"No pictures," she says again as her rose-colored third eye flashes in the overhead light and a green woodland creature with tree branches growing out of its ears offers his ticket at the door. "A lot of our people aren't out yet." Madrone's people are modern-day witches, neo-pagans, and adherents of Wicca. All are devotees of the Earth and the "Old Religion of the Goddess." "The Community is very, very large around here," says Madrone, a practitioner of 11 years. "You might be surprised how many witches are in the Bay Area." A quick head-count estimates the crowd to be an easy thousand. "But you must understand," continues Madrone between hugs and greetings from Community members, "witchcraft is still misunderstood and considered blasphemous by some. We have to respect those still working in secret."
In the Bay Area, individual "Circles" meet continually -- Reclaiming, a highly organized group that attempts to unify spirit and politics, coordinates witch camps, classes, lectures, pilgrimages, and political actions -- but the greater Community usually gathers only for winter and summer solstice and spring and fall equinox. The rituals of Bridgid, Lammas, and Beltaine are said to be effusive but pale next to the Feast of Samhain (pronounced SAH-win). According to Reclaiming, which hosts the Spiral Dance, Samhain, or the Witches' New Year, is a rare period of time when the curtain between the living world and the unseen mysteries is most threadbare.
Once inside the Herbst Pavilion, attendees ranging in age from 5 to 80 journey through a maze of white silk painted with black skulls, finally passing from the world into the "sacred space" through two white-clad witches who wave mugwort branches over each body, intoning: "May you be purified; may you be blessed." Altars line the walls, glimmering with candles and smelling of strong herbs and harvest vegetables. "The Burning Times" lists thousands of witches destroyed for their practices -- Anne Martyn hanged in 1652, Ursula Fray burned in 1587, Ms. Lebler beheaded in 1628, Andrea and Eduardo Maquxtle killed in 1996, 36 Knights Templar tortured to death in 1307. The "Headwaters Altar" is dedicated to environmental activist David "Gypsy" Chain, who was killed recently by a falling tree. "The Fairy Altar" is a tree tied with hundreds of ribbons representing wishes. "The Ancestors' Altar" is covered with prayers, photographs, feathers, roots, mirrors, candles, and pine cones alongside a huge board adorned with skulls and the names of recently deceased Community members.
The crowd settles in, people greeting each other and spreading their blankets in a circle while the chorus sings blessings. Inspired by the moment, a group of squealing children plunge into the center circle and begin spinning. The crowd erupts with elated trills. Starhawk, a major force behind Reclaiming, explains the intricacies of the Spiral Dance: With so many people, we must form a double-strand, like a DNA molecule, the strands of the galaxy weaving in and out of each other. You must be patient. You must meditate. You must not forget to look into the eyes of each person you pass. You will never need drugs again. An energy circle is cast around the building by a witch evoking the four elements: "By the earth that is her body. By the air that is her breath. By the fire that is her spirit. By the waters of the living womb." A stilt-walker clad in white wings spins through the circle. Trapeze artists climb into the air. A group of belly dancers undulates beneath the light of a fire-spinner. A mound of moss on a low cart is dragged into the circle by a stilt-walker in a black cloak and an animal head. Two nearly nude bodies erupt from the earth, twining through each other. The drums pound and the Community raises its arms, palms upward. "You can feel the power," says Shayla Norse, a 22-year-old witch with green eyes and white-blond hair. "Just wait until everyone's flying. It's amazing."
"Who needs deviltry when you've got the Spiral Dance?" agrees Norse's mate, Justin Bowe. "It's transcendent. And grounding. It's better than alcohol. Better than drugs. Better than sex."
"This is what happens when you bring a camera inside," growls a mountain of a man as he snaps off the lens and tosses the transgressing item in the trash. "Some of us like pictures," suggests a young woman standing outside the Power Exchange Halloween Ball -- an explicit sex party held in San Francisco's four-level adult play-space -- wearing showgirl butt-floss and a crown of white feathers. "We're all in costume anyway."
"No fucking cameras!" barks the man before disappearing into the club. Inside the Power Exchange, Halloween costumes serve a dual purpose: Veterans get to take their fantasies to a new level and newcomers have something to hide behind.
In the Medieval Banquet Hall, a buxom serving wench is getting heartily fingered by a man in a Zorro mask. The woman's moans echo throughout the room, drawing a crowd from the Elvis-style pool lounge across the hall. Two silver aliens slide onto a four-poster bed and begin making out amid loud bleeping noises emanating from their control packs. In the Dungeon -- a maze of chain-link fence and archaic torture devices -- a large-breasted woman is stripped nude and tied to a wheel while a young man whips her. Next door, a nurse ties a strange cowboy to a stockade and spanks his balls lightly. A transvestite is strapped to a chair while a mad professor hooks clamps to her nipples. In the Jailhouse, three women lick and tease a cop who has been handcuffed to his own cell. Folks without costumes or inspiration sit in sprawling video-porn rooms masturbating until someone offers to take over.
"I didn't realize it would be so elaborate," says a demure nun. "I mean, I imagined it would be, but I didn't think it would actually be. I don't know what to do now that I'm here." A masked man with tiger-striped shorts offers some pointers.
Upstairs, in the Enchanted Forest, Little Bo Peep sits in a sling while a wolf mounts her from behind. Moans and heavy panting come from tents scattered throughout the campgrounds. Voyeurs wander between the rows, peeking in the net windows. Sitting around a fountain, three construction workers stroke a nearly naked belly dancer while other men try their luck in the Glory Hole Maze, shoving their erect penises through holes with the hopes of something warm and wet waiting on the other side.
"You see, nothing is as important to man as sex," says Danny D., a philosopher-cum-mechanic in a mummy outfit. "Good sex empowers people. Every fucked-up thing in the world happens because of sexual tension -- murder, rape, theft, war. Who would want to buy a gun if they just got laid? No one."
Dane and Sasha are handpicked from the crowd by Marie Powers, the lady behind the lay-out, to be in the Power Exchange costume contest. Although they lose $500 to a Pan-like creature, they seem happy with the chance to show off their wares -- matching devil outfits made out of very little.
"My lady likes to tease," says Dane with a flick of his tail.
During the Slave Auction, Powers and a riotous queen named Climactica sell off a dominatrix for $5,000 slave dollars (equivalent to $40 U.S.), followed by a male submissive for $2,000, a lesbian submissive for $3,000, and a first-time slave girl for $6,000 (massage only). The crowd begins to dwindle as folks start to pair off, trick-or-treating for condoms from a giant human pinata.
"They told me Halloween in San Francisco was wild," says a leather angel from Philadelphia. "Little something for every-one, that's what they told me." Guess they were right.
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By Silke Tudor