Skip to content

Witch Kids of Instagram

Taking the measure of the boom in online occultism

On October 31, 1968, witches descended on Wall Street. Dressed in pointed hats and black cloaks, chanting curses, members of W.I.T.C.H., the Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell, symbolically cast a hex on the New York Stock Exchange. The group, a theatrics-flavored guerrilla protest outfit that sprouted direct action “covens” across America during its brief manifestation, was born out of the radical feminist scene in New York and traded on the image of the witch as outsider, as a figure of superstition and ridicule. The next day the stock market reportedly dropped five points. There’s a question here that deserves attention, and it’s this: Did the magic work?

Today, witchcraft is back in vogue, a heady brew of nineties nostalgia, goth revivalism and plain, arcane fun sloshing around social media. Days after Donald Trump won the U.S. election, videos of women “hexing” Trump went viral around the world, encouraging budding magical practitioners to burn images of the president-elect to bring his works to ruin. Meanwhile, an entire explosive industry of witch-paraphernalia is boiling out of the cauldron of digital consumer culture. You can buy your crocheted bat-bunting and your broomstick-decals on Etsy, while a couple of clicks away anonymous web artisans peddle laptop stickers declaring the owner, with more or less accuracy, a daughter of the witches they weren’t able to burn.

Commodification is usually a poisoned apple for movements like this, but there’s a proud legacy of repurposing the witch-aesthetic for radical ends. Accoutrements might help get you in the mood for magic, but they’re not essential. As W.I.T.C.H. put it in 1970:

If you are a woman and dare to look within yourself, you are a Witch. You make your own rules. You are free and beautiful. You can be invisible or evident in how you choose to make your witch-self known. You can form your own Coven of sister Witches (thirteen is a cozy number for a group) and do your own actions . . . You are a Witch by saying aloud, “I am a Witch” three times, and thinking about that. You are a Witch by being female, untamed, angry, joyous, and immortal.

The iconography is as simple and powerful as ever: look at how one of the young founders of the Brujas, an all-woman skateboarding club in the Bronx, talked about the association with women’s magic in 2015 (“bruja” is the Spanish word for “witch”). Twenty-one-year-old Arianna told Dazed Digital that:

So much of our world is described through patriarchal, rigid, academic, medical ways, and concepts of understanding the world scientifically . . . Traditionally behind those perspectives are just men. In traditional indigenous cultures, which a lot of our cultures are derived from, women were in charge of health and community and motherhood and wellness and food. Not in ways that were demeaning but in ways that were powerful.

This trend for treating the trappings of magic (or magick, if you prefer) as a tool of self-empowerment is easy to dismiss—and much of the sour fun-poking revolves around the fact that this seems to be a thing that young women like. The usually-astute Reductress blog tells its readers how to be a “Basic Witch”:

Let everyone know that one time you grew out your armpit hair by commenting “omg it me” on a picture of a witch online. You want to get across that yes, you’re conventionally attractive, but also sort of weird because you burnt sage in your new home after reading about it on Pinterest right before you decided you didn’t really like the smell and threw it all out. So why not just say you’re a witch instead of trying to have any actual interests or personality traits. This is really all you have.

This insistence that the natural state of teenage girlhood is a howling void of personality, an intellectual desert where nothing grows but vanity, is mostly magical thinking on the part of those of us who would very much prefer young women to behave like mute cattle—but stereotypes are a sort of spellcraft, too. The most ridiculous thing a teenage girl can do, of course, is pretend she is a person with interests and ambitions rather than a walking set of secondary sexual characteristics. She needs to learn, and fast, that her body is not her own, that her aspirations are laughable. Teenage girls are not allowed to like things—they’re supposed to concentrate on being likeable. And what is a spell, if not an expression of desire?

Can buying into witchery have an actual effect? There is such a lot of talk about the importance of “empowering” young girls, but the skepticism slams down as soon as the same girls stop waiting to be told what that acceptable amount of power should look like. “Adolescence,” as Erica Jong, author of Witches, writes in her book What Do Women Want?:

is a time when witchcraft exercises a great fascination. Disempowered by society and overwhelmed with physical changes, teenage girls fall in love with the idea of forming covens. . . . the more disempowered people are, the more they long for magic, which explains why magic becomes the province of women in a sexist society.

