As children and partygoers around the county get their witch costumes ready for Halloween, the real witches are getting ready, too.
All Hallow's, as the community of witches calls the ancient holiday, isone of the biggest nights of the year for a practicing witch, says Peggy Booraem, owner of a Pasadena bookstore.
The Celtic New Year marks one of eight witch's sabbats, explains Booraem, a witch of five years. Witches meet at the turning of the seasons, and at the new and full moons.
"Our rituals acknowledge thebeauty of Deity manifest in creation, and tune our bodies and our minds to the changing seasons," she says. "We also use our time in Circle (a designated worship space, usually in a home), to work magick."
Halloween, or Samhain (sow-ahn), as it also is known, holds special importance for those in her tradition, because from a psychic pointof view, Booraem says, it's the time of year when the "veil between the worlds is thinnest. We can talk to or relate to anyone who's not in a physical body. That's why all the death imagery."
Witches, most of whom believe that the human mind can literally affect reality, are rapidly growing in number in the state, says Booraem, pointing out that witchcraft is acknowledged as a church by the federal government.
"In Maryland, there are perhaps a few thousand Wiccan," she says. Locally, she sees the drawing card of the unknown in the people who come to her metaphysical bookstore on Ritchie Highway, The TurningWheel.
"In two years here, I've seen at least 50 people who have become Wiccan," Booraem says.
For all in the community of witches,Hallow's Eve, the darkest time of the year, carries reminders of thepre-pagan religions. But while the ancient Celts attempted to ward off evil spirits, modern witches see the holiday more as a time of reflection, of turning inward, says the 39-year-old Pasadena witch.
"As a time of chaos and change, Hallow's Eve can be frightening, and it can be joyous," she says. The colors of the holiday, orange and black, reflect this mixture: orange for emotion and energy; black for chaos.
"For us, chaos is seen not as a bad thing, but as a fertile womb from which all creation comes," she says.
Preparing for the holiday, Booraem readies a face masque that represents an oak leaf -- afalling, brown leaf. The oak itself is a sacred tree to pagans, and the masque can both represent one's ancestors and serve as a reminderthat the physical body "is just a masque for our soul," Booraem says.
Many witches' covens will also perform a ritual with masques at Halloween, painting onto a mold of their own faces aspects of themselves they want to emphasize or remove.
"You then put the masque on an altar to build up certain traits, or you burn it to get rid of things you don't want in yourself." In the ritual, witches pour their energy into the actual physical masque, raising psychic energy by chanting or dancing, Booraem says. The masque can represent "the soul we take on."
The masque theme is picked up by jack-o'-lanterns, carvedpumpkins that -- while simply a commercial tradition for most American children -- to a witch are reminders of the ancient vegetable lanterns used by the pre-pagans to light the way to the worship circle, Booraem says.
In pre-pagan days, Samhain also involved human sacrifice, with ritual deaths by fire, explain witch's manuals. Associationmay have been made with harvest time in ancient agricultural societies, when animals were slaughtered before winter.
Later, the proprietary sacrifice became symbolic, and modern witches have completely eliminated that aspect of the tradition, Booraem says.
The tales ofwitches sacrificing any living beings -- human or animal -- are "absolutely not true," she says. "There are a lot of sickos out there. They can call themselves witches if they want to, but they're still sickos. Today, witches don't believe the gods must be propritiated. We don't do anything evil."
Booraem's witchery, which she emphaticallydistinguishes from Satanism, traces its origins to the pre-Christianrites of the Celts and druids.
The aspect of communion with the dead was Christianized as All Hallow's by the pope in 834. The EnglishReformation abolished the holiday, and it wasn't restored formally by the Church of England until 1928, on the assumption that the old pagan associations were finally forgotten.
But to many Christian churches today, those associations are as vivid as ever.
Tom Wenger, associate pastor of the 500-member Severna Park Evangelical Presbyterian Church, says a growing concern exists within conservative evangelical Christian churches that "Halloween is not such a good thing, although it's not agreed upon as to what should be celebrated and what shouldn't.
"The reality of its origin and some of its significance in terms of dark forces are becoming more of a reality," says Wenger.
While he believes plenty of quacks are faking supernatural power,Wenger also believes that "witchcraft and the occultic artsare definitely a real thing.
"I don't know if there's anything destructive in a kid dressing up in a sheet and coming around for candy," says the minister. "What is destructive is if there is no recognition that evil forces exist. Largely, the population in general doesn't give much attention to the possible reality of Satan or the supernatural."
Witches such as Booraem are not among those who doubt the supernatural -- especially not on Hallow's Eve.
"There are consciousnesses that exist in realms beyond the physical: gods and goddesses, nature spirits, devas and other entities," she says.
On this darkest nightof the year, even the skeptical may have less trouble believing.