Bennett, who identifies as nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns, starts by meditating and selecting a tarot card from a deck on a small wooden table. They call it their “working area.” Other items laid out on it include a labradorite crystal for mind-clearing and enhanced intuition, and a wand made of selenite for its protective quality. There is also a slightly singed bundle of juniper, which Bennett burns to cleanse and protect the work area as they focus on connecting to various energies, gods and goddesses, and more deeply to themself.
Bennett practices witchcraft, part of a panoply of multiple nature-based spiritual practices whose growing popularity can be measured in book sales, social media activity and research. Young Americans in particular are revamping mystical language and ancient rituals for their gender-fluid, write-my-own-rules, insta-worthy world. Like Bennett, many other teens discussing witchcraft these days on social media — the hashtag #witchtok on the youth-oriented site TikTok has 19.4 billion views — are looking for a personalized practice that taps into their own spiritual power and identity and feels authentic.
A recent Washington Post-Ipsos poll found that 54 percent of teens ages 14-18 said “living a religious life” is very important to them, compared to 95 percent who prioritized having enough free time and 93 percent who prioritized career success. But social media, commercial data and expert interviews show a deep interest and openness to the supernatural, varied forms of consciousness and the power of not just gods and goddesses of paganism but also saints, angels and demons of Christianity, Islam and other millennia-old faiths. Many young Americans are spiritual seekers, it’s just that the places they look for awe and higher truths aren’t necessarily institutions or scriptures but increasingly in nature and in themselves.
A key difference between today’s teens and earlier generations who explored witchcraft are their parents. Polls show Americans for decades have been loosening their connection to institutional monotheism. Teen witches today aren’t so much rebelling, but building on ties to traditional religions that have already weakened in many American families.
“Their grandparents were at Woodstock!” said Helen Berger, a longtime researcher of witchcraft at Brandeis University. “It’s not that they’re rejecting religion outright, they’re rejecting [the main, established] religions, with too many generalized rules and too unindividualized.”
In Bennett’s case, they experiment with spells or divinations from their Celtic and Turkish ancestries and also with rituals and figures that simply speak to their feminist, goth style, like Hecate, a powerful Greek goddess of witchcraft and the night.
“I’ve never felt more peace than when I’m with my gods. Reading a prayer, or doing a ritual. It’s like the earth is alive, a way of stepping into my power as a person,” says Bennett.
Teen witch influencer
Bennett is reserved by nature; they slouch their tall, thin frame a bit, and opt to take community college psychology classes taped and online from home. But they chatter away confidently on the topic of witchcraft, in part because they’re used to it: Bennett is a witch influencer — albeit on a small scale.
Shot in their bedroom, “Lunar Faery Witch” has 1,100 YouTube subscribers following their video explainers about different aspects of witchcraft. Some have been viewed more than 1,000 times. They also co-host a podcast that’s been streamed 1,300 times. Bennett is one star in a crowded social media sky full of young witchy figures offering takes on everything from making potions to whether being a witch in 2021 demands being politically outspoken.
Unlike in the 1970s or 1990s, when the figure of “witch” in popular culture was often framed as a fringey, dark and New Agey feminist boogey(wo)man, young Americans today are recasting it. There are supermodel covens, suburban boys casting spells, and young witch stars like Frankie Castenea, who has 1.3 million TikTok followers and calls her style “90s high school burnout meets your bad--- grandmother.” Young people’s concepts of witchcraft are quickly morphing and multiplying. There’s hipster witch, eclectic witch, cosmic witch and green witch. There’s witchcraft about self-care, and about political advocacy. You can buy witch makeup or books or crystals at mainstream stores like Urban Outfitters, Sephora or Barnes & Noble, where, in some locations, a huge chunk of the spirituality section is related to witchcraft and other nature-based practices.
