Even as the president has revived the notion of a “witch hunt” to play down the Russia investigation, witchcraft is raising its profile. There are the Instagram witches with hundreds of thousands of followers, the youthful astrologers with book deals and a profusion of trendy shops in which the slightest awkward movement might knock awry an elaborate display of healing crystals or bundles of palo santo. (Watch out: Those crystals are more expensive than you might expect.)
An interest in the esoteric tends to reassert itself at moments of crisis: Spiritualism was in part a reaction to the Industrial Revolution; the New Age movement reflected the cultural upheaval of the 1960s and ’70s. But I think the growing interest in witches and witchcraft speaks to a uniquely unsettled moment in U.S. history — and an unprecedented loss of hope felt by an entire generation. Absent anything else to hold on to, we’re reaching into the dark.
“Witchcraft,” these days, is loosely defined — generally an occultism with a paganist bent, often with an emphasis on feminine power. The term can be used to describe anything from astrology to Wicca to older syncretic traditions such as voodoo and Santería.
Today’s witches are an eclectic group, ranging from teens who pull the occasional Urban Outfitters-purchased tarot card to devoted practitioners who have adopted the African spiritualism of their ancestors. There are even Christian witches — a new tradition that seems to have cropped up within the past five years. Most younger habitués are developing their own personal practice as they go along. In her 2015 book, “Witches of America,” Alex Mar estimates that there are up to 1 million practicing witches in the United States — a group about the same size as the Seventh-day Adventists.
Witchcraft’s new appeal can be linked to larger social realignments: In surveys on religion, the religiously unaffiliated are the fastest-growing share of the U.S. population, a trend even more concentrated among young adults. But this disenchantment with aspects of organized religion seen as patriarchal and dogmatic has not ended our human search for meaning and deep longing for community. Add to that a general movement toward the natural, the herbal, to lifestyles and practices that are seen as authentic — more authentic than your parents’ Christianity, at least.
Those macro developments are coupled with a very particular sense of unease, a feeling that the wheels may finally be coming off and that there’s not much we can do to stop it. The 2017 edition of the American Psychological Association’s survey found that 63 percent of Americans said they were significantly stressed about their country’s future. Millennials reported the highest level of stress, as they have since 2014.
And can you blame them? The government is gridlocked, climate genocide looms, and, almost without our noticing, profoundly unnatural technologies have inserted themselves — malevolently, in now seems — into every corner our lives. There is a sense that today’s problems are so entrenched that it will take something otherworldly to fix them.
Enter the witch.
“A lot of people right now feel very helpless,” says Teighe Thorsen, the 30-year-old founder of the D.C. witch collective CityWitches. (The local community is 350 members strong, with a 30,000-plus following on Instagram.) “Being able to practice witchcraft gives you a sense of control that you may not have in other parts of your life.”
For many, the craft — or even just the invocation of a witchy identity — is a step toward reclaiming a sense of agency in a world where things seem to be happening to you instead of for you. Infuriated that an accused sexual assaulter could be confirmed to the Supreme Court? Cast a spell. Watching a seemingly untouchable president accuse his opponents of hunting witches whenever his lies are questioned? Fine. “Sure, if you insist, it’s a witch hunt. I’m a witch, and I’m hunting you,” declared columnist Lindy West in the New York Times.
“The power of spirituality as a whole is that it takes a little bit of the pressure off of you,” says Thorsen. The question is how much. It’s one thing to feel agency and another to make use of it. Witchcraft tends toward individualism: Will it encourage a turning inward? We already see a tendency to substitute “self-care” (occult or not) for more deliberate action or real-world connection. What happens if the pressure becomes too much?
The search for meaning has grown more urgent as other certainties have fallen away; millennials’ need for direction has clearly become more acute. But this generation is realizing that it may have to make its own magic.