Reminiscing on My Time Dabbling in the Occult
“That was the fun of the unknown, after all, the anticipatory ‘What if?'”
The name of the store was “Possibilities,” which I frequented with my friend at the time, Kara, the only Pisces in my life I’ve ever befriended. It sat next to a therapist’s office right off Pittston Avenue in Scranton, a therapist I visited only once at my mother’s urging after my parents divorced, but that’s not what this is about (although the timing of traumatic childhood event and thinking I was a witch pairs nicely, like spicy red wine and a good cut of meat.)
Possibilities was an independently owned shoebox bookshop specializing in Wiccan wares: mythological literature, ocean-scented candles and patchouli oils in tiny plastic vials, cauldrons and jars of powders, glittery bookmarks and greeting cards with depictions of fairies, straight out of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. On my 8th grade budget, I doubt I purchased much from the shop besides the sandalwood incense sticks I burned on a wooden holder in my bedroom at the end table I draped in a pashmina, a preteen shrine of anything and everything stars and moons and spellcraft.
By Kara and I’s second or third visit, however, we were less interested in the baskets of the Farmers’ (Witches’) Almanacs (Communist Manifestos), and more intrigued with something else – the allure of a strange little room in the back hallway of the store that sat across from the restroom and was marked “Employees Only.” It didn’t have a door, but rather, a gauzy lavender curtain hanging in the frame with the flicker of a single golden candle illuminating it from behind. Séances, tarot readings, a fortune teller and her crystal ball, a portal to another dimension…were all things we surmised were behind it. A simple looksy-daisy could have cleared up our suspicions – but no – we were in eighth grade and acting off the high of the Harry Potter movies and raging pituitary glands, instead choosing to keep whatever was behind the curtain on a purgatorial pedestal, allowing it to remain shrouded in mystery.
That was the fun of the unknown, after all, the anticipatory What if? as I stood at the cash register, thumbing through the silky black bags of smooth runes with instructions written in Papyrus font on creamy parchment paper, one eye sizing up that curtain and all the possibility that lie behind it.
My thoughts of otherworldly beings outside of me, like most children, were probably born out of the forced, misguided beliefs in white-bearded male figures: “Santa Clause” and “God,” to name a few. Non-humans followed suit, joining the creepy, omnipresent ranks to monitor my good (and bad) behavior: the Tooth Fairy, the Leprechaun, the Easter Bunny. I pictured these imaginary beings as bored, translucent figures hovering in an invisible canopy realm suspended from my bedroom ceiling, watching me masturbate and choosing to let that one slide when it came time for Judgment (Christmas) Day.
Horror movies that I knew existed (but never watched) and a specific, visceral Halloween memory of the neighborhood haunted house that had a decapitated head and fountain of blood on the front lawn primed me for the more sinister supernatural creatures amidst us: zombies, aliens, ghosts, and the Devil himself. (I’ll never forget in CCD class, the nun cracked my black crayon in half and threw it in the trash during coloring time, because, and I quote, “That’s the Devil’s color!” When I told my Mom that night, she laughed, inquiring, “And what color was her habit?” Mic drop.)
The thought of ghosts terrified me the most, though, because it put the idea of death and the afterlife into my head when it wasn’t there before: Can my dead Grandma see me masturbate, too? Are there children ghosts? Dog ghosts? Will they try to harm me? Do ALL dead things become ghosts? Will I be a ghost, too? What other spirits are in this house? Did that baseball really just fall off my shelf by itself or was it the Ghost of Bloody Mary? Swapping spooky stories about prom night car accident victims turned poltergeists and half-dead girls whose heads were only kept on by a ribbon were staples in my backyard tent sleepovers, and in combination with my glow-in-the-dark Ouija board (with which we always tried, for whatever reason, to summon the ghost of Dale Earnhardt), I became more neurotic than I always was, rounding corners in my house like a trained operative, ready to flee at the sight of what I conjured up in my head to be the scariest image of a ghost there ever was: a hovering, ancestral woman dressed in a jet black, floor-sweeping, head to toe ensemble, a hooded, endless void where her face should be. I still can’t look at images of The Nun without nearly shitting my pants.
