The black arts are on the increase and Claire Konkes discovers there are witches coming out of the broom closet everywhere.
Double, double toil and trouble; fire burn and cauldron bubble ... Hold on to your broomsticks. Day of the dead, Halloween, Beltane - call it what you will - tomorrow is the annual spiritual hoedown, when ghosts, faeries, goblins and the whole bleeding lot shake their booty for the hell of it. Around the country, witches, warlocks and their associates are already gathering to celebrate.
Australians it seems, are increasingly turning to the occult for spiritual solace. Nearly half Australian women and just over a third of men now admit to believing in ghosts and faeries.
The Churches of Set, Farrar and Wicca are a few of the other-worldly congregations that have arisen in recent years, and university campuses around Australia have seen new pagan-oriented clubs and societies take off.
On TV we are enchanted by a buxom bloodsuckers' foe in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, entranced by spell-casting sisters in Charmed and daintily cursed by Sabrina the Teenage Witch.
Practical Magic, The Craft, The Sixth Sense and The Haunting are just some of the dark tales that have appeared on the big screen in the past 12 months. And in December we will encounter The Blair Witch Project, which has stormed the US box office, raking in more than $US130 million ($195 million) since its release in July.
Ghost specialist and owner of Melbourne's The Haunted Bookshop - where "every day is Halloween" - Drew Sinton says there are more occultists practising in Australia than ever before.
"A lot of it is Hollywood-inspired and psychological, but the people I see are experimenting and looking for something else."
He will be master of ceremonies at a para-normal gathering at Seymour in rural Victoria tomorrow night.
"That's where we actually sacrifice Christians!" he laughs.
"It's a night where the membrane between this world and the next is at its thinnest. It's a night for the celebration of the spirit.
"For us, it's bigger than Christmas."
Opinions vary but the celebration of Halloween can be traced beyond medieval times, to pagan rituals celebrating the change of season - rituals turned upside down in the southern hemisphere. Australia's only registered church of witchery, the Church of Wicca, will mark the day with rebirth as part of the pagan celebration of Beltane.
"Beltane is the birthing festival," says Wicca founder Tamara Von Forslun. "It's the welcoming of the sun. It's the beginning of summer."
Lady Von Forslun, as she prefers to be known, sank hundreds of thousands of dollars into establishing Wicca - the country's only federally recognised neo-pagan religion -- in 1972. It has thousands of members in covens around the country.
"Wicca has taken all the concepts of the ancient religion -- the ancient pagan faith -- and reawakened those ways," she says.
"What has happened is that Wicca is really a New Age religion, the religion of tomorrow, the religion of the future."
Wicca witch of the moment and Playboy centrefold Fiona Horne, formerly of DefFx and now of the dark side, launched her book Witch: A Magickal Year, with the help of Von Forslun at the Wicca headquarters in Perth last week.
Von Forslun runs the "some of my best friends are Christian" line but doesn't pull punches about the Christian church.
"I don't rip to pieces Christianity. I rip to pieces the men who have created the concepts of Christianity.
"It's a man-made religion, and men in those days were anti-women. The pagan movement was so huge that they had to first of all marry it and mix the two together, and when they got powerful enough they slaughtered everyone and said: 'Right, now we're taking over."'
It has always been very much a feminine realm and the charter of several covens around Australia dictates that the high priestess has rights matching those of the priest in the hierarchy of the Catholic church.
Wicca is an old Anglo-Saxon word meaning to shape and bend, which can be applied to any witch. According to Von Forslun, before the Christian invasion of Britain from Rome in about AD700, there was no such word as witch.
"There was just Wicca, meaning the wise one or the healer or the midwife."
But, as opposed to the genuine hocus pocus of Wicca, Sinton is wary of tricksters.
"The first thing I ask them is: if you claim to be who you are, where's proof of your manifestation?
"Now, if you're an unemployed, shiftless bugger from the outer suburbs somewhere, and you claim to be high priest or high priestess and your personal life's a mess - well, you don't impress me."
He says the solitary figures are where real magic is being conjured but gurus can spell trouble. He cites the instance of a Melbourne man with a coven of enchanting young followers who appeared briefly earlier this year.
"I've been on the receiving end of psychic attacks from this coven and that coven, and they're all just drop kicks, I would have to say."
Black-clad figures wander in and out of the store throughout the day, requesting spells for love and success.
But Sinton says there is a lot more to black magic than waving a wand and dancing naked beneath the moon.
"It's not a matter of pulling out a spell book and going, 'Hocus pocus, here we go boyfriend, boof!'
"There's a lot of learning involved and it doesn't quite work the way it does on television. A lot of it is esoteric study and understanding principles."
Sinton admits that much of the magic that does occur is applied willpower.
"Wicca or witchcraft is another version of applied willpower that may work for some but not for all," he says.
Daniel Bray, 29, founded the Psychic and Gnostics of the University of Sydney in 1993, and it has had 150 regular members since then.
Along with the university's Faerie Society, it is a network for students with pagan leanings and has members from a range of beliefs.
A student of religious studies and member of the Nordic cult Asatru, Bray says lectures on druidism and satanism attract big audiences but there's also a significant revival of Norse traditions at the moment.
"Many different strings are appearing, from the more magical order of Rune-gild to the more general religious branches such as Melbourne's Ordinnic Rite."
For the sceptics, tomorrow night the annual Houdini Halloween seance will take place on the Web (www.microserve.net/~magicusa/seance.html); it is an attempt to contact the great escapologist and sceptic who, on his deathbed, challenged the world to speak to him on the other side.
They have been trying for 72 years.