LEFT: Bennett embraced witchcraft at the tail end of childhood, which they spent partly in Turkey, their mother’s native country, and in England, where their father is from and still lives. RIGHT: Bennett is a witch influencer — albeit on a small scale. Shot in their bedroom, “Lunar Faery Witch” has 1,100 YouTube subscribers following their video explainers about different aspects of witchcraft.
Book sales on the topic of witchcraft in the past year are up 43 percent over the previous year, according to NPD BookScan, which tracks publishing. The growth is dramatically outpacing the total nonfiction print market, NPD says.
Data is thin specifically on teens and witchcraft, though research on younger Americans offers some context. A 2018 Pew Research poll found 65 percent of Americans aged 18 to 29 believed in at least one of four beliefs that Pew called “New Age” — including the power of psychics, astrology and “that spiritual energy can be located in physical things.” The 2016 General Social Survey conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago found 44 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds said that astrology is “sort of” or “very” scientific, higher than older Americans.
Bennett discussed the self-exploration at the heart of witchcraft on a recent episode of Infernal Alchemy, the podcast they do with Christian Cuna, 23, a Florida pagan. Both explain on the episode their spiritual paths, including what they characterize as strongly negative experiences with conservative religion, especially around strict rules and anti-LGBTQ teachings. They both talk about various supernatural beings in their lives, including Celtic and Norse deities they call “patrons” and “patronesses” who have helped them learn things like forgiveness and compassion. The pair also talk about balancing the value of magic and witchcraft connected to one’s own background, and that of practices you simply prefer, but come from a different culture.
“I feel like there’s a lot of pressure for people, that you have to do practices only within your culture,” Bennett says on the episode, “but you won’t always resonate with something just because it is yours.”
“No one walks the same path. Even if everyone had the same tradition, everyone will do it their own way,” says Cuna, who was born into a Cuban Catholic family. “There will be some deviation that’s rooted in our own truths. Because that’s honestly what matters in all this: coming back to ourselves.”
“Absolutely,” Bennett says.
Path to witchcraft
Bennett embraced witchcraft at the tail end of childhood, which they spent partly in Turkey, their mother’s native country, and in England, where their father is from and still lives. Bennett trained intensely, like their mother, Laman Hendricks, had, in classical dance. Hendricks was raised in a cocktail of conservative Islam and the folk magic of her own mother, a shaman who would read coffee grinds and see evil eyes. Hendricks, who teaches and performs belly dancing, remembers being taught that all faiths know God. If a mosque was nearby, she’d take Bennett there. When they lived for a time in a small English village, and church was the only house of worship around, the two went to church.
Bennett remembers being terrified of concepts they heard at church or read in the Bible about hell and death. When mother and child moved to Alaska for work in 2012, the dramatic landscape captivated the pair’s sense of the spiritual. Hendricks would take Bennett to Native American ceremonies and the child began to have a reoccurring dream about a man who turned into a stag. He turned out to be Cernunnos, Bennett says, the Celtic God of wild things, a figure who calmed them and became a kind of spiritual guide.
By around age 12, Bennett had started reading, learning and practicing witchcraft. Their mother, father and stepfather initially worried that “witchcraft” could mean something too dark or culty. Now, however, Bennett visits witchcraft stores with their mom and relatives across the family watch Lunar Faery Witch shows and hit “like.”
There are worse places than Austin to be a teen witch, with a monthly Witches Market, an annual witch festival, coven meetings and strip mall magic stores. That said, Bennett keeps to social and spiritual scenes mostly online. Their exurb, Bennett says, is culturally conservative and Christian. Bennett describes being an “outcast” in high school who learned to keep to themself.
The pandemic supercharged Bennett’s spiritual life. They created the podcast and YouTube channel, and those social media communities in turn fueled Bennett with confidence to dress more goth and witchy and to speak out more.
Bennett online is an earnest character. One YouTube video emphasizes the importance of doing a lot of research on witchcraft; another discusses challenges posed by the trendiness of witchcraft, tarot, astrology and the occult in general. They suggest reducing use of social media.
