Manitou Springs, a picturesque mountain town nestled in the shadow of Pikes Peak, is full of whispers of witches and witchcraft.
Maybe you’ve heard it from an Uber driver on the way to an area bar or while scrolling through a travel site. It’s a tale that often wanders through word of mouth. Wherever it comes from, legend has it there are witches in Manitou Springs. More, perhaps, than usual.
But is there an overabundance of witches in this town at the foot of America’s mountain, where at least one apothecary sells miniature broomsticks — or is it just a persistent urban legend?
The reputation has such a stubborn legacy that Focus on the Family, an evangelical powerhouse in Colorado Springs representing a significant part of the religious ideology in the region, in a blog post last year warned about the “hidden traps of Wicca.”
The reality is a little more complicated. The witchy nature of Manitou Springs may be less about reality than lingering local lore.
Where did the ‘witches in Manitou’ thing come from?
In more than two dozen conversations with tourists, service industry workers, shopkeepers and passersby on a recent Tuesday afternoon in Manitou, 24 people said they had heard something about “witches” in this place that the Los Angeles Times reported in 2017 has a “weekly Wiccan meetup.” The travel site Afar.com describes Manitou as “a quirky mountain town with a large Wicca population.”
For Michelle Deborah Weisblat-Dane, who has lived in Manitou Springs for more than two decades, it seems like whenever she travels to another state and mentions her hometown, the witch thing comes up. She recalls bringing up her hometown in a conversation with a pair from Florida while in line at a California restaurant in the 1990s. “Oh,” one of them remarked, “the town with witches.”
They don’t exactly keep a formal registry of Wiccans and witches posted on the Main Street town bulletin board, so precise data about their presence in Manitou Springs — as in the rest of the country — is hard to come by.
A public Facebook page called The Manitou Witch currently has more than 200 likes. Rebekah Grace, a non-Wiccan witch who co-runs the page, conducted a poll of 120 members in a more private version of her page for the purpose of this story.
All 120 followers of the private page live in either Manitou or Colorado Springs, she says. Out of 34 people who responded to a question asking how they would identify their practices, she said 17 replied “eclectic witches,” and seven said they are “Wiccan.”
Wicca is a Pagan religion. Followers can be of any gender identification, practice any other religion or be of any age. Some Wiccans practice in covens, some solo. Some might celebrate the annual solstices and equinoxes, honor gods and goddesses, believe in reincarnation— or not. Modern day Wicca varies greatly among its followers. Clearly.
Pagan witchcraft is not always synonymous with Wicca. Witchcraft, simply put, is a practice of magick— spelled with a “k” to differentiate from performance magic — with or without connection to the Wicca religion. So to clarify: Wiccans are not always witches and vice versa. Wicca is a nature-based religion that respects life and energy, while witchcraft is a practice of magical skills and metaphysical abilities.
The number of people practicing Wicca worldwide is not known, according to the Pew Research Center, which studies religious affiliation around the globe.
Neither the Manitou Springs Library, Penrose Library in Colorado Springs, Manitou Springs Heritage Center, nor the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum had solid historical resources regarding the origins of the Manitou legend.
But as far back as the 1960s and ‘70s, Colorado Springs-area Wiccan witch Curt Brasier remembers when there were a lot of witches in Manitou.
Wicca in a conservative Christian stronghold
In the early ‘90s, as Colorado Springs was trying to find new lifeblood in the rubble of a savings-and-loan crisis, dozens of Christian churches and religious nonprofits relocated to the area lured with the promise of economic incentives.
Colorado Springs, known at the time as the “Foreclosure Capital of the World,” rebranded to become known as the “Evangelical Capital of the World.” Focus on the Family was the largest evangelical parachurch organization to settle in, hiring 400 locals and bringing 350 workers from its previous headquarters in California. A network of like-minded institutions followed suit.
Along the way, a new heavy Christian influence in Colorado Springs bumped up against a legend about the smaller town next door.
