Halloween is the new year, or Samhain, for the continent's tens of thousands of witches and other pagans. It is the day they believe the veil separating the living from the dead is thinnest--and communication with the spirits of the departed is most auspicious.
"Pagans are thinking about the extremely high number of people who have died very abruptly since Sept. 11," says Grove Harris, project manager of Harvard University's Pluralism Project, which highlights the multireligious nature of North America. Harris also happens to be a witch.
While children will go trick-or-treating on Wednesday night, pagans will be trying, Harris says, to both honor and communicate with the spirits of the more than 5,000 people believed killed in the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.
"This time of year is about going into the darkness and seeing where you are with the blessed ones who have passed on," says Harris, a graduate of Harvard Divinity School. Many pagans will try to connect with the recent dead through seances, psychic channeling, and what Harris calls "meditative listening."
Pagans make up an eclectic community devoted to ancient religions, many of which revere the Earth as Mother. There are anywhere from 200,000 to 1 million such neo-pagans in North America, estimates The Pluralism Project. Two-thirds of them are women.
Barnes and Noble estimates the pagan book market at more than $10 million a year. TV shows and movies such as "Sabrina the Teenage Witch" and "The Craft" are capitalizing on the growing trend. Hot spots are New England and the West Coast of the United States and Canada.
Pagans stress they have nothing to do with Satanism, and do not worship evil. In fact, this Halloween, with missiles hitting Afghanistan to root out the Muslim extremists suspected of attacking the United States, many of North America's witches are holding healing circles for peace.
Since most branches of paganism maintain that all of life is interconnected, Harris said most members are inclined to shun violence. Says Harris: "There's a psychic level at which pagans believe, if anyone is hurt, it hurts me."
This Halloween, in Salem, Mass., site of anti-witch hysteria in the 17th century, terrorism and its repercussions are at the front of many pagans' minds. U.S. flag posters dot shop windows emblazoned with "Goddess Bless America."
Another change since the attack is more people are seeking potions, charms, candles and spells that will protect them and foster love. The products are designed, says Cabot, author of "Power of the Witch," to "neutralize" enemies, not destroy them.
Cabot is cautious about fully supporting the U.S.-led bombing of Afghanistan, since she's firmly committed to a commonly held pagan ethic: "Do no harm."
As the display in the Salem Witch Museum makes clear, witches believe, "Everything you do comes back to you three times."
The Salem Witch Museum also stresses that witches long have been victims of the kind of scapegoating that more recently targeted communists, Japanese-Americans and homosexuals. In light of the terrorist attacks, Harris says witches are recognizing Muslims are the latest to suffer from the public's negative stereotypes.
The suicide hijackers' assault on the United States was horrible, Harris says. But without being Pollyannas, Cabot and Harris say, rebirth can emerge from such dreadful suffering. Pagans try to be "co-creators" with the divine to make the world a better place.
Harris says they take responsibility for themselves and try to improve the world by following their principles: Do no harm, resist anger, be merry within, remain vigorous, and bring politics and spirituality together.
In light of such activist witchcraft philosophy, Harris says, "I don't think it's ever too late to work for peace."