Strangely, real-life horrors scared me far less than the prospect of a chain-rattling ghoul in my attic. An urban legend about the shanty apartment down the dead-end road being home to a cackling evil witch and her cauldron was somehow more exciting than the literal drug ring taking place there. The tragic, real-life Scranton story of the 1973 abduction and murders of Freach and Keen (used as fear-bait by our teachers to never play hooky unless you literally wanted to end up dead in a ditch) was overshadowed by me feeling the “presence” of the made-up hooded woman in black following me down to the basement where the laundry machine was. There was a suicide-by-hanging off the baseball backstop in my elementary school playground, a mere football field’s length from my bedroom window, and yet, the young man’s actual grisly death paled in comparison to the story of when my Mom said she fell asleep with the kerosene heater on and awoke to her dead grandmother shaking her afghan blanket above her.
Regardless, the battle of Good/Evil spirits on my shoulders waged on until I finally started questioning religion at the age of 14 (before dropping it entirely in high school), but the obsession with magic and all its wonderment remained, the recipe for which was equal parts The Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland, a dash Matilda, a sprinkling my New Age Aunt, and several heaping scoops Harry Potter.
Without going into the nitty gritty of the entire saga that is Harry Potter (and how frizzy-haired, buck-toothed, teacher’s pet Hermione was LITERALLY written about me), let’s just say it purveyed my thoughts and senses during the formative preteen years. When Harry talked to the snake at the zoo in the first film and helped it escape, there was Kara and I at our 7th grade class field trip to the Bronx Zoo, ponying up to the reptile tanks in our jean jackets, convincing one another we have powers after one of the snakes sort of moved its head a centimeter in response to our stares. When Professor Trelawney predicted the rise of Voldemort in her crystal ball, Kara and I begged our mothers to buy us Witches’ Balls to gaze into (real crystal balls are actually in excess of like $300+). Hers was sea foam green and wrapped in a thick, white nautical rope. I opted for the iridescent royal blue ball, no rope. The hollow balls were near-perfect spheres, save for the few thin tendons of once molten glass suspended in the center like icicles. Kara claimed that the Witches’ Balls supposedly were “alive” and would grow more tendons when something exciting was on the horizon. Ours had five tendons each, but we swore we originally counted four. It’s amazing how easily you could tamper with your own memory when it suits your childlike wonder.
This insatiable craving to live out my alternate reality at Hogwart’s School of Witchcraft and Wizardry culminated in my parents’ divorce at age 13. I’m somewhat ashamed to admit that when they first summoned me to the living room couch for a sit-down heart-to-heart to announce they were divorcing, my first thought was, Yes! Now I finally have a tragic backstory. This was MY inciting incident. Any minute now, and the owl would fly through our screen door and drop a thick envelope sealed in red wax on our foyer floor, my name clear as day in fancy calligraphy. It wasn’t living in a cupboard under the stairs after being orphaned by the murders of my parents by the Dark Lord, but it would do. I refused to accept I was a Muggle. I just couldn’t be.
I told myself (and waxed poetic about it in my journal) that I was atypical, I was DIFFERENT, I wasn’t like the OTHER girls, despite externally conforming to the norm in every other possible facet of life: fashion, pop culture, mannerisms, dialect. I was a misshapen sugar cookie, I’ll give you that – but straight outta the cutter nonetheless. Regardless, having a fairly unproblematic, middle class, white female upbringing made me boring and so I built myself a new personality premised on the notion that I most definitely had “E.S.P.” (a phrase I probably learned from Twist Magazine), and though I never moved an object via telekinesis, I practiced silently in class by staring daggers at my milky gel pens in the hopes they’d whizz over to Brian’s desk and tap his shoulder and he’d realize I’m special. Move, goddamit!
Family and friends quickly caught on to my newly found interest in wizardry, enabling the fuck out of it, and I soon amassed a small collection of books and objects pertaining to all things mystical: dream dictionaries, a definitely Christian “Journal for a Teen’s Heart” to chronicle said dreams, HP merch out the wazoo (seriously, you couldn’t walk into a Border’s during the reigning Rowling years of ’97 through ’07 without the front tables piled in stuffed owls and chocolate frog candies), celestial bodies depicted on figurines, stationery and jewelry, and, most notably, a beautiful set of folky tarot cards in a black and silver velvet bag, paired with a sparkly hot pink “Spellbook for Girls,” gifted to me by my aforementioned hippie Aunt. Before you ask – yes, the spellbook was an actual spellbook – but diluted down to Sabrina-level drivel, complete with a cloying, but unfortunately necessary, preface about using your magic for good so as to distinguish itself from the darker, Bad Witch/Voodoo magic that was out there. It took itself too seriously for probably being pulled from the YA section at Barnes & Noble and thrown in a bargain bin amidst books about getting your period, but I pored over it nonetheless like it was some ancient family compendium a la Winnifred’s Book in Hocus Pocus. The spells included lists of ingredients one could find around the house with accompanying sing-song incantations and obviously targeted towards the average American eighth grader and her average American eighth grader problems: spells to float some good juju to a friend so she can pass her math test, spells to feel pretty before a big school dance, spells to protect yourself if you’re feeling vulnerable, spells to *harmlessly* make your crush like you (I never had the rose water for that one).