In the early 1990s, the high-profile former Christian conservative leader Ted Haggard, who ran New Life Church in the Springs, reportedly told stories about “how witches from Manitou Springs had left animal remains on his doorstep.” He also alleged a coven sent a witch to stab him while he was working in his garage. Haggard declined multiple interview requests, saying that he is living a “peaceful, quiet life according to the Scriptures.”
In a recent interview, Glenn Stanton, director of global family formation studies at Focus on the Family, described Wicca as a “Satanic kind of faith-rooted system.” “We see this in a black-and-white sort of way that as Bob Dylan said, there’s either the devil or the God,” he said.
Within the past 15 years, Stanton says he believes he’s noticed an uptick in pagan faithfulness, but that it “ebbs and flows” that he described as “fashionable movements in the sense of ‘I think I’m going to try and be a Wiccan for a while.’’’ Something else he’s noticed is bumper stickers. You might have even seen one yourself recently: “My other car is a broom.”
So is this an overblown urban legend or what?
In Manitou Springs, evidence of witchiness is at once everywhere and nowhere. Plenty of people there certainly know of the town’s reputation, but documentation about the reality is harder to come by.
There’s the horror mockumentary, “The Warning,” a film by Summer Moore, a Liberty High School graduate turned filmmaker. Filmed in Colorado Springs, “The Blair Witch Project”-inspired script follows three friends as they investigate a local cult in the forest that borders the town.
While promoting her film in 2015, Moore told The Gazette she spoke with 50 of her classmates who alluded to “true accounts” of dark happenings in Manitou. Moore went on to write, produce, and star in her film.
At least one published history of the area doesn’t mention it. Manitou Springs by Deborah Harrison, the most recent book about the town, carried no reference to witches, Wicca or the story the town seems to tell about itself.
When Bryant T. Ragan, a history professor at Colorado College, was teaching a class at Colorado College in 2018 titled “Sorcery, Magic, and Devilry: The History of Witchcraft,” he wanted to bring in a practicing Wiccan from Manitou Springs to talk to his students. He ultimately couldn’t track down someone willing to do it.
Perhaps that’s because of a “certain kind of hostility expressed to people who are from minority backgrounds in a wide variety of ways,” says Ragan, who lives in Manitou Springs. “In an area with a lot of conservative evangelical Christians, I can imagine the difficulty that that would pose to people who are Wiccans.”
How about that “weekly Wiccan meetup” mentioned in the LA Times?
Well, employees at both Celebration Metaphysical Center and Mountain Metaphysical Shop in Colorado Springs say they receive phone calls inquiring about Wiccan meetups in the area, but neither were aware of any regular meetings.
Only a 9-minute drive from Manitou Springs, Mountain Metaphysical Shop employee Tim McClund said he’s had so many inquiries about Wiccan meetups, he’s thought about opening a coffee shop just for Wiccans to gather.
Only one coven in the area, Eclectic Group Coven of the Five Elements, posts its business cards on the wall at Celebration Metaphysical Center. Coven organizer Rev. Thorian Shadowalker declined to go into detail through direct message on meetup.com.
Because of “the relentless stigma even today, most are not yet outed about their beliefs,” Shadowalker wrote, adding that Manitou Springs “is the witch capital of the U.S. for a reason. I will leave you to [your] research to find out and discover why that is so.”
On a sunny December afternoon, residents and tourists strolled around Manitou Springs, popping into holiday-themed stores, grabbing coffee and milling about.
In a town of roughly 5,300 people, some residents not only know they share a community with some witches but said they wouldn’t want it any other way.
Brenda Wheatbrook of Lane Mitchell Jewelers, a store on the town’s main drag, says her community is safe and friendly — witches included. Her Wiccan neighbors make Manitou Springs “such an incredibly kind, loving, beautiful place to live.” She adds, “I’ve lived here for years, and I don’t even lock my doors. Everybody knows their neighbors. Everybody’s comfortable, everyone gets along here… They don’t worship Satan. That’s Hollywood.”
