The Altar Room is the city’s semi-secret portal to all things mystic and mysterious, the big ball happens again Oct. 28
By Scott Thomas Anderson
Sacramento has been a city of unwavering individualists ever since flooding in the New Helvetia Cemetery brought moldering coffins up from the earth and drifting along the rickety plants of its boardwalks. Witnessing the Dead riding the river like that could have sent some fortune-seekers running; but even back in 1845, the area was a gathering ground for mavericks who were following their own path – no matter what.
Within four years, it would also become a cultural cauldron bubbling with spiritual beliefs from around the globe.
Today, the ethos of free will meeting sacred exploration finds an atmospheric power inside a shop near Broadway and 65th. It’s a stirring and half-hidden cavern of enigmas known as The Altar Room. The place was created by Shasta Smith, a member of Sacramento’s witchcraft community who wanted to channel her love of natural history into a kind of psychomanteum of rare, antique pagan and occult books, along with captivating alter supplies brought back from the Old World.
Venturing in, guests encounter everything from snarling bear heads and taxidermied wolves, to guides on love potions and long, whitened dolphin bones. Smith describes The Altar Room as “a primitive apothecary” filled with “divinely aged interiors.” She opened it a few years ago, just as she was observing the city’s witchcraft practitioners getting more open about their lives, and more intriguingly vibrant as a group; “Loud and proud” is how Smith puts it. She knew it had been quite a spell since there was a business catering to pagan traditionalists. Once upon a time, Sacramento had a small witch-friendly store on Franklin Boulevard. Everyone remembers it having roosters in cages out front. That was in the past – and the city has never had a shop like The Altar Room.
One thing that sets the museum-like den apart is that it carries products from other innovators within the witchcraft circle. That includes Lex Logan III, who, under her brand Sacred Sacramento, offers hand-made items for self care, energy healing and a broader path to spiritual wellness. Logan’s candles, sprays and oils aim to help manifest intentions and banish negative energies. One can find an entire collection of them displayed under a ram’s skull inside The Altar Room.
As Sacramento’s witchy gals have stepped out of the shadows in recent years, they’ve found support, camaraderie and a home for partying at Shannon McCabe’s Vampires Ball. McCabe essentially founded the region’s vampire community some 15 years ago, after she and Carol Gillis were contemplating activities for Halloween over a glass of Vampire Wine. They came up with a gala that was half lusty tailoring and half Devil-may-care fun. The centuries-old lore of subversive immortality fueled its ambiance. As Shannon McCabe’s Vampires Ball became an annual event, it started drawing free spirits obsessed with lavish Gothic style, not to mention the dark romanticism that runs through vampiric literature, films and television shows. Over the next decade, Vampire gatherings in Sacramento coalesced into a cross-section of fang-wearers, Steam Punk devotees, pirate authenticists and, yes, black-clad witches.
These days, if Sacramento’s Vampire community has one true credo, it’s an unflinching embrace of all kinds.
With the Halloween season being perhaps the public’s most accepting time for hearing about these unique groups, SN&R sat down for a conversation with Shasta Smith, Lex Logan III, Shannon McCabe and Elisa Bloom, the vocalist and creative director for A Death in Bloom, an industrial Goth band with glam flourishes that’s headlining Shannon McCabe’s Vampires Ball on Oct. 28th at Harlow’s. Bloom identifies as both a vampire and a witch. Before heading into The Altar Room, the five of us had a long talk about these lesser-known cultures of the Capital City.
SN&R: How was the Altar Room born, and what’s its connection to witches calling this place home?
Shasta Smith: “I’m a history preservationist and I educate on pagan and occult history; and under the pagan umbrella, falls witch craft, along with the metaphysical and esoteric. The pagan witchcraft community is a trickle-down effect from peoples’ ancestors. So, this would be pre-Christian beliefs from people about their way of life in villages and towns of the past. So, it’s people today trying to embody, within their activities, how their ancestors did things. The Sacramento witch community, specifically, has two parts to it: There’s a very young community, meaning their study of it is still very new; and there is also a very old, traditional part of Sacramento that has been living quietly, until very recently. Now, people have found a freedom to practice their beliefs at their leisure and without the same kind of rules there were before. There’s no biblical book that they have to open up and follow a rule. When a full-moon comes out these days, you see all over social media where people are really celebrating it. That was such a practice of our ancestors. The same is true for the equinox and the solstice, people are very much coming alive with it. You can talk about it now without being ridiculed or told you’re a weirdo. We’ve seen a shift happening in the United States where the ‘weirdos’ have a little bit of a different light now.
