It’s Witch Week at Refinery29 Canada, and we’re exploring the modern world of witchcraft. Each day, we'll examine a different aspect of the culture — as well as the camaraderie, controversy, and accoutrement that come with it.
This week in toil and trouble: Two Canadian women have been arrested and charged with witchcraft-related offences. The first is a 32-year-old fortune-teller in Milton, Ont., who police say bilked multiple victims out of tens of thousands. The second is a 27-year-old psychic from Toronto, whose arrest follows a yearlong investigation. With Halloween (aka witch New Year’s) around the corner, here’s everything you need to know about the laws around witchcraft, TV’s binge-worthy new witches, and why more women than ever want in on the occult.
Two women arrested for witchcraft! Wait — since when is it illegal to be a witch?
The police did arrest two Ontario women last week, but the headlines are misleading, or at least over simplified. The offence in question is not practicing witchcraft (which hasn’t been a crime in Canada since before the criminal code was written), but faking it for the purposes of fraud. Per the criminal code, it’s illegal to fraudulently pretend to use witchcraft or to fraudulently tell fortunes for money.
In these latest instances, police say both women were running “evil blessing scams,” a pretty well-established grift where the perp will convince a vulnerable individual that they or someone they love has been cursed or that their home has been overtaken by evil spirits. These schemes generally play out over a long period of time and victims may hand over huge amounts of money and/or personal belongings.
I just had my tarot cards read last week. Was that illegal?
No. Though your confusion is understandable. In general, the authorities don’t get involved in financial exchanges between consenting adults, meaning you’re allowed to spend your money in whatever questionable way you want, whether that’s a tarot-card reading, celebrity-endorsed vitamin supplements, or Lotto 6/49. There is no dollar amount that dictates criminal activity. Nor is the validity of the service a deciding factor since that largely comes down to personal beliefs. Instead, police examine evidence and use common sense to determine if a crime has been committed. The word fraudulent is also significant. In both of the recent arrests, the cases involved large amounts of money (up to $600,000 from one individual victim), and false claims about where the money was going.
Why bother charging these women with witchcraft instead of just fraud?
It’s a good question. And one likely to become moot in the near future. Last year the Liberal government introduced a motion to repeal the part of the criminal code that that references witchcraft — part of a general sweep of outdated “zombie laws,” a term for “dead” laws that continue to exist alongside the laws of the living. That motion just had its third reading in court and is expected to pass soon.
Until then, police say one good reason to charge a person specifically with a witchcraft-related offence is it helps to raise awareness around this particular type of swindle and encourages more victims to come forward. Counterpoint: The current law is offensive to your average law-abiding witch since it reinforces stereotypes that link witchcraft to criminal activity, and harkens back to a time when witches were the victims of harassment and persecution.
Is it a coincidence that all of this is going down within days of Halloween?
If you want to talk crazy coincidences, what about the fact that both Canadian women accused of witchcraft — Dorie Stevenson from Milton, Ont., and Samantha Stevenson from Toronto — have the same last name! (Police are currently looking into any possible connections.) As for the timing, it is indeed a fluke, but it will definitely give Canada’s occult community a lot to talk about this week as it celebrates the highest of unholy holidays on Wednesday. Per the pagan calendar, Halloween is akin to New Year’s Eve, when the veil between the human world and the spirit world is at its thinnest. Which means it’s a good time to communicate with spirits, set intentions for the year ahead, and celebrate being a (wooo-hooo) witchy woman.
It seems like a lot of young women are dabbling in the dark arts these days. A friend of mine just bought a set of healing crystals. Is she a witch?
You should probably ask her, since one’s witch status is mostly a matter for self-determination. Different witches connect to the craft in different ways and engage in varying levels of devotion. For some it’s a religious endeavour (Wicca is currently among the fastest-growing religions in North America). For others, being a witch is a more secular spirituality.
It’s true that the culture has gone mainstream over the last several years, and has found an enthusiastic audience in millennial women. Yes, there is the trend factor, but the connection is more than just aesthetic. A lot of recent converts embrace witchcraft as a form of wellness and self-care — me time with dark twist. For others, being a witch is a form of feminism and empowerment. Witchcraft tends to bubble up every couple of decades, during times of wider cultural chaos, which makes the current season of the witch pretty self-explanatory.
Is that also why we’re seeing so many witches in pop culture right now?
That’s definitely part of it. Both the Charmed reboot and Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (aka, the teenage witch) combine feminism, the supernatural, and ’90s nostalgia — so basically everything that’s trendy on TV at the moment. The latest season of American Horror Story stars Sarah Paulson as a coven leader, and in the upcoming movie Susperia, Tilda Swinton plays the headmaster of a girls’ dance academy, who is really a — yup — practitioner of the craft. Hocus Pocus just turned 25, the musical Wicked is 15, and Taylor Swift may or may not have gotten her witch on while performing at the recent AMAs. So yes, witches officially the new vampires. All the badassery with less blood-sucking sounds pretty good.