A Huge Loss

Twenty years ago, when I first met Mary Kay, she told me proudly, “I’m a religious fanatic.” This unsettled me a bit since I don’t have positive associations with that phrase, but before long I realized that Mary Kay loved the Craft more than almost anyone I know. She was an insatiable learner, and her heart’s desire was to capture those fleeting, transcendent moments where we touch the divine. She was “fanatical” in the sense that gaining this understanding was the foundation and driving force behind nearly everything she did.

Mary Kay was raised Christian on the Iron Range in northern Minnesota, and she threw herself first into that faith, even traveling to Haiti to do missionary work. But once she was introduced to Wicca by a friend, she felt as though she’d come home. She was initiated into the Gardnerian tradition, and together with Patrick–the other love of her life–she eventually started her own coven. I was lucky enough to have a front-row seat for most of it, and I became their first initiate.

As a teacher, Mary Kay thought of her students as peers, and believed that everyone, regardless of experience, could bring good ideas and insights to the table, and that each person she taught had things to teach her in return. When she asked us what we thought about something, she actually wanted to know. She understood that the process of teaching is really the process of learning.

She and Patrick both absolutely hated the idea of coven as cult of personality or as a group of seekers blindly following a guru. Mary Kay could be fierce and stubborn when she felt injustice had been done, and fought hard, almost until her death, for people she felt had been wronged by their coven leaders or the greater Gardnerian community. This made her some enemies, and it would be wrong to say she didn’t care about that, but she strongly believed standing up for someone without a voice was more important than her personal political capital.

Mary Kay was endlessly curious about the origins of her tradition, and she loved a spirited debate about any aspect of the Craft. She did a tremendous amount of research on it, chasing down obscure writings and seeking out and corresponding with Gardnerians from around the world. This required crossing some political lines and breaking some cultural taboos, which was a little intimidating to her at first. But she had a very strong sense of fairness, and by breaking the unwritten “rules” about who talks to whom, she helped punch holes in ridiculous and artificial boundaries between Gardnerian groups and empower others to do the same. This work by Mary and others and the blossoming of the Internet have allowed us to share things in ways we never dreamed of before.

She was extremely generous in sharing what she learned with her students as well. After I left Minneapolis, she would call me, excited, and tell me about her discoveries, and email me the new treasures she’d found. And when I had my own students, we had “Stump Mary Kay” nights, where we’d get her on the speakerphone and my students would try to come up with questions about the tradition she couldn’t answer. They almost never succeeded.

Perhaps most important, Mary Kay loved with her whole heart, without reservation, and in a way that was utterly authentic. She adored Patrick, and anyone else who was fortunate enough to be her friend gained a steadfast ally. When she was hurt or betrayed by those she loved, she didn’t let that stop her from putting herself out there to love again. She had no guile–what you saw is what you got–and she had no qualms about making fun of herself. We often teased her about her love of butt rock, ability to reduce us to hysterics by invoking the quarters in her creepily accurate impression of South Park’s Eric Cartman, and her oft-stated desire to be the filling in a Supernatural Winchester brothers sandwich cookie. But even in her goofiest moments, her love of Craft was ever-present.

As Mary Kay died, Patrick held her hand, I held his, and my husband held us both, so she was surrounded by people who loved her. I feel I’ve lost one of the best friends I’ve ever had and one of my life’s anchors. I know that if the Summerlands exist, she is already enfolded in the arms of her beloved gods. But I’d give just about anything to hear her tell me one more time to get my hands off of her Cheesy Poofs.

Spooky Movies: Trick R Treat

Trick RI’ve saved the most Halloween-y Halloween goody for last. If you judge Trick R Treat by its cover, you’ll probably guess that it’s another boring, cliché-ridden slasher film. Although there is a fair amount of blood spilled, this isn’t your run-of-the mill b-grade horror flick. The film contains five interwoven stories about people living on the same block. There’s a naive young woman out for her first Halloween night on the town with the girls; a couple who discover what happens if you disrespect Halloween tradition; a high school principal who is every bit the monster kids think a principal is; a group of kids who set up a prank that goes badly awry with truly terrifying consequences; and a curmudgeonly old guy who has a very creepy trick-or-treater. Interwoven through these stories is a lot of Halloween lore, such as what happens if you allow the candle in your pumpkin to go out before midnight, and the art director—yes, it’s a horror film with art direction—makes use of a lot of old-fashioned Halloween imagery from the late 1800s and early 1900s. (If you don’t think that’s creepy, check this out.) Trick R Treat is scary and satisfying, like Halloween should be.