With the shop, I am specifically honed-in on history. A lot of the things I have pertain to pagan artifacts, or antique witchcraft books, not to mention a vast collection of history books, some of which date back 300 years. When you walk in, you’re surrounded by objects that represent beliefs from around the world. Most of the people I cater to are looking for history-related pieces to use in rituals. Spells is another term that’s used. It might be related to love, sex magic, divination, necromancy, looking for success in one’s job. And some people just want to decorate. But, in terms of very much wanting to support our witchcraft community, I’ll have featured guests once a month, some of whom might put on a display.”
SN&R: How did the Vampire’s Ball come to define an entirely new community in the Sacramento region?
Shannon McCabe: “It was an event I would do every year right before Halloween and the people who came, some of them were practicing vampires in real life; and I came to learn this, since I had no idea that this type of thing existed, prior to me doing the ball. I had no clue folks actually lived their lives like vampires … Then I noticed that this community was really tight, and they became like this whole family who gathered around the Vampires Ball. It just became special to a lot of people.
We have hundreds of vampires here now, in Sacramento, while there’s thousands in Hollywood and thousands in New Orleans. We call our community here, ‘Sacrament Halo.’ Dress and style is so important to it, as well. The vampire aesthetic is a huge thing for us. It’s how most identify as a vampire – through how they look. The most aesthetic thing of all, obviously, is the fangs. Some of us have custom ones made by Father SebastiaAAn, who literally wrote the book on how to be a vampire community in a city. The aesthetic is one of the most celebrated things about being a vampire.”
SN&R: What is the biggest misunderstanding people might have about Sacramento’s vampire group?
Shannon McCabe: “Blood-drinking. We absolutely do not fuckin’ drink blood. First of all, it’s assault to bite somebody. So, don’t do that. There are people who do drink blood – I’m not going to pretend they’re not out there; but that does not describe our community in any way, shape or form. What we do is raise the collective energy at a party by doing a ritual. Or maybe we’ll do a reading from ‘The Black Veils’ book that talks about family or community. We get everybody hyped-up that way, and that raises the energy of the party, and that’s what vampires communicate through – it’s a vampire current.”
SN&R: What are the main misconceptions about Sacramento’s witches?
Shasta Smith: “It has to be presented in a way where it’s, I guess, hyper-friendly – non-threatening. People want to pull out the spooky side, and say things like, ‘Oh, you’ve got dead animals in your shop!’ The thing is, that’s a natural history display. Now that there’s information available about paganism all over the place, people can read about it and realize that it’s not threatening: We’re not eating babies; we’re not burning anything; we’re not sacrificing things in the name of whatever. We’re not casting curses on people. I call all that the Hollywood effect.”
SN&R: Why do witches and vampires mingle so much at this particular ball?
Lex Logan: The Vampire’s Ball is so great because it’s really a community of acceptance. I think that’s why so many witches have been adopted by the Vampire community, because there’s a space for everyone there.”
SN&R: How does the band A Death in Bloom fit into all of this?
Elisa Bloom: “As a witch in the community, I’m pretty out about it, though just kind of soft-spoken, because we’re all on our own journeys. I kind of have my low-key lifestyle, but I take my practicing very seriously and that’s something I came into from being a former Catholic. I just feel like I was a little witch from the time I was a little girl. I didn’t quite belong with my family and what they were practicing. I found my own path.
As a vampire, I enjoy performing at Shannon’s balls. We developed this band, A Death in Bloom, so that we could have a fun time bringing a little horror out into the world. We just like to get together and have a really good time, and we like to bring up the energy. My husband does all the lighting. I like that we’re able to entertain people and get them to get up and dance and have a good time. We try to bring joy to the group. We’re very inclusive and we try to choose songs that will appeal to everyone there.”
SN&R: What’s the mission behind Sacred Sacramento?
Lex Logan: “There’s a lot of gate-keeping in the online community around all of this. My goal is to help people who are like me, either moms or just busy – just starting out and don’t know what they’re doing – to have a place where they can be met in the middle. I’m trying to create a space where you’re bringing that sacred energy back into your life. I grew up very religious, and something that I still hold dear is the prayer and the reverence, as well as going through life with intentionality and having a purpose for your day, your spirit and your soul-growth.
Most of my items involve self-help, self-care, self-love – things for success. Bath ritual things. And my goal is to teach people how to do this themselves. I try to make kits for people to put together. So, after they have this product, they realize, ‘Hey, I have this herb, I have that herb, I can do this on my own now.’ And I make cards that have pretty lengthy definitions on each herb, how they can be used, why you want to use it. I talk about how you can incorporate this into your everyday routine: Every day can be a day-long ritual. You don’t have to get into a cloak, turn down the lights and get all these candles and a book of Latin – I definitely have things for those special times – but I also have things like anointing oils for your days; I have ChapStick that has herbs and oils that do things for you spiritually. One of my best-selling Chapsticks is called Speak Easy, and it’s basically to open your throat chakra – to have you speak clearly your desires and goals, and not trip over what you think other people want from you. It’s about trying to stay true to who you are and speak from your heart.”