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Charlotte Professor Explores 400 Years of American Magic With New Podcast

UNC Charlotte professor's podcast encourages open dialogue about magic

A headshot of Heather Freeman smiling.
UNC Charlotte professor of digital media, Heather Freeman (Toby Shearer).

As the hot, Southern heat becomes the crisp air that signals the transition of seasons, it’s hard not to think of all the things that go hand-in-hand with fall, otherwise known as spooky season.

While trick-or-treating, hayrides and horror movie marathons are prominent features of October, there’s one theme that underscores it all: magic, witchcraft, sorcery and enchantment.

Magic can mean different things to different people. For many, it’s reserved for those fantastical worlds seen on screen, but for others, it’s not so far removed. For Heather Freeman, its proximity to our world is something she seeks to explore in her podcast Magic in the United States: 400 Years of Magical Beliefs, Practices, and Cultural Conflicts.

The podcast, which explores spiritual and mysterious concepts throughout the country starting from the 1600s to the present day, launched on Oct. 24, with a new episode airing every Tuesday.

The podcast is about more than spooky stories, about witches, however. Freeman, a professor of digital media at UNC Charlotte, is using the medium to explore certain ideas that may not have always been considered magical but were rather rooted in tradition.

“It’s basically looking at the history of magical and spiritual magical practices in the United States,” Freeman, who is a professor of Digital Media at UNC Charlotte, told Queen City Nerve. “I have to put big quotes around ‘magic’ because a big part of the series is even asking the question, ‘What is magic?’”

Nor does the podcast waste its time trying to prove the unprovable.

“We’re sort of looking at magic and magical religious practices, spiritual practices, in terms of what people do and not worry so much about what people believe,” she continues. “It’s certainly not getting into what’s real. I can’t answer that.”

Some of the practices that the podcast will explore include Wiccan practices, Hoodoo Rootwork, and the Lucumí religion, also known as Santeria, just to name a few.

Practitioners and experts will be featured to speak on their respective concepts.

“[We’re] looking at those practices as a way of understanding American cultural histories and another lens to look at different patterns that we’ve seen in American history in relation to race and class and gender,” Freeman said.

There will also be some dabbling in true crime, as one episode dives into the brutal 1928 murder of a Pennsylvania Dutch folk healer.

The pandemic’s influence on modern day magic

Freeman got the idea for this particular podcast during the pandemic, though her research for it began back in 2016 while working on a different project.

That’s when she began interviewing dozens of academic experts and magic practitioners from around the world, even spending a month in residency at the Museum for Witchcraft and Magic in Boscastle, Cornwall, in 2018.

“I like reading a lot of different things,” she said. “In 2016, I was reading about both the early modern witch trials and scholarship that was more recent about those [trials]. And then also, I’m really interested in technology. So I was reading about social bots, which, in 2016, was the hot topic.”

A social bot refers to an algorithm set in place by social media sites such as Facebook or Twitter, to create fake accounts that may participate in and potentially sway a particular conversation. Oftentimes, their participation is harmful. They’re pretty commonplace now, and are more easily spotted than in 2016, but at the time they were critical in spreading misinformation.

“I started to see this poetic parallel between the witch hunts [of the 1600s] and the social bot in terms of how they infiltrated a community and caused havoc,” she said.

That parallel inspired Freeman’s work on a feature film called Familiar Shapes. The project, however, fell victim to COVID-19 and aired as a podcast in 2020 instead.

Freeman used four years’ worth of research and interviews with more than 30 international scholars in fields like history, computer science and religious studies to dig into disinformation campaigns of history and today, finding parallels between what happens on Facebook today and the witch hunts of the 1600s.

“The pandemic hit and my funding got frozen, and we were all in lockdown. We all know how that went,” Freeman said. “But I needed to get that project done by the end of 2020. So I pivoted like a lot of people, and I just converted it to a podcast.”

The topic only became more timely with the onset of COVID-19, as people began to spend more time online, where disinformation and conspiracy theories proliferated and became more popular.

A photo of one piece in a series of planetary workings resulted in these automatic drawings and paintings.
“Jovian Working,” 2021 (Artwork by Heather Freeman)

A short animated film version of Familiar Shapes was eventually released in 2021.

After she completed that project, Freeman was inspired to explore spiritual practices more deeply.

“I started thinking about, what did I really want to do a deliberate podcast about?” she said. “And over the pandemic, I got to meet online all these amazing people all over the world, all over the US, who were magical practitioners of different practices. I was fascinated by just how different these practices were, the plurality of them, how hidden they all are … And so I started thinking about, ‘Well, this could be a really interesting way of exploring those dynamics through this lens of magic.’”

She began to consider the diversity of the magic practitioners she had come across during her studies — many of whom represented a range of different economic backgrounds, racial and gender identities, class identities, etc.

“It really spans the gamut. So I started putting together a proposal for a podcast series to do this project looking at magic in the United States,” she recalled. “There’s tons of podcasts about witchcraft, about ceremonial magic, and then also about religious practices that get called magic. But historically, calling these practices magic is a racist pejorative.”

Freeman said exploring why certain practices get called magic while the word “religion” is reserved for more mainstream practices is at the heart of her podcast.

“This question of ‘What is religion?’ is really challenging,” she said. “If most people understand religion as one of these major monotheisms, they’re missing a lot.”

Unveiling America’s history of spiritual practices

Because Magic in the United States seeks to explore religious literacy and what is recognized as “magic,” Freeman showcases a diverse range of practices to help highlight the similarities between what is considered religion and what is considered magic.

