blog
The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.