The Witch In All Of Us
When I was 12 I cast a spell on my mom so she’d let me to go my friend Seth’s Bar Mitzvah. It was from The Good Spell Book, which I found in the sale bin at Barnes & Noble, and even though a few pages had been ripped out it still had instructions on how to bend someone to your will. I sat on the floor of my uncle’s old bedroom in my grandparents’ house, with a pink ribbon and a candle and some sort of scented oil and made my Intentions clear to whoever was listening. A few weeks later, she relented and said she’d send me on a bus back early from our beach vacation to go to the Bar Mitzvah, but by that point I felt too guilty about everything I had done to take her up on it.
I wasn’t raised with any religion — -outside of having A Very Secular Christmas, my parents were more about teaching me about the different options and letting me make up my own mind. It was an aspect of my childhood I appreciated, though I could be a real neckbeard about it. I was raised to value logic, I’d say to myself. I don’t need an imaginary friend in the sky to keep me happy. You could hear the word “sheeple” stuck to the sides of my tongue. However, in a lot of ways I was predisposed to becoming a witch: I have fantastic, varied taste in music. My birthday is two days before Halloween, meaning every birthday party featured witches and ghosts and lots of black. I grew up in the 90s, when American pop culture seemed obsessed with the occult. I am an only child, so days of solitude and reflection, often set to music, were no problem — -sitting in my window and staring at the trees until I was convinced I could feel them breathe was a common pastime.
None of this would have happened if it hadn’t been for Practical Magic and its soundtrack.
Practical Magic came out in 1998, two years after The Craft, five years after Hocus Pocus, and two weeks before my 12th birthday. If you’re not familiar with it, it tells the story of two witch sisters, Sally and Gillian Owens (Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman) who accidentally kill Gillian’s abusive boyfriend, resurrect him, and then kill him again, all while living in the most perfect house with their aunts. The family had a curse put on them that said any man that falls in love with an Owens woman would be doomed to die, but of course, they break the curse and Sally falls in love with a hot sheriff and a group of woman literally reduce a man to dust and sweep him away. I’m not sorry if any of these are spoilers. You’ve had time.
It got not-great reviews, most of which accused it of being scatterbrained and too pretty, but it captivated me. The witches seemed normal in their complexities and humanity. They weren’t creepy and mean (The Craft), goofy and ugly (Hocus Pocus) or blonde and suburban (Sabrina the Teenage Witch). Their witchcraft wasn’t about summoning gods or stopping time or talking cats; it was normcore witchcraft. It was about listening to “The Coconut Song” while drinking haunted tequila. It was about lighting a candle or stirring your coffee with your mind. It was about just being aware of what was around you enough to tweak it a bit. And when you’re a 12-year-old girl, about the only power you do have is awareness. You are not treated like much in the outside world, but you know how to observe, and the idea that you could turn those observations to power was quite literally magical to me. For the first time, I felt the potential to connect to something bigger than myself, just by being myself.
I felt the same about the soundtrack — -its variety is exactly what caused me to play it every night as I fell asleep. It starts off, perhaps a bit predictably, with a Stevie Nicks song, but then jumps right into Faith Hill’s “This Kiss”, a song I would have completely turned my nose up at had it caught me even a month later. After that, much more So-Cal pop punk. Even then I played down how much I enjoyed the way it let me fantasize about what kissing would be like. My one spin-the-bottle chance at a kiss had been denied when the bottle landed on me and the boy flat out said “ew.” It was at a Halloween party, and I was dressed as a witch.
I’d like to think that I would have come across Marvin Gaye in due time, or maybe I’m just embarrassed at the utter Whiteness of my introduction to him (addendum: my 2nd introduction would be the pajama-dance montage to “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” in Stepmom). Still, “Got To Give It Up” creeped me out with how much I wanted to live in it. Whenever it comes on I am possessed by the spirit of Nicole Kidman, dancing by the pool in a velvet tank top and a snake tattoo, too sexy for a partner. And I most definitely would have come across “A Case of You,” as my mom is Joni Mitchell’s #1 fangirl, but discovering it on my own allowed me to listen and imagine I was complicated enough to love, or at least interest. If this music tells a story, that story is inconstant and scatterbrained. It is unpredictable. It is, dare I say, like life itself.
