Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Hannah Johnston and the New Generation of Teenage Witches

Hannah Johnston facilitated the U.K.'s first teenage Witchcraft research and networking site, http://www.witchwords.net/. Her doctoral thesis investigated the rise of contemporary teenage Witchcraft in the U.K. She is currently Adjunct Professor in Visual and Media Arts at Emerson College, U.S., where she teaches contemporary television studies and cultural theory. Hannah has co-edited and contributed material to the new volume The New Generation Witches: Teenage Witchcraft in Contemporary Culture (Ashgate, 2007) with Peg Aloi.

Morehead's Musings: Hannah, thanks for taking some time to discuss your new book. To begin, can you tell us how you connected with Peg in this collaborative project?

Hannah Johnston:Peg and I, along with various other scholars, were on a panel discussing teenage Witchcraft at the ASANAS conference back in 2002 in Milton Keynes, U.K. Peg and I had already met at a previous conference and realized that our research interests lay in similar areas. As a result of this panel and the discussion it generated amongst various people afterwards (including Jim Lewis who is editing Ashgate Press's 'Controversial New Religions Series'), we realized that there was a depth and breadth of interest to propose an anthology.

Morehead's Musings: Your book focuses on an increasingly visible and growing part of the Wiccan subculture, that of teenage Witches. In the growing field of Pagan studies, how did this group come to your attention?

Hannah Johnston: I think John that the tide has turned for teen Witches. I believe that in many ways we are presently seeing the assimilation of this sub group of the Pagan/ Witchcraft community into the broader adult community - as teens involved in the initial flush of interest come of age and due to the new networks and opportunities available to teenagers' interest. In terms of how this group first came to my attention though, it was in the writing of my undergraduate thesis, whilst researching Witches in film. In anecdotal material online and the Pagan press, films like The Craft and Practical Magic were being discussed in relation to a specifically teen audience who were modelling their spiritual and magical identity on the characters found in these texts. I was also working part time in an occult store at this time, and saw first hand how these texts were inspiring young women to find out more about Wicca and Witchcraft. Consequently, having become aware of the distinctions between teenage Witchcraft and the adult Pagan/Wiccan/Witchcraft communities at the end of the 1990s, I was struck by the emergence of teen Witchcraft as a distinctive articulation of popular culture post-feminism, and I went on to pursue my doctorate in the field, investigating teen Witchcraft as an amalgamation of new religious structures, pop media poaching from alternative beliefs and new age practices and new feminist concepts of 'girl power'.

Morehead's Musings: Can you tell us something about the contributors to your collection of essays in the book?

Hannah Johnston: It is always difficult to 'speak' about vulnerable groups from the outside, and in this sense I mean teens, from the position of an adult subjectivity. Peg and I were very conscious from the outset of the project of not wanting to replicate the often derogatory stance initially taken towards teens from within the adult Pagan community at large - of speaking about them as media dupes, or misguided frivolous youths. Consequently we tried to find a range of voices to discuss teenage witchcraft, from within and from outside the academy, including some teen voices themselves. Therefore we have contributors from a variety of academic disciplines: Denise Cush is a scholar of Religious Education, Ronald Hutton is a Historian, I am a Cultural Studies scholar, etc. Then we have a variety of essays from writers who were instrumental in the orchestration of the teen Witch communities: Matthew Hannam's essay on the establishment of 'Minor Arcana' in the U.K. for example, and Melissa Harrington's essay explores how certain key figures in the U.K. Pagan community found Witchcraft in their teens before the current 'trend.' Then we have essays written by teens - one British and one American, who talk about certain aspects of their teen Witch identity. At points Peg and I wanted to expand this section, but tracking down teens willing to do it was a difficult task.

Morehead's Musings: How might teenage Wicca be different from adults exploring this spiritual pathway?

Hannah Johnston: Well, if I told you that I would be giving the content of the book away! No, this is essentially the focus of the book and the answer to this question is complex and multi-faceted. Suffice it to say that teenage Witchcraft as we have come to describe young practitioners of late 1990's Witchcraft, is not a definable subculture in the traditional sense, it is not a sub-organization or a homogeneous group of practitioners, all practising a certain branch of Witchcraft. But, as my own doctoral research discusses and many of the essays in the book, it is the interconnectedness between pop culture, media and teenage Witchcraft that marks it as a distinctive phase in the evolution of the Pagan community at large and that emphasises certain practices and tenets above others. So for example, there is less emphasis on the politics of Witchcraft and much more on the practical spell casting and ritual form of Witchcraft practice. It is also, as Jim Lewis's essay discusses, a reemphasizing of DIY witchcraft as opposed to the notion of traditions or schools. Teenage Witchcraft in part has come about as a consequence of the solitary practitioner/hedge Witch model of Witchcraft/Wiccan practice due to its very creative and non-hierarchical approach to a relationship with deity and power and also as these teens have in the main been excluded from any of the historical traditions of the Craft. Further, what distinguishes teen Witchcraft from previous waves of youth involvement in the occult are the models of conversion, or the narratives of 'coming in' as discussed by Melissa Harrington and Doug Ezzy and Helen Berger, the forms of inspiration and motivation for becoming involved in Pagan and Witchcraft practise, and the focus for the articulation of this spirituality.

Morehead's Musings: How are teenagers seeking a sense of self-identity through an exploration of this spirituality?

Hannah Johnston: A large majority of interested teens come to Witchcraft as a response to all of those spiritual questions regarding identity and one's place in the world that we encounter at various points of our lives. Many of these teens describe the spirituality of Witchcraft in very active terms - that they are drawn to it due to the discourse of self-empowerment they feel is at the root of its theology.

Morehead's Musings: I detect a reciprocal or synergistic relationship between pop culture and teen Wicca. How are teens being informed by aspects of pop culture where Wicca is concerned, and how are their interests in turn impacting how this is expressed in pop culture?

Hannah Johnson: This is one of the key distinctions between pre-1990s witchcraft conversion narratives and contemporary conversion narratives, and I think it is fair to say that this can be levied towards adults as much as teens. However, due to the expansion of new medias and the interpellation of teens through various media texts (visual and literary) that draw upon tropes of Wicca/Witchcraft, and the increased visibility of Paganism and Wicca/Witchcraft as a spirituality, spaces within popular culture were opened up to enable teenagers to explore the possibilities of identity construction through non-celluloid/television witchcraft.

Morehead's Musings: How do you see teen involvement in Wicca shaping this changing expression of spirituality?

Hannah Johnston: In many ways it has forced a wider discussion about religious education within the Pagan community and specifically about how the adult community should include those under 18s who are interested. I think it is also fair to say that it has also contributed to a much more media and Internet savvy community, due to the volume of teens using the Internet and media as a primary source of inspiration and information.

Morehead's Musings: Hannah, thanks again for your thoughts on this topic. I look forward to the ways in which your book will make an important contribution to Pagan and Wiccan studies.

Hannah Johnston: Thank you, John.

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