In the forward of the spellbook, it even encouraged the reader to fashion their own wand out of personal items. I made one by gluing a flame-shaped geode I bought in a gift shop to the tip of a thick, sturdy stick I found outside and wrapping the whole thing in baby blue ribbon. It still sits on my bookshelf to this day. (Yes, I’ve designated the top portion of my bookshelf to everything Harry Potter.):
I wasn’t kidding.
I wasn’t a good witch, meaning I didn’t actually want to put the work into the rigorous, daily practice all learned skills require, including magic. Besides the occasional picking a card out at random and applying some bullshit meaning to it provided by its instructional pamphlet (I pulled the Ten of Cups upside down, which means struggling relationships, so that must mean Bobby doesn’t like me anymore), I hardly touched my tarot cards or spell book all that much, except the few times my friends asked to see them. But the first rule of Tarot, as my Aunt told me, is never letting anyone but you touch the cards for fear of tainting them. The cards have a relationship to YOU and you only. So on my 12th birthday sleepover, I made my friends wait downstairs while I set up a fortune teller fort on the floor of my bedroom – candles, blankets, crystals, and the deck of tarot cards splayed out before me – and then called each friend in one by one as I doled out tarot readings to them, the tiny booklet at my side so I can look up what each card meant. I was, after all, the only one fortunate enough to have my own set of cards, and so that made me the expert. I even draped my shoulders in a shawl and wrapped my head in a scarf like a turban.
Kara and I had a falling out sometime before high school over some petty girl shit (I guess my psychic abilities didn’t predict THAT), and so my cousin, Michelle, soon filled her shoes as my right-hand spiritual savant. The two of us had a mutual obsession and gift for all things preternatural, and – surprise, surprise – we were both miraculously blessed with clairvoyance, E.S.P., precognitive dreams, and the ability to interact with spirits. What are the odds? It must run in the family! There was the time we were traipsing around the woods by her house in Dallas and both swore we saw a guy in orange disappear after walking through the trees. Or the time we were at Aunt Cathy’s cabin in the woods and heard a knock, plain as day, on the window, only to discover nothing was there. Or the time we both happened to dream of visiting the ocean on the same exact night, and so we wrote a spell/prayer (when I still vaguely had hope in the Almighty), that went, I shit you not: “Lord, by the power of three…two cousins and you…please bring us to the ocean in our dreams.” It was imperative we slept with seashells under our pillows to facilitate this…that was key. I don’t think it ever worked, truthfully, but when we drafted the language down by the river trenches at her brother’s soccer game, the wind picked up and the water rippled just enough to make us believe we were tapping into something far bigger than us.
It was somewhere around this time that I became preoccupied with the idea that I could leave my physical body. I attribute 100% of this to my Aunt, who planted the seeds that there were “other planes of existence” amidst us Earth-dwellers. She told me about “metaphysics” – how the physical proximity between walls and floors was a manmade construct and that time and space could bend in ways imperceptible to the human eye. Or how she had psychic/clairvoyant moments often (one was even transcontinental, when she was reading in her armchair in New Jersey, but suddenly standing in the rain in London, just for a brief moment.) The best, however, was when she recounted a tale from her early twenties: she was jogging in the woods and, having run for so long, she reached a “runner’s high” and everything suddenly turned strange. She was lost, confused, murky…and then happened across a portal guarded by fairies, beckoning her to enter their world. Scared, she turned around and came down off her high. Now, my boyfriend laughs when I tell that story, assuring me it was probably/obviously a high induced by opium or peyote or the like – but THEN, to Novice Witch Me, one word about traveling through kingdoms like Harry and Ron did at Platform 9 & 3/4 and I was hooked. The normal wanderlust to visit remote countries was soon replaced by the urge to full on astral project, which I researched how to execute like one would how to fix a washing machine. I, of course, never did…
…until I did. Not intentionally, at least.
