Conjuring Communities

The number of willing corpses is stunning. In the past month, over 150 young people have posted on the pen pal list "Corpse / Respondents" at The Dark Side of the Net ( darkside/ index.html), a Web resource intended to help Goths--the fashionable ghouls in all black with white cake makeup--meet and share "small town horror stories." This is the kind of list where having "a major blood fetish" and enjoying "long walks at night to the local cemetery" is actually kind of charming, if not an outright turn-on. The ache of isolation is as obvious as any classified ad: "I turn 15 in August," writes The Real Morbid from California. "I live in a sucky little town... I'm going insane! Everyone here is sooooo closed minded. HELP ME PLEASE!"

Such brutal social marginalization may be the critical factor behind one of the least-recognized religious phenomena of recent years. Paganism, from the folk appeal of the occult to the goddess-worship of Wicca, is exploding online--even trickling down to its secularized, moodier offspring, the Goths. As underground as the pagan movement is in the real world, it has found a ceremonial stomping ground on the Net: alt.pagan ranks in the top five Usenet newsgroups related to religion and spirituality; the Wiccan Circle discussion area on the 1.7 million-member Web community is one of the site's five most popular areas; promotes its summer Witch Camps online; and concluded its nationwide pagan gathering back in June. Even Dark Side of the Net, "bringing you into the darkness since 1994," boasts a search engine of 6200 Web sites on occult and "dark" subjects.

The Net has provided a social fabric for all sorts of fringe communities, and pagans have been arriving online in search of strength in numbers, says "Gothic pagan" Clifford Low, who runs mailing-list nexus and the upcoming "Pagans are introverted, and [being online] gives them power where they feel powerless in the real world." Low maintains over 30 list-servs--like "HellSpawn-L," on parenting tips for Wiccans--which he considers the lifeblood of the movement. "One of the most important things that is being explored is the refinement of identity," he says. "Occultists, pagans, and Goths are coming together to get a clear sense of what they are."

But the unusual vibrancy of pagans online points to an underlying correspondence between technology and religious mysticism. Erik Davis, author of the forthcoming book Techgnosis: Myth, Magic, and Religion in the Information Age, believes the de-structured, "anarchic" form of paganism made it ideally suited to grow through the decentralized, anti-hierarchical Net. Modern paganists, who trace their roots back to the witchcraft covens of a British civil servant and nudist, Gerald Gardner, in the 1940s, have "self-consciously invented their religion, making up their 'ancient ways' as they go along," Davis writes.

Compensating for a lack of an established mechanism for communicating the group's lore, paper-based pagan zines proliferated in the 1970s, then were rapidly replaced by electronic bulletin board systems (BBSs) in the '80s. This "loose exchange of information between far-flung and often cantankerous groups plays a binding role" in paganism, writes Davis. Low ran his own "community-oriented" BBS from 1991 to 1993, called The Familiar Spirit. According to Low, the inventiveness and open-minded approach of pagans makes them particularly attuned to tinkering with their machines. "The occult is based on the idea of mystery and it attracts people who like to solve problems--just like programmers," he says.

While the "chaos magicians" have become more technologically savvy, the tech itself is taking on intense, mystical resonance, Davis said in an interview, and this may be the biggest change yet. "The logic of technology has become invisible--literally, occult," he writes. Pagans may be leading the way in helping to interpret our relationship to our machines. "In a formal witchcraft circle, they say, 'We are between worlds,'" Davis said. "Computer spaces [like the created worlds in MUDs and chat] lend themselves to the same feeling of being 'here' and 'not here.' "It's almost a return to the earliest iterations of religion itself, where the Word took on extraordinary power. "Language and symbol can change the reality of the place," Davis adds. "They have the ability to change the world."

Screen Play

I was watching television one night and I saw an ad for starving kids, and then, right after that, an ad for Kentucky Fried Chicken," says theater director Mike Taylor. "EvenSaturday Night Live wouldn't have done that." For Taylor, a member of the New York multimedia performance group 3 Legged Dog ( 3legdog), the boob tube has "replaced irony"--it's become so absurd that it's practically a genre of satire unto itself.

Or at least a character in a satire. In the group's screen-drunk farce, If I Were You (opening next Wednesday at experimental theater space The Kitchen), a cast of 12 plays off eight video monitors, a projection screen, and a portable TV starring as one of the characters. Loosely based on characters from English humorist P.G. Wodehouse's Leave It to Psmith, it mixes English farce, French melodrama, evening newscasts, and televised close-ups. To call it "theater" doesn't do justice to the format, since the drama is timed not only to the ripostes of the actors but to the cues of prerecorded video. This intimate blend of live and screen action is the signature of the four-year-old collective, whose mandate is clear: as long as monitors continue to invade the proscenium--as in the god-awful F@ust: Version 3.0 at the Lincoln Center Festival--we'd better learn to teach them to act and make them beautiful.

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