Commenters often address Bennett like a cool teacher or camp counselor: with a bit of awe and praise. Lots of thank yous and technical questions.
“Can I sub rosemary for cinnamon in a spell jar for protection against curses?”
“Even if I’m not a witch, can I still interact well with house fae — or house elves — if I treat them respectfully?”
Bennett is usually nonjudgmental and nuanced, though if a topic touches disrespect of LGBTQ people, or Christian criticism of other spiritualities, an edge can emerge.
“Any comments with harassment or forcing Christianity onto me will be deleted,” Bennett wrote on a video discussing a 2019 article in a Christian publication warning about witchcraft.
While Bennett mostly does encouraging, how-to media posts, they also agree with some witches who feel the label obliges practitioners to be politically outspoken, including on issues regarding the environment and the rights of sexual and gender minorities.
Bennett organized a fundraiser with several other occult practitioners running this week to benefit women seeking abortions in Texas, which just passed a highly restrictive law forcing people to pursue the procedure out of state. Bennett and others will hold classes and lectures for a fee, with proceeds going to the Lilith Fund.
While Bennett identifies as nonbinary, they describe their spiritual practice as feminist and meant to be empowering to nonbinary people and those “who have ties to womanhood.” Witchcraft and working with goddesses, Bennett says, have allowed a reclaiming of “my power as a feminine person.”
They also don’t see practicing witchcraft as being at odds with science. Bennett takes science classes and disapproves of anti-vaccine types. At the same time, they aren’t focused on how exactly charm bags ward off bad dreams or how worshiping Hecate, the goddess of light, has helped her reveal other people’s lies.
“Not everything has to be scientific, for now. It’s not a prerequisite in order for it to be real or helpful,” Bennett says. “There’s this idea that we’ve tested everything through the scientific method. But not everything needs to be viewed through an empirical lens.”
Young witch language can sound like a cross between self-help, prayer and therapy. Witchcraft has “made me grow as a person, taught me to deal with difficulties and to have a growth mind-set,” Bennett says.
Other teens who practice witchcraft interviewed for this story also tended to emphasize self-empowerment. Witchcraft can be a powerful way to focus one’s intention, they say, using elements from the natural world to create a feeling of a connection between one’s own energy and something much bigger.
Bennett’s boyfriend used similar language to talk about his spiritual beliefs at a dinner break at the Austin cafe where the two work in the kitchen. Etheause Hansend, 19, was raised loosely Christian before his family disconnected from that faith.
The two went to high school together, and Bennett’s practice eventually intrigued Hansend, an African American who began “working with” Norse mythology figures including Odin. He carries in his pocket a bag of rune stones, which have an ancient alphabet and, Hansend believes, a power to help him make decisions, with the proper centering, focus and intention. Is chanting to Odin the same as praying to God?
“It is a respectful pursuit of knowledge, instead of a set path of worship. You’re asking for insight rather than asking a god to intervene. … Unlike prayer, which is all about worship,” he writes later, in an email. “I don’t like that whole blind faith thing.”
The next day, driving around Austin, Hendricks and Bennett talk about how witchcraft and folk religious practices like those Hendricks grew up with in Turkey reflect a true, important connection between human beings and the universe. A connection that was acknowledged, the two note, long before Christianity, Islam and Judaism. Today, Hendricks sees a lot of hypocrisy in religion. Conservative Christians who treat her in an Islamophobic way. Conservative Muslims whose children sneak to her belly-dancing classes.
“We lost a sense of who we’re praying to. People today only pray when they need something,” Hendricks says from the driver’s seat. “God has to be everywhere.”
“We went to a set of rules!” Bennett agrees emphatically.
Then Bennett goes on.
“For young people, the boom in witchcraft allows you to change your circumstance, versus that feeling of being helpless. Where you’re relying on some outside source. Look at the political unrest, prices rising, covid — magic helps you get through it. It gives you a sense of stability, to ground yourself, and to take control of your situation.”