It’s 7 p.m., not quite witching hour, but Melissa Madara is intently melting the side of a dark blue spell candle so that it can fit into the mouth of an empty whiskey bottle. “I’m being the most boring witch ever,” she says.
Madara was exposed to folk magic at a young age and she has practiced witchcraft for most of her life. She works hard, putting in 120-hour weeks at Catland, which she describes as “a one woman show.” Madara has owned the Bushwick spiritual hub for over three years, supplying people of the local occult community with tools for their practice. Tarot decks are quite popular, but the store boasts everything from healing crystals to a carefully curated apothecary, stocked with herb blends for love and luck. The date is Oct. 28, only three days before Halloween, or Samhain. Tonight Catland hosts a séance led by conductor and medium Deborah Horowitz.
Madara explains that the ritual itself can be traced back to the 19th and 20th centuries and the emergence of spiritualism in upstate New York. Spiritualism is a religious belief system based on the communication with spirits of the dead, especially through mediums. This is where the séance comes in. According to Horowitz, the ultimate goal of a séance is to connect to one specific spirit or energy.
“We’re not alone…” Horowitz says, “And we can recognize it or not. It’s still there.”
The clock strikes seven; it’s time. Each participant passes through a beaded curtain and files into the back room. The space is dark and Horowitz begins by cleansing the room. She tells us about herself, her history as a Wiccan chanter and her two children when, suddenly, a horn honks outside on Flushing Avenue. “That wasn’t a spirit. That was a Mack truck,” she says and lets out a cackle.
Twelve plastic chairs, one for each participant, form a tight circle in the room. At the center is a wooden barstool topped with four white votives. Their flames will be the only light source in the black room. “The best you can do is be open and let it flow,” Horowitz advises, “Really this is about healing and energy.” Fear and skepticism can make it difficult for spirits to come through, she adds as she prepares for the ritual.
Once everyone is seated, Horowitz switches off the lights and leads the group through a non-denominational prayer and some deep breathing exercises. She instructs us to place our feet flat on the floor and turn our palms upward and open as if we’re waiting to receive some sort of metaphysical gift. Horowitz then begins to relay messages from the spirits present to each person in the room. As she singles individuals out, they perk up in their chairs– eager to hear what she has to relay.
There is a sense of energy in the room, perhaps emanating from a purple-haired participant who, according to Horowitz, has the energy of three beings in one. Earlier, this woman mentioned a tendency for bad things to happen to girls that mistreated her in her youth. Throughout the séance she will raise her arms above her head, stretching them out to each side as if her sleeves are pinned to a clothesline. The candles flicker. Soon the room fills with spirits and spirit animals, as Horowitz sees a wolf sitting attentively on the floor and an eagle flying. Later, she will also see a bulldog panting heavily.
“I’m seeing food,” Horowitz says to one woman across the séance circle. Images of rich molé sauce and tiny hot peppers come to her. Horowitz advises that she read Like Water for Chocolate, as the book may contain some relevant messages to explore.
Along the same vein, Horowitz sees the image of someone’s father and describes him as looking somewhat like Colonel Sanders, “with the goatee and everything.” He looks Hawaiian, but the woman this spirit is supposedly guiding happens to be Korean. She never knew her father.
The messages that Horowitz delivers range from career advice to sentiments of protection and some spirits are easier to connect with than others. At one point Horowitz sees a bouquet of purple flowers, but they quickly disappear. “I’ll come back to you,” she says.
After Horowitz delivers each message, she opens the circle to questions. The séance is nearing its end. A young woman with white curly hair and turquoise dyed tips asks Horowitz if she senses her late friend because she’d like to apologize to him. Horowitz asks if he died young, as she sees a man 27 to 37 years old. He did. “He’s here and it’s all good,” Horowitz says.
A petite woman, sitting cross-legged on her chair, asks Horowitz whether the spirits have any messages relating to love and romance. “No, nothing in the next 8 months…” Horowitz responds, “I know that’s not what you wanted to hear, but at least you don’t have to buy a Christmas gift.”
This continues for a few minutes. “Do you see anything when I say the word crocodile?” This question comes from one of the three men in the circle. “No,” Horowitz responds, “Now I’m seeing skins. Probably because they make great shoes.”
With no further questions, Horowitz stands to break the circle and turn on the lights. She leaves us with a final message: “We all do have a certain amount of power,” Horowitz suggests, “If there’s one thing I can tell you, it’s to follow that…your intuition, that’s yours.”
All twelve people linger before dispersing throughout Catland where some continue to ask Horowitz questions and others pore over rare texts and instructional literature.
It’s almost 9 p.m. and while the séance is over, the night is still young. It has grown darker and colder and with each opening of the shop door rich incense spills out into the street. I head towards the subway station feeling similar to when I arrived–anxious, intrigued, but now hungry.