There were other albums at that age that were busy shaping my musical taste, like Jagged Little Pill and Americana and Dude Ranch, but none other expanded it so quickly and so drastically. There was a song for every person I wanted to become, whether it was the sexy mistress or the bubbling goofball or the dark punk or the self-serious poet. In the solitude of my room I imagined I could become them all at once, any voices, external or internal, telling me I couldn’t were unable to break my boombox’s spell. Inside the soundtrack I was an uncontainable force, inhabiting every drop of a personality growing inside me, allowed to be everything at once. My Walkman allowed me to take this feeling with me sometimes, on the bus or as a boost during lunch period, a reminder of what was possible before history class with that teacher who seemed unable to stop glancing at our boobs. If I made it through, I could be rewarded again with the feeling that I was somehow more.
I started small, with the discount spell book and a bottle of ylang-ylang oil my mom’s friend gave me to use as perfume. I’d light candles by my bed at night, staring into the base of the flame, repeating my wishes in my head. I’d fall into a meditative sleep before, presumably, my mom came in and blew out the candle, lest I burn our apartment building down. I convinced my grandparents to let me plant an herb garden in their backyard so I could teach myself to, I don’t know, brew tinctures? I never got a Ouija board though — — those were for posers.
I took The Good Spell Book with me that summer to our family’s trip down the Jersey Shore, where I discovered a hippie nonsense magic shop (technical term) in the heart of the quaint Victorian town. I made my mom take me there constantly, just so I could smell every stick of incense, flip through every horoscope book, and wonder if New Age music would help me focus my spirituality. I eventually bought a pack of tarot cards, a book about the zodiac, and a bunch more essential oils. I’d draw stars in the sand and write red wishes onto pieces of paper that I’d burn in candle flames, while my family watched the US Open in our rental house.
For the first time, I had a ghost of an identity, which I quickly used as a shield to experiment with things I was too afraid to claim outright. I started wearing black and velvet and The Gap’s “Dream” solid perfume just because I was a Scorpio and Scorpios are sexy, certainly not because I was growing curious about my own sexuality. Having a moon in Virgo and a rising sign of Capricorn explained why I was cold and had built up armor that nobody could penetrate. Being a Fire Tiger in the Chinese zodiac was the reason I couldn’t just have a casual conversation like a normal fucking person. My tarot readings could easily say I wasn’t shy, just thoughtful, or that my inner world was so vivid that I didn’t have time for an outer one. It wasn’t just an identity, it was an excuse. Things could be explained by my lack of intentions if I wanted to punish myself, or the stars if I wanted to absolve myself of blame.
As much as I wanted to control the universe, I spent most of my spells on myself. I tied ribbons and cut paper for happiness and love and confidence, waiting for the day it’d stick. If I planted an onion bulb with his name written in the bottom he’d pay attention to me, or maybe it’ll be when I smell this rose at sunrise. If I buried the right doll a goddess would appear to cut a slit in my thigh and vacuum the fat out. If I lit the right candle it would fill me with its fire and warmth and I would have opinions and remember things and stop being a tissue paper person with the wind unable to find anything in me worth going up against. If I lit the right candle I’d exist the way I wanted to, without needing to hide behind my zodiac or my tarot predictions. The right spell would remove my need for spells.
Was there supposed to be a rock bottom for this? There wasn’t. Like most pre-teen obsessions, it made way for something else, maybe that yo-yo craze or learning to play guitar. The spell books are now somewhere in an attic, or were given away, and my grandparents repurposed the garden to grow fat zucchini. The need for spells never really stopped — -I still find myself thinking the right combination of words and actions will get me that job or shave my belly off — — but the practice did. I had focused, I had lost myself in the ritual and the material, and came out changed. This would have happened whether or not I had seen Practical Magic, because 12 is the age that change happens, but this is how I got there.
I found myself looking forward, assessing what I could bring of my witchcraft with me, believing the zodiac was sort of silly but really enjoying all these dark clothes I made my parents buy for me. I tried allowing myself to be sexual and thoughtful. It worked a little, and then it worked a little more. I tried to submerge myself in my deepest thoughts and see what I found, and I gave myself permission to bring more to the surface. I kept observing, and the observations transformed themselves into opinions, and having opinions gave me confidence to have more, and to say them aloud, and to not always back down. And to me, it was all as if by magic.
Jaya Saxena is writer and professional Prince impersonator.