It’s called an Out of Body Experience, and until you’ve had one, it’s impossible to explain. Ironically, they began when I was least expecting or wanting them. By mid-high school, I had, for the most part, fully outgrown my Witchy Woman phase (minus the yearly trips to the Renaissance Faire with the Drama Club, around whom I could safely be Lady of the Shire for a day, and at which I left a palm reading baffled that the gypsy knew I drove a white car). Instead, I focused all my energies on keggers and kissing boys (it wouldn’t have been cool, after all, to divulge to the guy feeling me up in his backseat that I was a Slytherin). In fact, I almost entirely wiped from my memory my brush with wand-waving, until at age 17, something happened that took me by complete and utter surprise one particular late Sunday morning in October. After partying in Peckville with my childhood crush, Nick, I drove home wildly hungover (still kinda drunk), and crashed into my day bed, blinds drawn, clothes still on. My mother was at her new boyfriend’s house (my now stepdad) at the time, and so I knew I could pass out drunk with reckless abandon.
I awoke mid-nap, but not fully. My whole body was vibrating intensely, as if bursting at the seams to escape itself. Opening my eyes was a chore – it felt like someone was prying them open with pliers. When I finally could see, the whole room was as I left it, only…different. Hazy, a golden hue cast over everything. My ears rang with tinnitus, a persistent, high whistle like someone wet their fingertips and circled the rim of a water glass. I tried to move my limbs, but that soon also proved to be a hard feat. Lying there in a state of half-aware/half-catatonic, I tried squeezing my eyes shut to make it stop, but it wouldn’t. It was then that I became lucid, suddenly remembering all those dumb magical blogs and forums with poor graphics that I visited in the early 2000s. Wait, I thought, am I astral projecting?
Excitement got the better of me and, like a mother lifting a car off a baby, my adrenaline surged and kickstarted my limp limbs into moving, albeit at a snail’s pace. I began to rise, my head feeling like a slinky made of lead, gravity attempting to pull it back down to the pillow, until I finally broke it free; then my elbows followed, catching the weight of my torso; finally, feeling rather uncomfortable, like pulling the stitching of a well-made suit coat apart, my knees lifted and I rose to my fingertips, turning around in a seated position. I was horrified. There was my body, fast asleep on the bed. But here I was, sitting ON myself, looking down AT myself. Did I die? I don’t think so. I knew I would be able to do it before I even did it, and so, like all the guardian angels and spectres before me, I simply stepped free of my body – more like floated free – and just sort of hung out above my body, like I was face-down on the water’s surface looking down at my real body at the bottom of the pool. Okay, now what?
The possibilities were endless. Do I roam through the house’s walls and see if the portal to hell is in my closet ceiling (my Aunt did tell me about those drywall realms)? I suppose I could go outside, fly to Spain? I wasn’t sure of the limits of my out of body experience just yet, so I instead bounced to my bedroom floor and walked to the closed door. It was ajar, which I don’t remember doing (I was sure I fully closed and locked it). I tiptoed towards the crack, and on the other side in the upstairs hallway staring right back at me was a hook-nosed woman with deep-set eyes, a dark hairline impeding on her darker brows. She was short and looked mean. I knew without even speaking to her she was one of my Lebanese ancestors. She said something, I can’t remember what now, and tried beckoning me. There were others in the hallway, too, I could sense it. Other dead people. Am I on another plane of existence right now? I almost opened the door, but I didn’t trust her. Her look became threatening and she made moves like she was going to come in the room. Terrified that leaving my body might become permanent if I strayed too far, I knew I had to get back to my sleeping self in bed. I gave her one last look and moved in slow motion, like treading through water, and snapped myself back into place, like buttons on overalls, jolting awake with a gasp of air.
Though it was eye-opening, and 13-year-old me would have KILLED to be touched with the gift of teleporting travel, I chalked it up to some kind of alcohol-induced sleep paralysis.
Until it happened again in college. Twice, to be exact.
