Salem warlock blends business with sorcery
SALEM — Christian Day used to have a reliable wand guy.
Day is a practicing witch — he prefers the term warlock — but the magic wands were not for personal use.
Instead, he sold the wands in his witch shops in Salem.
One day, he happened to mention to the witch who made the wands for him that his best wand customers were not actual witches, but the parents of children who were into Harry Potter.
That's when the wand-maker cut him off, appalled that his fine magical instruments were being used as toys by children.
For Day, such clashes come with the territory when you're trying to become Salem's mogul of the occult.
In the "Witch City," there has long been a tension between the practicing witches who flock to the city and their religion's Halloween-friendly version that is for sale along tourist-heavy Essex Street. Between those two worlds sits Christian Day, the most polarizing figure in the "magical community."
Day has established himself as the high priest of commercial witchery in Salem, the builder of a business empire that includes two witch shops, Hex and Omen; a tour company; a popular book; an elaborate Witches Ball; and The Festival of the Dead, an October-long event that includes speakers and séances and a pop-up psychic parlor set up inside the mall.
The point of all this, Day insists, is not simply to make money, as his critics argue. It's about putting witches to work; he has 20 year-round employees and as many as 50 during the Halloween season, and he says that income helps sustain the witch economy and keep the doors open for the serious practitioners. He could not survive, he said, selling potions alone.
His detractors, a whole coven of them, resent his melding of the occult with the "oh, cute" and his ever-growing commercial reach.
"Some people criticize me for being too commercial to the non-magical community," Day said, "but the mystic and the shaman have always been the beacon of magic for those who didn't understand magic."
Mixed into this brew is Day's grandiose persona. He is known for riding around Salem, in his full witch regalia, on a Segway. He promotes himself as "the World's Best-Known Warlock" on his website. And he is known for dishing out cutting cruelty when he feels attacked by a critic.
"His wands were the basic whittle jobs," he said of the wand-maker who cut him off. "I don't think he would have the talent to make brooms."
For years, Lorelei Stathopoulos was one of Day's biggest critics. "He can be so snippy, snarky, and disrespectful," she said of their clashes. But Stathopoulos, the owner of Salem's oldest witch shop, Crow Haven Corner, found herself siding with Day a few years ago in a fight with the city for more licenses for psychic readers. It was then, she said, that she realized they were on the same team, battling a not-so-hidden faction in Salem that would simply like the whole witch thing to go away.
Now Stathopoulos considers Day one of her closest friends, and sees in him a person who is working incredibly hard, under incredible criticism, to nudge the witch community into something approaching public acceptance.
"One of the biggest things I've done is prove to the rest of the Salem business community that I wasn't just another crazy in black clothes," Day likes to say.
Day, who is 44, came to the business of witchcraft somewhat late in life. He was born in neighboring Beverly "on Christmas Day to a mother named Mary." He moved to Salem when he was 4, and said he grew up as "the weird, terribly shy kid that got picked on." At age 17, he bought his first deck of tarot cards. The following year, he became a practicing witch.
But when it came time to choose a career, Day initially went the traditional route, working in marketing and advertising in Boston until his early 30s, when he came to realize he wanted to live "a magical life full time." He and his best friend, a fellow witch named Shawn Poirier, revived the Witches Ball, then started Festival of the Dead in 2003.
Poirier was the face of the brand, Day said, while he was the business brains, and said their goal was "to create the kind of events we would want to go to." But in 2007, Poirier died, and Day said he was forced to assume both roles, publicly, to a chorus of critics.
"There's not a crime I haven't been accused of on social media," Day said.
And while he argues much of it is born of petty jealousy, there is no doubt that the constant criticism stings him, the endless parade of witches who wish failure on him . . . and may even go further.
Last October, he had a spectacular crash on his Segway when one of the wheels magically flew off, as if an occult hand had reached down from above and removed it. Or he hit a curb too fast.
But Day has not backed off on his ambition — he and his Segway have become familiar sights in New Orleans, where he recently opened a witch shop and is planning a festival. And he has not shied away from attention. As he walked down Essex Street recently in a flowing black cloak, black eye makeup, black everything, he basked in the double-takes.
By his side was his fiancé, Brian Cain, a fellow male witch who was similarly dressed. The two will be married next month in a "Warlock Wedding" at Hammond Castle in Gloucester.
They were on their way to the home of Laurie Cabot, the woman who trained Day in witchcraft. Technically, they were going to pick up some "magic spell cords" that Cabot was making for one of Day's shops. But Day always hopes to pick up something else from Cabot: approval.
As they entered her home, Cabot, who is in her 80s, was sitting behind a desk in a black cloak, the hood pulled back to reveal a white mane of hair and the now-iconic swirl tattoo on her left cheek.
The desk was covered in jars of potions, and Day went silent as Cabot dipped a paintbrush into one of the jars and ran it across a leather strap to "charge the spells" she had written on it.
"There's a lot of people who will say he's too commercial, but they said the same thing about me," said Cabot, who began, to much public criticism, the modern era of witchcraft in Salem in the 1970s, hundreds of years after the infamous Salem witch trials of the 1690s.
"But to teach the public, you have to be visible," she said as she dipped the brush again. "Being the most visible witch is the major role."
Day looked on silently, the directive clear, his eyes in a faraway place as if he was lost in a spell.