Witches, cults and the occult: Popular STCC course explores timeless themes

Hampden County

Professor Steve D. Vossen (STCC)

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. (WWLP) – Though it was 10 years ago, Professor Steve D. Vossen remembers like it was yesterday the call  from Debbie Bellucci, a former dean at Springfield Technical Community College.

“Steve, I need a favor,” said Bellucci, now senior director of Business Services at STCC. “Would you be willing to teach the History of Witchcraft and Superstition?”  

“And I said, ‘Excuse me! Can you repeat that?’ ” 

Long story short, Vossen has been teaching the course ever since. And loving every minute of it. Apparently, so do his students.

 Richard Greco, dean of Liberal and Professional Studies, said the course fills quickly every time it’s offered.

“It’s a wildly popular course at STCC,” he said. 

Previous iterations included mentions of the Loch Ness monster, werewolves and vampires. Vossen took a different tack, making the course his own, infusing it with history and posing challenging questions for students to ponder.

He estimates that by now he’s taught the course 10 to 15 times. While its title leads some to assume it’s an easy three credits or novelty course, students soon learn otherwise.

“They’re dissuaded of that the first day,” he said. “It dawns on them real quick they do a lot of work for me.”

Vossen, a full-time history teacher at Monson High School, teaches college students at STCC and Bay Path University, offering courses on the Holocaust, early U.S. history and the psychological effects of social media and smart phones.

He approaches the three-credit History of Witchcraft and Superstition class as a serious academic pursuit looking at a relatively unknown history. Students are required to undertake a research paper and sit for essay question exams. Vossen sees the course as an opportunity to help students understand a psychological phenomenon that is at the core of all cultures over time.

“There’s an incredible history revolving around witchcraft and superstition in general,” he said. “The sky’s the limit of what you can do.”

The course uses two textbooks: “A Delusion of Satan” by Frances Hill, which documents the history of the Salem witch trials and “Occult America” by Mitch Horowitz, looking at the history of spiritualism and secret societies and their impact in the United States.

Vossen says his goal in the course is to develop a deeper understanding among students of three factors that connect humans across cultures: fragility, vulnerability and, for better or worse, their susceptibility to all kinds of belief systems.

In teaching about the Salem witch trials, he sets them into context with the history of witchcraft in Europe, looking at the witch-hunting practices in Europe as a kind of genocide.

Witch-hunting was a lucrative activity deeply rooted in misogyny. “Once you were accused of being a witch, they took all your stuff,” he said. “These women practiced medicine, and they didn’t want to compete with women.”

He teaches about the power of cults and their leaders, people like Jim Jones, Hitler and Shoko Asahara, exploring why and how they managed to lead groups of people to commit unspeakable acts against others and themselves. “For me, if you can literally believe that a fellow human being is a god, I find that interesting, but again, everybody is vulnerable.”

The course also delves into the history of spiritualism in the United States, which Vossen has been a strong theme and in many ways is a little known part of U.S. history, particularly looking at the period from 1848 with the Fox sisters and their role in the Spiritualism movement through 1926 with the death of Harry Houdini. Students learn about spiritualism in the United States, and how First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln famously held seances in the White House. 

He teaches about secret societies such as Illuminati, the Knights Templar and the Freemasons.

And he challenges students’ beliefs, trying to get them to ground their conclusions in fact and research and to think about why vulnerable people might seek out the comfort of paranormal activities and the occult.

“What connects us across the centuries is our fragility, vulnerability and susceptibility,” he said.

“You never know what people are going through. Mary Todd Lincoln lost her son. It’s amazing what people do to find some level of comfort — then and now.”

Douglas Bednarczyk, a 2020 STCC graduate, took the course mainly because it fit into his busy schedule, but found himself loving it because it was so grounded in history. 

“History for me is just awesome,” said Bednarczyk. “It dove deeper into the roots of what actually happened.”

When it came time to write his final paper, Bednarczyk pursued a topic rather unusual for a college  course: a theory that aliens built the pyramids. (Because of what a mammoth task it was to build the pyramids at a time when there was no automation, some have suggested aliens built them.) Bednarczyk said he took no position on the question in his paper.

“I’ll tell you this, I’ve never written about aliens before, so it was interesting,” he said. “I kind of came to the conclusion you could argue both sides.”

Meanwhile, Dean Rick Greco, who took the course back when he was a student in 2008-2009, believes it offers lessons that stand the test of time and distance.

“We see the same myths come up over and over again in countries that are separated by vast oceans,” said Greco. “People are interested in the supernatural. Part of what that course answers is why that is and how it’s at the core of all cultures.”

Interested in applying to STCC? Visit stcc.edu/apply or call Admissions at (413) 755-3333.

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