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NEW YORK (Reuters) - Critics of bloody violence and excessive sex on TV have long had HBO's vampire drama "True Blood" in their cross hairs, but now the popular series has another group of wary citizens -- witches, real ones.
The series' fourth season has focused on Marnie Stonebrook (Fiona Shaw), a seemingly harmless medium and leader of a Wiccan group who becomes the physical conduit for Antonia, a long dead witch who is hellbent on vengeance against vampires who persecuted and burned her at the stake.
Marnie winds up as the mouthpiece for Antonia's spell to drive the bloodsuckers of fictional "True Blood" town Bon Temps into the daylight. And that sort of deadly revenge, say some modern-day witches, is what gives witchcraft a bad name.
"I'm absolutely disappointed with the portrayal of Marnie," said one witch -- and professor of biology at a college in New England -- who goes by the magickal name Taarna RavenHawk.
"When Marnie gives up her 'power within,' which is a witch's ability to practice the craft without harming others, it allows possession by Antonia who becomes the controlling entity. Marnie lets it happen. It's unconscionable a witch would act this way."
Elaanie Stormbender, a witch and mother of five who lives in Jackson, Mississippi, said all the members of the small community of witches to which she belongs are displeased with Marnie's behavior. "When witches invoke a spirit, they take precautions and retain full control to banish," she said. "Marnie didn't stay in control, so she's entirely to blame for giving herself over to being possessed."
Marnie's behavior also feeds into some people's fears about witches tampering with forces beyond their control, and the character's recklessness only reinforces this fear, said Stormbender.
Christopher Penczak, co-founder and president of The Temple of Witchcraft, a religious nonprofit organization based in southern New Hampshire that teaches witchcraft to students worldwide, also had concerns about Marnie's negative impact on the overall reputation of witches.
"Marnie does communicate with the dead but she comes into witchcraft lacking groundedness," said Penczak, author of "The Inner Temple of Witchcraft: Magick, Meditation and Psychic Development. "A witch who gets good training usually learns to balance that with discipline, strength and focus. I would have liked to see a witch who was more competent and had a clearer sense of will and purpose."
Another red flag for Penczak is how Marnie has begged spirits to enter her. He said modern-day witches don't look for spirits indiscriminately. In fact, they are very specific about what they want to summon. "They'd never say 'I'm opening the door to whoever wants to come through,'" Penczak said.
Being a witch is hard work, too, and a key complaint about Marnie is that she makes her job seem way too easy. Moreover, she actually raised the dead -- something real witches don't do. They just communicate with those who have passed on.
"Ethical witches communicate with the dead, not bring them back to life. Crossing these lines was very grave and not something any of us would advocate. She went overboard," said RavenHawk.
Of course, going overboard is exactly what "True Blood" does best with not just its vampires, but its shapeshifters and werewolves and even were panthers. It's the sort of behavior that spikes ratings and lures viewers.
Suzanne, also known as Moon, a witch in Atlanta, Georgia, who declined to give her last name, has observed Marnie's huge appeal through the local online forum for solitary pagan practitioners that she created and manages.
"Since the new season of 'True Blood' began, I've seen an increase in new members who are in their teens and may be easily impressed by Marnie's display of power," she said. "It's dangerous when viewers think witchcraft, as Marnie does it, is so easy. For this reason she's a bad example."
Still, all that complaining doesn't seem to make the witches want to cast their own spell to hurt the "True Blood" viewership -- not yet, anyway.
"My witch friends are rabid fans of 'True Blood,' and watch it every week," said Ellen Dugan, a witch and priestess of a six-member coven she co-founded in St. Louis, Missouri.
Dugan, the author of "Practical Protection Magick" and "Natural Witchery," conceded that Marnie's portrayal contains a sensational element, but noted that her witch friends laughed during a recent levitation scene.
"Most witches have a good enough sense of humor," she said.
Editing by Bob Tourtellotte