Roxie Zwicker and her friends jokingly call themselves “good witches from the North.” The joke isn’t about the fact that they are, indeed, witches with good intentions. They are. The joke is about those of us stuck on the antiquated — and sexist — notion that witches are always and only twisted-looking women who wield malicious power.
“We realize our history and heritage,” says Zwicker, who grew up in Boston and now lives in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. “People were condemned for witchcraft all over New England.”
Her first film – an ethereal, dramatic short titled “The Woodland Alchemy,” making its Boston premiere on Feb. 13 at the Boston Sci-Fi Film Fest – gives a positive spin on the usual witch story. It reveals how Zwicker and her friends practice pagan healing rituals.
Witches have a small but steady presence in popular culture that, like any other symbol, ebbs and flows with the times. Last fall, the “Charmed” of Rose McGowan’s TV acting heyday got a reboot as did the flippy-dippy “Sabrina: The Teenage Witch,” this time as the darker “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.” Film-wise, in 2015 New Hamsphire’s Robert Eggers garnered accolades for his debut, “The Witch,” less about the witch than the patriarch who fears her. Anna Biller’s more playful “The Love Witch” made rounds among alterno-horror fans a year later. “I am Not a Witch” topped both my and my WBUR colleague Sean Burns’ favorite films from 2018.
“The Woodland Alchemy” is one of a cluster of films on the paranormal at this year’s Sci-Fi Film Fest. Paranormal stories capture aspects of our lives that can’t be explained, well, normally, says Garen Daly, the film fest's director. Daly theorizes that this outcropping has to do with people looking for alternatives because “the current reality is so abysmal.” Witches are powerful women who’ve been demonized by patriarchal society “because they have knowledge or something men fear,” observes Daly. In other words, this make sense in the wake of #MeToo.
Zwicker likewise thought the time was right to set the record straight and show how she and her friends actually practice witchcraft. While staged, “The Woodland Alchemy” falls closer to a documentary than the “Charmed” reboot on the CW, for example. Zwicker wrote, executive produced, and appears in “Alchemy” while Chad Cordner served as director and editor.
“Alchemy” isn’t about a crooked-nose woman who forces a poisonous apple on Snow White. Rather it opens calmly, warmly, in a dimly-lit, turn of the century parlor. A mustached narrator thumbs through a dusty hand-written book and begins to read aloud. His words overlap loosely linked nonverbal vignettes with shrouded women calling on spirits or raising their hands to the sky. Empty picture frames, stuck halfway in the sand, form a circle and flicker with ancestral images. Then they burn and disappear.
Here’s the trailer:
Zwicker describes the film, shot in New Hampshire’s Pawtuckaway State Park with long takes that fly along wooded paths, as “a spiritual journey between four people.” She makes a living writing about and teaching spiritualism, leading ghost tours, and performing public pagan rituals in Portsmouth. She sees pagan practices as non-threatening and far more common than most people realize. “A lot of people do things that could be construed as ‘witchy,’ ” she says, mentioning activities as simple as sitting down and losing oneself in music. And more than ever, she’s seeing people from of all walks of life seek comfort from and ask questions about a wider sort of spirituality.
“We all have shadows in our life. Whether self-imposed or from the outside world, there are ways we can rise up against whatever we feel,” she says. She wants the film, and an event planned for its Boston premiere, to show audiences how witches do that in a concrete, loving way.
The evening includes original music performed by film collaborators Jenna Greene and Robert McClung and a live ritual – a love spell – for all in attendance. Zwicker says the spell is designed “to bring people closer to the things they love: self-love, romantic love, even the love of nature.” Plus, everyone will have a takeaway “love potion” made on stage.
Even if viewers are not into witchcraft, Zwicker says “Alchemy” could help them see witchcraft as one way to solve their problems. It’s her way of spreading the love, in a "good witch" way.