For heathens' sake
Till death do they part: On Halloween, a 'Catholic witch' and a pagan tie the knot with a most unusual twist

By Ellen McCarthy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 2, 2009

Thick, ashen clouds streamed above the quiet hillside and a fierce gust blew below, tossing a broom off the makeshift altar and sending shivers down the spine of a fairy princess.

"All right, there are enough witches here, let's get this wind away," implored one woman among the gathered crowd of maidens, knights, wizards and dark angels.

But perhaps the wind was meant to blow when the auburn-haired bride made her entrance, veil flying, long silk gown glinting with 1,500 garnet and citrine jewels, escorted by her father and the otherworldly strains of the theme from "Edward Scissorhands."

The black-robed high priest and priestess presiding over this sacred rite would call forth the wind, along with water, earth and fire, to consecrate the vows exchanged Saturday by Christina Dorffner and Daniel Shank, one self-described Catholic witch and one pagan.

"All I've ever wanted out of anything was to spend the rest of my life with you," Shank said, taking Dorffner's hand on Halloween, or, to pagans, Samhain (pronounced "SOW-en"), the day when the barrier between the living and the dead is supposedly most porous.

With that -- and the power vested in millionaire lottery winner Ellwood "Bunky" Bartlett by the gods and goddesses, "the Lord and Lady," and the state of Maryland -- the two were wed.

Linganore Winery in Mount Airy played host to the 140 costumed guests who gathered to witness the couple exchange vows in a 20-minute ceremony in an outdoor pavilion that combined Christian rituals -- the unity candle -- with pagan traditions, such as handfasting, an ancient practice in which the couple's wrists are bound with a rope.

Inside the vineyard's converted barn, family members and friends -- many of them non-pagans -- were met by a mix of sacred pagan symbols and Halloween house-party kitsch. Plastic skulls hung from wooden posts, and severed limbs were strewn throughout the dance floor. A plastic, two-headed animatronic goblin sat on the gift table, a groom's cake shaped like a zombie oozed blood (raspberry filling), and guests posed with a demon baby in a photo corner.

Before dinner was served, Shank, who leads a paranormal club that investigates hauntings, asked for a moment of silence out of reverence for the Samhain ritual of "the dumb supper," which honors deceased ancestors. An empty table was laid with a plate of Macaroni Grill pasta and a glass of Linganore chardonnay for the deceased.

Count Gore De Vol (a.k.a. Dick Dyszel), the local legend and horror movie host on WDCA in the '70s and '80s, provided the entertainment, putting 10 wedding-goers, including the groom, into hypnotic trances. When the hypnotized Shank was told he was an alien and was asked to speak in his native language, he replied: "Ahhh, bip, bip, bip."

When boy met girl

The bride and groom met in the suburbs of Baltimore. He was 16, skateboarding and making trouble with Dorffner's older brother. She was 13, a "pesky little sister" trailing along during the day and confessing her crush to a diary at night.

When her family moved away, they forgot each other. Five years later, he walked into the video store where she worked. There wasn't even a glimmer of recognition, but Shank, then a 21-year-old punk rocker with an orange mohawk, caught Dorffner's eye -- she was in her black-lipped Goth phase. "Cool hair," she said.

It was his turn to develop a crush as they talked music and horror films. Only after they went on a date a few weeks later did Dorffner realize this was the same Dan she'd pined for as a girl. By then, she was "completely in love."

After a year, they moved in together. He dropped out of funerary school and took a job operating a forklift at a steel mill, helping to put her through college as she juggled odd jobs and tuition bills.

Challenging faiths

As a teen, Shank began questioning the Catholic faith in which he'd been confirmed. He explored world religions before embracing paganism, a polytheistic faith that has as its main goal, Shank said, "learning to live in harmony with nature." It appealed, he said, because it seemed to cut out the middleman in his search for the divine.

"Everybody else forces you to look up to somebody else for an answer. . . . You have to drop a dime to the priest," he said. "Paganism allows you to create your own inner dialogue with whatever you consider to be the infinite."

Dorffner accepted Shank's faith, but was wary of it for herself, like Shank a confirmed Catholic. Still, when Shank signed up for a year-long Wiccan 101 class that Bartlett was teaching at a New Age shop, Dorffner decided to go. She didn't formally dedicate herself to the religion but now refers to herself as a Catholic witch.

The class gave birth to a close friendship with Bartlett, an accountant who was forever offering to marry the couple. There was no doubt they would someday, Dorffner said. "We had this vision of what we wanted if we got married, but knew we couldn't afford it."

After almost a decade together, the pair wound up living in a rat-hole apartment. Rain leaked into their living room. With every trip to the corner store, they tallied the times they were asked to buy drugs. The average was four. Shank says he was working 70 hours a week at the mill. Bills were piling up and Dorffner's school loans were coming due. "You and me against the world" was their constant refrain, but Dorffner found herself on the verge of tears, trying to study over the sounds of sirens and street fights.

"I just remember thinking, 'God, I don't know what it would take to get us out of our current situation, but please just make something happen,' " she said.

Shank's entreaties were more direct. "I started doing all of this money-prosperity magic, trying to make a change," said Shank, whose forearms are tattooed with jack-o'-lanterns.

A stroke of good luck

On the Thursday before Labor Day 2007, he jokingly told half a dozen buddies at the steel mill: "I don't care who wins the lottery, as long as it's somebody near me."

The following Saturday, after a boozy day at the Renaissance Fair, Shank awoke groggy-eyed on the couch. His eyes opened to the sight of Bartlett on television, accepting a giant lottery check. He had won $48 million -- about $32 million after taxes.

That evening, Bartlett called Shank and Dorffner. "He's like, 'Look, I know you live in a crappy neighborhood. I need you to go online tonight and find a house,' " Shank said. The couple said that there was no way they could accept that kind of gift, unless it was deemed a loan.

Bartlett answered, "Okay, then you're going to work for me." Two days later Shank, now 35, handed in his resignation at the steel mill to become Bartlett's property manager. The next month, the couple closed on a house in Taneytown.

"Our lives changed overnight -- literally overnight -- all because of his generosity and him winning the lottery," said Dorffner, 32, who works as Bartlett's personal assistant while finishing her degree in history.

The following December, Shank proposed. "We should do the big wedding that we've always wanted," he said. "We can afford it now."

Monday, they leave on their honeymoon. Them against the world -- Salem or bust.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company