Spooky Movies: The Devil’s Backbone

backboneMany people know Guillermo del Toro from Pacific Rim, Hellboy, or Pan’s Labyrinth, but his less well-known stuff—especially The Devil’s Backbone—is well worth a look. The story takes place at a dusty, run-down orphanage in a remote part of Spain during the Spanish Civil War. Carlos, a boy who has been abandoned by his parents, arrives at the orphanage and soon discovers that many of its occupants have secrets, including the couple running the orphanage who are hiding a cache of gold for the Republican loyalists, the caretaker, Jacinto, who is secretly searching for the gold to steal it, the orphanage’s bully, who has been traumatized, and the sad and terrifying child ghost who may or may not be a missing boy named Santi. Even the unexploded bomb in the courtyard has a secret of sorts.

The film refers to a ghost as a “tragedy condemned to repeat itself over and over again,” a metaphor that could also apply to the war and its impact on the orphanage and everyone in it. In other words, it’s not a happy story. But the film’s compelling performances, evocative art direction, and what it has to say about loyalty and sacrifice will stay with you for a long time. This is absolutely one of del Toro’s best films. Highly recommended.

Spooky Movies: Shadow of the Vampire

ShadowWhat if Max Schreck, who played the vampire Count Orlock in the iconic silent 1922 film Nosferatu, had been a real vampire? Shadow of the Vampire is a fictionalized account of the making of Nosferatu. Director F. W. Murnau, played by a scenery-chewing John Malkovich, takes his cast to Czechoslovakia and introduces them to a strange character actor called Max Schreck (Willem Dafoe), who will be playing Count Orlock, and who, he warns them, will remain in character at all times. What Murnau doesn’t tell them is that he’s so determined to make the most authentic vampire film ever that he’s hired a real vampire and has promised him the leading lady as a reward. But Schreck won’t be controlled and can’t keep his teeth out of the cast and crew, who start dropping like flies as an obsessive, laudanum-addicted Murnau pushes on relentlessly to complete his film.

Dafoe manages to elicit both sympathy and horror as Schreck. When he’s asked what he thinks of the novel Dracula, Schreck speaks of how lonely the immortal count must have been, and how he must have forgotten how to do everyday things. It’s an incredible scene, and it garnered Dafoe an Oscar nod. You’ll probably get more out of Shadow if you’ve seen Nosferatu, so I recommend them as a double feature. But even if you haven’t seen the original, Shadow is definitely worth a look.

Spooky Movies: Call of Cthulhu

CthulhuIf you’re at all a fan of H. P. Lovecraft, the pulp horror story writer whose work has influenced everyone from Roger Corman to Guillermo del Toro, you know that films made from his works are pretty hit and miss—emphasis on the miss. (Whose bright idea was it to put Sandra Dee in The Dunwich Horror?) Anyway, Call of Cthulhu, a tiny-budget indy released in 2005, is an exception to the rule. Many Lovecraft adaptations have gone for the gore and the gross-out, but the makers of this version of Cthulhu obviously understood Lovecraft, who was famous for taking readers right up to the edge of something horrible and then not describing it, allowing readers to fill in the gaps from their own imagination and creating an effect that was far more terrifying than graphic descriptions of violence and blood. The filmmakers incorporated a lot of language from the short story and made use of set and filming techniques from the timeframe in which it was written (1928) to recreate the feel of the original. In keeping with that, the film is silent. The acting is a bit uneven, but overall this is a faithful and well-done rendition of the story and the era and a testament to what can be done with a small budget and a lot of creativity.

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