by Jason Pitzl-Waters and Jacqueline Enstrom-Waters
In the six issue of newWitch magazine we did an interview with author John J. Coughlin (AKA Dark Wyccan). Sadly, due to space considerations much of the original interview had to be cut. Below you will find the entire un-edited interview.
An interview with John J. Coughlin author of “Out of The Shadows, An Exploration of Dark Paganism and Magick.”
John J Coughlin (AKA “Dark Wyccan”) is a man who embodies the synthesis of two different subcultures, the Goth scene and modern paganism, and is the first to express the union of these two aesthetics in a published book, “Out of The Shadows, An Exploration of Dark Paganism and Magick.” Since the publishing of Coughlin’ book, several others have rushed into the niche on the pagan bookshelf that he created with this work. Coughlin’s work in many ways anticipated the very column you are reading now and has opened up a whole new way of looking at modern paganism.
NewWitch: First off, you are a part of both the Gothic and Pagan scenes/communitie;, which came first? How did you come to both? Do you feel your involvement with Goth culture exposed you to paganism (or vice versa)?
John J. Coughlin: I found Paganism first, getting seriously involved as I began high school in 1983-84, although I had superficially dabbled in “the occult” earlier for perhaps a year or so. I discovered the Gothic scene a year or so later when I first heard the music. At the time I did not see any connection to them at all other than that they were both ways of expressing aspects of myself.
In many ways, I was both a Goth and a Pagan before I knew what they were, it was just that when I discovered these [cultures] I was provided a means of expressing those ideas better and had much more material to work with. For example, growing up I always liked black clothes, although it was not easy to find back then, and my room was in a perpetual Halloween motif. So my aesthetic tastes were very gothic-like even as a kid. On the Pagan side, although I was raised Roman Catholic I had long seen Mary as a type of goddess and often focused more on her than God or Jesus. I also found that any apparently untouched area in nature seemed to resonate as some form a sacred place… I used to ponder why I felt that way and often equated those places as being magical in some way. Throughout my childhood I had discovered many such “sacred places” where I would go to just to sit alone for hours. I did not know why I felt such a drawing to those places but it seemed very natural and to this day I still literally shed tears when I discover one of my sacred places have been destroyed by development.
NW: How are you a “dark” pagan, what does that mean to you personally?
JJC: I think that is the best way to ask that question since those things associated with darkness often have a very personal nature to them. To me Dark Paganism has two main functions. First, it is a movement to achieve a true sense of balance in Paganism by stressing the “side” in polarity which has been neglected, much as how feminists stressed womanhood originally to achieve EQUALITY of the sexes and not necessarily to turn the table and put women above men. (Obviously in both feminism and dark paganism some extremists will pop up who forget about balance, but generally the goal is balance.) Secondly I feel darkness in general is a personal calling to find one’s spirituality from within and so is more concentrated on personal experience rather than following certain established tradition or finding a certain teacher. I think that is the big difference when you start looking at things like the Right Hand Path (associated with light) and the Left Hand Path (associated with darkness). People on the Right Hand Path have often considered the Left Hand Path as evil since they did not follow traditions or adhere to Dogma – nonconformity is looked down upon in organized structures. This is because of the fundamental difference in how the perceive spirituality. One side is seeking answers from an outside established authority and the other side is seeking answers by looking for their own inner authority… their perceptions are diametrically opposed so each “side” thinks the other is faulty. Paths attributed to light tend to be geared to the masses while darker paths are more personal and private. I do not think Dark Paganism is for everyone, but its existence is needed to help encourage balance by showing that pagans need not be afraid of the dark. So my view is that it is a personal path of spiritual freedom, although I often take it upon myself to show others that darkness is nothing to be afraid of.
NW: What made you decide to write a book about dark paganism?
JJC: I had wanted to write a book about my views and had been slowly compiling various essays I had written on various related topics. By the mid-1990’s I had grown very bitter about how one-sided many forms of Paganism had become as they whitewashed and sugarcoated everything. I knew there was an undercurrent of people who wanted something more realistic… something more whole… that sought a true sense of balance. Since many of these people were attracted to darkness simply since it seemed opposite the fluffy trend, I felt all the more encouraged to take my book idea seriously.
The problem with darkness is there is no one definition for it and so the challenge for the book has been how to write about it without constricting it too much. Instead of defining darkness out right, I tried to present various perceptions so as to build a collage of ideas. From that one gets a sense of what darkness is. I don’t think you can define it if you tried, just as one cannot define the Tao; its very nature defies a clear definition.
NW: What has been the reaction in the pagan community to your work? Have you gotten a lot of feedback?
JJC: Reaction has been more positive than I had expected. In almost all the cases of people who did not receive my ideas well, they made it pretty clear in their arguments that they had not read my book. For example, they chastised me for promoting “black magic” which I do not mention at all! In fact one person actually attacked an article I wrote called “Reclaiming Darkness: A Call to Balance” stating I was promoting darkness over light, which was ironic since the essay was about balance through acknowledging both sides! Usually however I get email from readers who are excited because my book was the first time darkness was being truly acknowledged within a Pagan context, which has little to do with “evil”. Many Pagans felt they were alone in their views and my book was the first public attempt to break the rules and mention the dreaded “D” word. It wasn’t so much that my ideas were new but that someone had the balls to go against the grain.
NW: You run a forum for dark pagans. How do you feel about your peers? How do you feel about the current crop of “dark” pagan books that are flooding the market?
