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Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Witchcraft Scare of 1979

Imagine this. You live in a small town. During a chat with your neighbor, you hear that the local university is offering a new class -- in the occult! Not only that, your neighbor whispers to you, but also there are 13 people in the class. “Thirteen!” you cry, thinking to yourself, “Isn’t that how many are in a coven?!” It is even said that the class participants have been told not to speak about the class to any outsiders.

Never mind that the class is an English class. Never mind that they’re studying mostly literature and critically discussing the occult in history. The result is a perfect example of the start of a witch-hunting craze.

I myself would never have heard of these events if it hadn’t been for Tom Moody, one of my subscribers. He approached me shortly before this issue was due to go to press, related the capsule version of the story to me, and asked if I would be interested in hearing more about it. Would I ever!

We sat down and he mulled through his recollections of being one of the 13 people in the class that raised such hell. It was 1979, and the fall semester at the University of Maine at Machias started amidst controversy. Tom was enrolled in a class being taught by his advisor, Professor Alvin W. Bowker, and the topic was the occult.

The class focused not only on representations of the occult in literature, but also on society’s creation of, and reaction to, occult-related fear. Topics included witchcraft, vampires, demonic possession, and personal paranormal experiences. Discussions were to draw material from assigned texts. As a new curriculum addition, the course had required special approval from the administration. UMaine Machias was considered progressive at the time. However, some townspeople were not so easily drawn into exploration of the new and strange, and let their reactions be driven by superstition and neophobic reactionism.

As Bowker welcomed the class, he warned students not to discuss the class outside of the classroom walls. This was not out of any hermetic distaste for disclosure, but more likely, Moody feels, out of a genuine concern on the part of Professor Bowker that students might come to real bodily harm due to the high level of reaction that had come from people in the town of Machias when rumor of the class’s existence leaked out. Moody recalls the atmosphere in the community as being “very tense” at the beginning of the semester (though later it cooled down), but remembers this added excitement to the subject.

Almost 30 years later, Moody can recall some of the reading list. Texts included Stephen King’s Carrie and Salem’s Lot, Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby, and Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire, plus some non-fiction selections such as Hostage to the Devil, which details five American possession cases. The list hardly seems as shocking as the protestors imagined it to be, but it accomplished its purpose in class.

Moody, who grew up in a church-going family, was told growing up that “you don’t want to learn about the Devil, because you’ll be opening up your soul, making it vulnerable to him.” This never stopped his curiosity, though when reading Hostage to the Devil, he remembers feeling fear at how easy it seemed for the Devil to possess unprotected souls. It is this same fear that permeates all human dealing with the unknown, which can make things sticky for those of us who just want to find out a little more than what is written in books.

How can you differentiate thoroughly between good and evil, without having learned about them both? How much of the town protest would have subsided if people had just asked a few questions before reacting? These questions remain relevant today, as does the threat of the witch-hunt mentality in today’s society.

Some sidenotes:
-- Pope Paul II made his first visit to the U.S. in early October 1979. Could this highly anticipated event have triggered some of the reactions of the townspeople?
-- Another intriguing coincidence was the first airing of the Salem’s Lot miniseries in November 1979. I wonder how many of Bowker’s students took time from their studies to chill themselves watching it?
-- The author of the 2007 collection of chilling Maine lore Dark Woods, Chill Waters (Down East Books, $10.95) is Marcus LiBrizzi, who teaches English and cultural studies at the University of Maine at Machias, just as Bowker did before him.

Epilogue:
Since my print deadline was so close, I was unable to establish contact with Professor Bowker, who appears to have moved to Florida (time to revert to good old snailmail). I’d also like a chance to find out if there was any material about the fracas in the local newspaper, the Machias Valley News. So stay tuned!

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