What if all the rumors are just calculated? A multi-decade marketing ploy to lure in tourists with some local intrigue.
Not so, says Jenna Gallas, a special event coordinator for the Manitou Springs Chamber of Commerce. The reputation of witches in the town is a stigma that the Chamber of Commerce spent “probably the last two and a half decades, at least, trying to overcome,” she says. “When people hear that there’s witchcraft and paganism happening in this town, they tend to stay away.”
But that doesn’t mean stores that sell spell kits or Tarot decks aren’t a part of the town’s identity. “Manitou’s a place where people would come to look for those kind of shops,” Gallas says. “Looking for something funky? I think I could find it in Manitou.”
Hear from a Manitou Springs Wiccan witch himself
Actually tracking down a witch or follower of the Wicca religion who lives in Manitou Springs isn’t easy.
People on the street aren’t always comfortable sharing their beliefs and religious practices, especially when theirs are sometimes considered taboo. Several Manitou Springs residents said some folks who roll through town looking for answers aren’t doing so because they’re curious or supportive but rather trying to question Wiccan beliefs.
But spend enough time scrolling through online forums and chatting with locals, and eventually you might wind up talking to former Episcopalian minister-turned Celtic stormwitch Curt Brasier. And while he can’t speak for all Wiccans or witches, he was willing to open up about his beliefs and his take on the history of the area.
Dressed in a hunter green sweater over an olive green collared shirt, Brasier proudly sports a silver pentagram necklace while seated at Adam’s Mountain Cafe in Manitou Springs on a recent Monday.
Asked about his personal journey with the Wiccan religion, he quotes John Denver to say, “it was like I had come home to a place I’d never been before.”
While he resides in Colorado Springs, Brasier attributes Manitou Springs’ spiritual draw to the area’s massive smoky quartz deposits. After describing one tiny quartz chip’s power to ignite a cigarette lighter upon striking, he pulls out a pristine, 5-inch, clear quartz crystal wand and asks “Can you imagine what this thing does?”
He claims to have steered and “dissipated” multiple storms throughout his Wiccan practices, hence his designation as a stormwitch.
Magick, he reiterates continually throughout a two-hour interview, has both positive and negative powers. “There’s a big responsibility with being a witch. I mean, you can actually hurt people.” Brasier, however, follows a personalized version of the Wiccan Rede, the moral code for Wiccans: “And it harm none, less in defense or for the greater good, do as you will.”
Brasier has a scientific professional history. He holds three degrees, has experience in technological military contracting and worked in the inspection department at Boeing for decades.
When asked whether his metaphysical and scientific beliefs conflict with one another, he says, “Not at all. Diametrically they’re totally separate, just like being a Catholic and being a cop.”
Brasier is an exception to the hushed nature of some other Wiccans in the area. “My wife won’t even talk to you— because I invited her,” he says. “We’re here. But not everybody’s out and about like I am.”
So… will the legend ever die?
Manitou Springs has its fair share of quirky traditions, like an annual coffin race around Halloween and The Great Fruitcake Toss each winter. But as far as visibility goes for the town’s population of witches and Wiccans, it might be a while before they feel comfortable publicly practicing on the streets of Manitou Springs.
Downtown on a recent Tuesday, Deb Robinson of the La Henna Boheme boutique said products, like sage bundles for burning and cleansing, are going fast.
“We have to clear spaces” for more magick-related merchandise like “little spell kit things,” she says. Some people, she believes, are just fed up with organized religion and might be looking for something else — and that has meant more business.
While some shopkeepers like Robinson might welcome such a shift, others in the area are more concerned.
About Wicca and other Pagan faiths, Focus on the Family’s Stanton likens them to “what we as Christians call the kingdom of darkness and that is on the increase, most certainly.”
For his part, Brasier says being private is not the same as not existing.
“There’s a lot of people that really don’t like us. And so a lot of people are hiding,” he says. “And you can’t blame them. But they’re hiding in plain sight.”
Reinstein, Kuhn, Breslow and Wright are journalism students at Colorado College.