JJC: The forum reminded me very quickly just how diverse Dark Pagans and the perceptions of “darkness” can be. I’ve been very happy with the outcome though. Our differences make for good discussion on a wide range of topics. The only problem with a group of individualists is the occasional ego clashing, but I’ve managed to keep that under control.
I have very mixed feelings on the books, which followed mine. I was very careful not to outline too much “how to” since I truly feel that is something, which we must discover for ourselves in our own way through experimentation (mysteries are not learned, they are experienced). I also was very, VERY worried about making darkness the next trend, which the other books seem to be riding on. I guess it comes down to perspective; I am not a “professional author” so I don’t go out of my way to promote myself or sell books – I don’t have to. In my mind those who need my book will eventually find it, and those who are not going to take my work seriously will be unimpressed because I did not include a chapter on spells. I didn’t write the book for them anyway! This is not what happens with “professional authors”. They have to sell books if they want to keep the bigger publishers interested in them. So the other books really did what I had wanted to avoid; they created a trend and focused way too much on the “how to” and not enough time on the details. Of course some good has come from all this… more people are starting to find my book because the other books left them wanting more.
NW: There seems to be an ever-growing contingent of gothic pagans (both from pagans discovering goth and Goths discovering paganism). Why do you feel there is so much synergy between these two belief systems?
JJC: Goths have always been very open minded, seeking areas where they can express and explore aspects of themselves. Sexually speaking you find a higher ratio of bisexuality and fetish-related practices and spiritually you find less dogmatic and more creative paths such as Paganism. Also Paganism is rather more tolerant… as one of my old teachers once said, “it has a high weird tolerance” so a Goth can be him or herself and not have to worry as much about people commenting on how they look, etc.
Sadly there are also some into it just for the trendiness, which both Goths and Pagans have to contend with. It seems those two tends have started to merge in television and movies. The witch is usually portrayed as being somewhat Goth and that has made an impact on the latest generation of Pagans.
NW: What music artists do you like listening to? Do you listen to any specifically “pagan/occult” music?
JJC: I have rather diverse tastes. I love classical music, particularly the older Baroque and Renaissance genres. On the Goth side my likes range from the older rock-like style of Sisters of Mercy to the more Etherial type like Dead Can Dance. I also like the “folky” Sol Invuctus Depends on my mood really. I think the only “Pagan” music I own is Inkubus Sukkubus. I love the fire drums at Pagan festivals but that’s not something that works well for me in a recording.
NW: Published authors are often seen as leaders of the pagan community, do you see yourself in such a role? Where do you see the future of paganism, and what part does the dark pagan movement play in that?
JJC: I think my solitary nature makes it hard to see myself to be a “leader” per se although I do find people tend to consider me one because of my Internet projects like the NYC Pagan Resource Guide and the Pagan Personals. I tend to consider myself more of an underdog… the guy behind the scenes. Becoming an author threw me in the spotlight that I used to avoid so I’m still not sure where that will lead. I’ve been giving occasional lectures at local events, for example, which is a new direction for me. I HATE speaking in public so I see that more as a growing experience for me that seems to benefit others as well. I definitely do not think writing a book is enough to make one a leader.. ANYONE can write books, and far too many books today are just trash. It disturbs me greatly that publishers let such poorly researched and superficial dribble make it to the press but such is the way of business.
I have a very “optimistically pessimistic” view of the future of Paganism. I think Paganism as a whole is going through growing pains. It’s growing faster than it can adapt so we’re finding specific Pagan paths such as Wicca loosing cohesion. People are trying to change and add to these paths without considering the effects. As flexible as these paths are, one has to face the fact that SOME type of boundary needs to be established or it will dissipate into a meaningless blob of unrelated and contradicting ideas. The whole “fluffy syndrome” is merely a symptom of this growing imbalance. Movements like Dark Paganism are a natural reaction to that imbalance which (hopefully) will help encourage a more balanced perspective, and I don’t mean so much equality as I mean a healthy interaction. Some people are more inclined to darker imagery and perceptions and others are more inclined to light; “balance” exists because one is not attempting to sacrifice one for the other.
So in the long run I feel that many of the current forms of Paganism we know today will fade away because they are becoming too trendy and trite, but from the embers will arise a smaller, more serious group of paths that will carry on this spiritual evolution we are a part of. I don’t mean that to knock those Pagan paths. I am actually a strong proponent of Wicca as a viable spiritual path, but it has been so abused my New Age marketing I am not sure if it will be able to recover. Hence I am optimistically pessimistic.
NW: Feel free to plug any projects you have coming up….
JJC: I jump around alot as inspiration hits me so I have 4 or five books in the works at various stages of development. Time is rarely on my side so chances are it will be a while before they are ready to be announced I don’t like to rush and I have never been able to force myself to write unless I was lost in a current of inspiration. The book I hope to finish this year is a massive tome on Wicca and Witchcraft. I can’t get into specifics yet since it takes a very different approach than any other book currently on the market and I don’t want to spoil the surprise. I am very pleased with it and I can’t help but get excited by it since it really is unique.
Most of my public work is in the form of free websites, all of which are listed on my mother site waningmoon.com. It’s a virtual sanctuary for both Goths and Pagans that are all geared to encourage a sense of community by uniting those with similar needs or interests. On the Goth side I have sites like my Gothic Guide to Nail Care, Corporate Goth, and my Gothic Personals; and on the Pagan side I have my Pagan Resource Guide, Pagan Personals, and my research on the history and evolution of Wiccan ethics that is starting to gain recognition in more scholarly circles.