They followed the same pattern as the first: a deep sleep forged of deprivation and stress, the head-to-toe vibrations, the fuzzy champagne air, the shrill ringing, the sensation of ripping-with-all-your-might soul from body. But the visions were different. The first was in the spare bedroom at my boyfriend’s childhood home on holiday break, where in my vibrating state, a young boy who I presume once occupied the room spoke THROUGH me as a vessel and said, “Your sheets look really ugly,” to which another off-camera voice responded, “But Eric, you’re on my bed.” Eerie piano music began playing and I was stuck between Earth and whatever the hell this dimension was, thrashing side-to-side, feeling strapped down like a mental patient, unable to either wake or die, and though I had stopped believing in god entirely at that point, I remembered my Aunt had told me to ask a higher power for guidance the next time this happened, and so I violently whispered, face contorted in dry tears, “Please God, please God, get me back to my body, please God.” And then, a distant, voice, “He’s not listening.” The vibrating stopped and I more or less regained consciousness, fully awake and unable to move, only this time out of sheer terror.
The second time was the most memorable, and followed mere weeks later after returning to school from holiday break. I was fast asleep in my freshman dorm room at UArts, around 4 in the morning. My regular batshit crazy REM cycle dreams ended abruptly with a loud zipping noise, like a record scratch, and then, same old, same old: vibrate/yellow tint/ringing in my ears. This time, I remained calm, sitting up in my body after considerable time yanking it free, and observing the room, which was, for the most part, the same as it was when I fell asleep, minus the cartoony vignettes like a pair of comedy/tragedy masks: two hulk-like fists landing with a crash on either side of me, a Renaissance Joker sitting on my roommate’s bed frame, a sudden tickling on my ribs, followed by a maniacal laugh that was coming out of my own mouth, but felt like someone else. I cast all this aside and asked, almost sarcastically, “God, what’s the purpose of these out of body experiences?”
The response was, and I remember this clear as day, a scroll that appeared mid-air at the foot of my bed. It unfurled. In viciously scratchy black font, it read: “So the Greeks won’t kill.” I read it aloud in such a somber way that, if I were on stage, a cut of the lights and dramatic “duh duh duhhh” would have followed. I gasped and then fell with a thud back into my body, forced awake with a literal breath of fresh, cold air in my lungs. I vowed I would never EVER leave my body again after that, as if I had control over the matter. I did write a poem inspired by it, though.
Of course, these experiences were merely the flimsy lid on the proverbial can of worms, and so several more followed for most of my early 20s, unsolicited, unwelcome and far less memorable, until finally petering off to only once or twice a year as I approached 30. One stood out, though. Right around my 30th birthday, when napping in my living room on a weekend midday (hungover again – I’m beginning to see a pattern), the dreaded vibrations started up and I didn’t even have to open my eyes to know the room was gonna be golden. Sure enough, it was, only this time, a ghostly woman stood in the dead center of the room, right through my ottoman, so I couldn’t see past her knees. Ahh, right, ghosts can do that, I remembered. She resembled Robin Quivers, a neat coil of black braids atop her head, and wore a blue meteorologist-looking dress. She had a warm smile, very approachable. I hesitantly exited my body and made my way over to her. She gestured at a piece of paper in her hands that held a single wallet-sized photograph of a generic, middle-aged white man. She said, “This is the man who’s going to hit you with his car.”
Having ridden my bike to and from work nearly every single day, that didn’t sit right with me for obvious reasons. In any event, I took it as a sign and elected into the accident and short-term disability health insurance offered by my job, just to be safe, and also because I don’t fuck with clear signs, no matter how ridiculous they may seem or who’s giving them to me.
The OBE’s still happen on and off to this day, but my preference of a good night’s rest takes precedence over vibing with whoever or whatever is hiding in plain sight in the room with me, and so most I hardly remember by the time I wake up. Frankly, after the possible foretelling of my vehicular death and/or dismemberment, I’m just too frightened to leave my body entirely and inadvertently join those omnipresent spirits hovering in the invisible realm of my ceiling, watching myself from above, only this time for good.
Back in April, I was holding a bottle of clear nail polish when it shattered to pieces in my palm, the glass crumbling like sand. That same month, I was cracking a room-temperature egg off the countertop and its sweat caused my hand to slip, breaking the yolk prematurely on the formica, until right before my very eyes, it reversed direction and landed with a plop in a perfect, round, unbroken orb in the center of the mixing bowl. Kara would tell me, “There’s no such thing as coincidence.” Perhaps she’s right.
Nah, it was just a coincidence.
© 2020 Andrea Festa