“Most Americans can’t really name that many religions,” she said. “We name Christianity. There’s Islam. There’s Buddhism and Judaism. Those are sort of the big four that people can think of off the top of their head. But there’s hundreds, if not thousands, of religions in the US.”

Freeman enlists the help of several practitioners for the podcast, including Rev. Dr. Aaron Davis, an ordained Christian minister of the United Church of Christ denomination and consecrated Bishop of The Renewal Church.

Davis, who grew up in National Baptist and AME Zion denominations, is now a Santero and priest of Chango within the Lucumi Orisha tradition.

“I think this project is important because there is a lot of ignorance and misinformation out there about indigenous practices generally, but especially American folk magical practices,” he told Queen City Nerve.

“I think more people need to know that this country has its own beautiful magical traditions that exemplify the best of what it means to be American in America — especially in this time where our country and world seems to be getting more divided by the day.”

David is featured on the first episode of the podcast, to be released Oct. 24.

Freeman also speaks with Thorn Mooney, a PhD candidate at UNC Chapel Hill who has a Masters in religious studies.

Mooney authored the book Traditional Wicca: A Seeker’s Guide.

“The world is full of magic,” she said. “The idea that it’s only people on the fringe engaging in these traditions is completely false, and it’s important to me that we create more understanding and compassion around the people who engage in them.

“You know witches. You know magicians. You know polytheists,” she continued. “If you think you don’t, it’s because you either aren’t paying attention or because those people haven’t felt safe enough around you to let you in on the secret.”

A piece in a series that combines textual notes and mixed media paintings and drawings derived from the original Öccane.
‘What is your name?’ 2023 (Artwork by Heather Freeman)

Mooney was drawn to appear on the podcast due to the lack of religious literacy and scholarly discussion she’s seen surrounding the topic.

“Not very many scholars study and write about magic,” she said. “There’s still a bit of a taboo in place in wider academic communities for people perceived as being on the ‘fringe,’ and with so much concern about the academic job market and the competitiveness of graduate programs and tenure-track jobs, it’s still a big risk to be ‘the magic guy.’”

She has seen the topic discussed more openly in recent years, however, both in academic circles and in the public realm.

“The general public are always curious about magic, witches, ghosts, and other things that seem supernatural, scary, or weird,” she said. “I’m also a practitioner of magic myself and the fact that I’m both an insider and a scholar grants me a level of nuance and care that I think appeals to general readers and listeners.”

For her, there is no clear distinction to describe what is magic or religion.

“Historically, ‘magic’ has been something of a dumping ground for those peoples, practices, and traditions that are simply non-normative, marginalized, or misunderstood,” she said. “We call things magic when we don’t like or don’t trust them.”

For Davis, it’s more of a blend of the two.

“To me, these parts of who I am are a blend of religion and magic,” he said. “Many of them require devotion to spirits and to God, for the power of the tradition to be able to properly manifest. Other times, needs in my personal life or in the community around me, require me to do magic to alleviate or resolve very practical issues.”

He emphasizes that a practitioner in modern times needs to be effective, getting results while following clearly defined tradition.

“The difference for me is that the devotional/religious aspects are more about my personal relationship with Spirit, while the sorcerous side is more about getting things done and helping others in their life situations,” he said. “Religion also by the nature of the word requires you to bind yourself to a community and its ideas, whereas sorcery has a more quid pro quo orientation.”

Considering that, for many Americans, anything outside of the predominant religions is considered magic — and usually considered such with a stigma attached — Freeman, Mooney, and Davis all hope this podcast will encourage an open dialogue.

“I think people need to see that there has never been one narrative, including in spirituality, religion, and occultism,” Davis said. “Hearing all the different ideologies also educates people on the reality that all American folk magical practices have their character largely based on what the people who practice it had to go through to make it here.”

He pointed out that life in America has always been hard for a majority of folks, and since that is not going to change due to technological advances, he hopes rooting the study of magic in history can help give it context for folks who may not otherwise see the bigger picture.

“Whether it was the harsh weathers of rural Pennsylvania threatening a Powwower’s livestock or a slave working the roots to destroy a slavemaster’s sexual desires for her prepubescent daughter, the harsh conditions of early American life shaped our folk magical traditions,” he continues. “I really hope that people are more encouraged to be inclusive and open-minded in their thinking and behaviors. Spiritual practice should make us more open, not more closed.”

Mooney said she’d like to see people come to a realization about what they consider to be strange and what practices have been normalized.

“Magic is as much about creative expression as it is anything else, and it enriches the lives of the people who practice it,” she said. “If it’s weird — and, okay, sometimes it’s weird — it’s not any weirder than what mainstream religions are up to when you look at them critically.”

Freeman, who grew up in an atheist household, wants to teach people that it can be a fun experience to talk to people about their religious experiences without having to proselytize or evangelize.

“It’s a way of sharing your lived experience, and so it’s a little bit sad sometimes that we’re surrounded by such amazing facets of cultural heritage and we don’t talk about them,” she said.

As far as what she considers to be magic, Freeman doesn’t have a concrete answer and, for that matter, neither do we.

“It’s one of those things like, every day, every episode I edit, my definition of it changes,” she said. “I think the word ‘religion’ is a political category for sure, and as a society, we look at magic as something antithetical to religion. I don’t think that’s really fair to magic, but I think that’s what happens from the practitioner standpoint.”

But, as she’s said from the beginning, the goal was never to define magic.

Ultimately, the goal is to make the world a better place.

“If I can help people hold open a little bit more space for those conversations in their lives, that will ultimately help religious literacy broadly, and that’ll just make us, I think, a more equitable society, a more open-minded society.”

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