I should have known that a search for real-life witches would lead me straight into the frigid embrace of that equally terrifying creature: the dreaded "pubic-relations liaison." That's right, these days even the toothless hags have staff flacks and a platoon of eagle-eyed Accuracy in Media types who pore over press clips looking for infractions. So far I've committed two. As the Salem, Mass.-based Witches' League for Public Awareness will no doubt remind me if I don't correct the mistake right now, "witches" should be capitalized, because it's the proper name of members of a formal religion. Also, "toothless hag" is a defamatory stereotype. Though there was a time when Witches with fashion smarts could be seen sporting a sparse two or three teeth, a single rheumy eyeball and a tri-haired, putty-colored nose wart, in the Modern Era, 32 choppers and facial normalcy are de rigueur.

Whew! As you can see, Witch-wise, it's not easy being politically correct. But I'm trying. Unlike some people, I think our Halloween all-stars deserve a chance to compete on a level playing field. Even though they're no longer routinely torched or dunked, Witches still have to take a lot of lip from politicians, Christians and assorted cranks. In 1985 Sen. Jesse Helms sponsored a bill that would have denied Witches the tax-exempt status granted religious groups by the IRS. In 1986 the New England Spy -- a right-wing newspaper handed out free in airports -- charged that Salem Witches were in league with California Satanists in a "pagan-religious-insurgency movement" that, among other things, controlled the recording industry. During last spring's Salem mayoral primaries, an anonymous source told local news media that city councilman and mayoral candidate Robert Gauthier was a warlock. It was suggested that Mayor Anthony Salvo was the mudslinger. In denying this, he slandered Witches everywhere: "Anybody with half a brain wouldn't believe in Witchcraft! I know I don't." And last Halloween, right-wing Washington Times columnist and roving mean person John Lofton got very, very upset when he heard about the Witches' new image-polishing team.

"After all," he fumed, "these folks, over the centuries, have been involved in activities which might, not unfairly, be called anti-social," including "child murder, the invocation of demons . . . desecration of the Cross . . . formal repudiation of the church, and sex orgies." Whoa there, bud! Got videotapes of any of that? Watch out, or you'll get hit with a quadruple-whammy --

Oops, there I go again. I forgot. Witches don't do whammies anymore. I meant: class-action libel suit.

Okay, let's see if we can get this all said at once. From now on, when you think "Witch," forget Macbeth's weird sisters and their Chock Full O' Badness recipes -- wool of bat, tongue of dog, adder's fork and blindworm's sting . . . that stuff is out. (The WLPA says it was never "in," that every negative image of Witchcraft, even in medieval times, was the media's fault -- but let's not split hares. Excuse me, hairs.) Anyway, in the Modern Era, creamy tofu and seaweed- 'n'-rice roll-ups would be more like it, because today's Witches are, essentially, new age eco-child forest mystics. They don't have green skin. They don't ride brooms or party with Satan. They also don't hijack babies, dissect dogs or say "Eh heheh heeee!" All of which might prompt you to ask: Then what good are they? Hey, they're a religion -- they promote community values. According to J. Gordon Melton, a United Methodist minister and religion scholar who studied Witchcraft for 10 years, "Witches follow the Goddess {Diana}, who takes her most complete embodiment in nature and leads Witches . . . to environmental activism, a love of animals, advocacy of health foods, and a healthy respect for the generative powers of nature."

That's nice, I guess, though I'd support a move to put a little more ginger back in Witching. Still, I'm glad you guys won your battles with Helms and Salvo. I'm glad you don't melt when little girls throw water on you. I'm glad you have jobs with regular hours that don't involve handling entrails. And I'm really glad word is out about the good things you do. But now that I've been so fair about presenting your case, Witches, I'd like to offer a little constructive criticism based on my vast experience with the PR biz here in PR Central, okay? Because there are disturbing signs that, like many information-control entities that came before, your WLPA is taking on some unlovable traits.

I'd like to help you avoid this. The first thing to remember is: Cut out the needless "leader buffering." You guys are trying to be people people, right? So what happened when I called and asked to speak to the WLPA's Top Witch, Laurie Cabot? I got a runaround, just as if I were calling a faceless government behemoth. The Witch who took my call said I'd first have to "send a sample copy of my publication" and "a written request for an interview" that described the "nature and intent of the article." I explained that WORKING INKMEN don't have time for such nonsense, but all I got was another number and some sniffy instructions: "You'll get an answering machine. Leave your message and someone may get back to you."

Grrr. Dial dial, ring ring. A human answered. "Hello?"

"Uh . . . who's this?" I said.

"Who's this?"

Pause. Then me again. "Who -- Look, I'm looking for . . . the major Witch, the key Witch. Is this? -- "

"Who is this?!" Hmm, crabby manhandling of the Public. I identified myself, and she calmed down and explained what the WLPA stands for, complete with one or two wince-producing slogans. ("The media has turned our laughter as a people into a cackle.") I asked what the group was up to, and got confirmation that the old public-relations truism was at work again: When you no longer have any serious projects, start a picayune one. With the major controversies behind them, the Witches are now taking on . . . yes, the most picayune project of all: children's cartoons.

" 'The Smurfs' features a bad Witch," Cabot said. " 'My Little Pony' -- it's a toy with a cartoon-movie tie-in that had three bad Witches. We're probably gonna do a letter-writing campaign and ask: 'Hey, why don't you guys use a bad Buddhist for a change?' " Eek. When things come to this, the only remedy is for the PR entity to shut down, but that never, ever, ever happens, so I didn't bother to suggest it. Instead, I asked Cabot what the Witches do on Halloween night -- their New Year's Eve. "We have a small, intimate gathering," she said, "where we put on a costume that symbolizes what we want to become during the new year."

That should be interesting. How do you dress up as a pain in the butt? ::