On Halloween night, when trick-or-treaters in peaked hats and green makeup roam Palo Alto's streets, a roomful of real witches will sit in silence at a dinner table illuminated by candlelight.
The witches, and members of the larger Palo Alto Area Pagan Meetup Group, will gather in silence for "Dumb Supper," during which they hope to summon up spirits.
During "Samhain," an ancient, pre-Christian celebration of honoring -- and hopefully reuniting -- with the dead, Valerie Voigt, a 57-year-old technical writer and Midtown neighborhood resident, will gather with friends and family at her home for the feast.
An extra place at the table will be set for the ancestors, who, in Silicon Valley, might include such luminaries as Charles Babbage, the 19th-century inventor who originated the concept of the programmable computer, she said. Voigt and other pagans will eat in silence and wait, watching for signs of the departed souls.
The Palo Alto Pagan Area Meet-up Group has 285 members who practice nature religions. Some seek connection with ancient African ancestors; others are witches or goddess worshipers, pagan revivalists and re-constructionists who study ancient texts to learn about the roots of pagan rituals and practices, she said.
On Halloween night, Palo Alto's pagans will go all out with decorations. And unlike some residents who have in recent years complained about out-of-town trick-or-treaters, Voigt said she plans to welcome costumed visitors with "lots of treats."
"A lot of pagan religions assume reincarnation. From the perspective of reincarnation, the child asking for treats is seen as the ancestor reborn. Halloween is the festival of ancestors, and it is also the festival of children," she said.
The veil between worlds is thin at Halloween and children personify the trickster spirits, she said. At Samhain, the supernatural is most likely to appear. Sometimes there is the sense of a presence, more like a thing seen with the mind's eye, she said.
Sightings are relatively rare; Voigt has had only one clear encounter with a deceased person during the dinner ritual. But the experience was unmistakable. An ephemeral human form hovered in the darkness, she said.
"I had never seen a ghost or 'shade.' I looked to my friend who was sitting next to me. He was staring and pointing and nodding," she said.
The ghost made a sound like bats do, she said.
"You read Shakespeare, and he talks about the 'gibbering ghost.' I always thought that was a metaphorical phrase," she said.
Far from gatherings over boiling cauldrons of foul-smelling brews, the Palo Alto pagan group normally meets at Hobee's in south Palo Alto on Tuesdays at 12:30 p.m. The luncheon group is open to anyone who wants to learn about pagan practice, she said.
The group has a scholarly bent, sharing information about rituals and picking up practices or reviving others based on archeological transcriptions of ancient texts. When Greek papyri about ancient rituals were finally translated in the 1990s, they provided a gold mine, she said.
On a recent weekend, some members gathered to make masks for Halloween. Such gatherings are often a family affair, including children, Voigt said.
For 13 years, Voigt ran the pagan-occult-witchcraft special-interest group in Mensa. An Alabama native, she was raised in a Christian home, but she chose to be a pagan at age 16 after reading the entire Bible and disagreeing with most of it, she said.
"My values were different from what I saw in the Old Testament. Judeo-Christian religion is about belief. Pagan religion is about practice and values. It's unusual to say, 'What do you believe?' Everything changes. The assumptions you make change based on experience. It's more about, 'Do you value some things in common?'" she said.
The bonds in the pagan community mirror the kinds of social benefits people get from churches and other groups, helping each other or volunteering, she said.
"We are working with and for our local community. Those are things that not only do good for the community but foster the more genuine bonds between people," she said.