A general sense of powerlessness in a chaotic and competitive society, along with a revived interest in forms of feminism that don’t care who they frighten, may explain the growing appeal of hedge magic as a cultural aesthetic as much as a practice. The craze for witchery displays an encouragingly wide understanding that for social change to happen someone has to feel threatened. The paraphernalia of skulls and guts and ravens are merely a uniform that declares intent. I am not a nice, compliant creature, not a princess in training. I am something else. Something darker. There are more like me. Best beware.

As a former spooky girl, I have a lot of love for spooky girls, and it is curious and delightful that spookiness seems no longer to be the special preserve of the weirdos at the back of the class. Young people these days know more about the power of personal mythmaking—they need to—and I’m not possessive of the particular magic of cobwebs, black gloves, and strategic muttering that has been more widely adopted. 

I have a memory, etched into my mind like an old rune copied off the internet and drawn on your hand in biro. I was thirteen or fourteen, cornered in the school hallway by some bigger boys, back in the good old days when you actually had to meet someone face to face in order to bully them mercilessly for being a bit different. I decided to try something I’d read about in a book. I made my eyes big and crazy and started muttering nonsense words at them, the way I thought a hex or a curse should sound, making a stab at witchy claw-hands, hissing like the cat from Hocus Pocus. I don’t recall precisely what they did, but I know they were weirded out enough to leave me alone. That was when I realized that a set piece like this, the performance of magic, worked.

I don’t want to offend any pagan practitioners here, but it’s been my experience that pagans living in countries where witches are not actively, violently persecuted rather enjoy a certain amount of misunderstanding—it’s far better than being ignored, which is what happens most of the time. Witches know the value in sometimes being underestimated, and there’s nothing my woo friends like better than being called godless heathens by po-faced protestants, the overlap between paganism and pedantry being larger than you’d think.

Pissing off your overpious relations is as good an excuse as any to dabble in magic—and a good many modern practitioners are spiritual refugees of one sort or another from patriarchal, monotheistic religions as practiced in, for example, large parts of the United States. I’m convinced that part of the reason I first started getting interested in tarot and cartoon spellcraft at a tender age was to annoy my grandmother, who would have made a formidable witch herself had she not got married too young, as so many of her generation did, to some layabout called Jesus Christ who left her to raise six kids with nothing but the promise of salvation.  

Even the most ardent coven-head would probably concede that most of what passes for modern witchcraft is utterly made up.

Even the most ardent coven-head would probably concede that most of what passes for modern witchcraft is utterly made up—all religions are made up, of course, but witchcraft and paganism are more recently and explicitly made up than most. There are no real records of what went on in the time of the druids, and much of what comes down to us is either conjecture, or drawn from the records of witch-hunters and the confessions under torture of accused “witches.” The groundwork for modern magical practice in the West was laid in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries with the publications of books like James Frazer’s The Golden Bough and the foundation of intellectual magic-circles like the Rosicrucians and Yeats’s Golden Dawn.

At no point until quite recently was this sort of magical practice considered at odds with scientific endeavor. In fact, for centuries, magic and science were considered almost synonymous, and almost equally suspicious, both being impolite attempts to penetrate the mysteries of God’s creation. Those who wanted to know what the human body was like on the inside were considered necromancers.

The story we tell about witches today has a magic all of its own, and it says far more about the world we live in now than the superstitions of the past. It tells of old and independent women, women who were healers and herbalists, scholars and “cunning folk,” women who were in some way “different” or stepped outside their assigned role were at risk for centuries of being burned to death as witches and sorceresses. That’s the mythos that captivated the imaginations of second-wave feminists like Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon, and Marxist scholars like Silvia Federici.

The figures on how many “witches” were actually executed in the Middle Ages and early Renaissance period vary wildly. What is certain, however, is that the historical reality does not trace so neatly onto the simple story we now tell about the witch-hunt. For a start, a significant proportion of those accused were men, and in many places hanging was the most common form of execution. But the story we now tell about witch-hunts and witch-burnings is no less culturally important for being of occasionally shaky historical accuracy. And in the same way, to say that none of our new, digitally-enabled witchery “works” is missing the point—and misunderstanding the theater of magic.

Around a decade ago, around the time of the 2008 stock market crash, I had just left university and had nothing else to do but sit around the house watching the elaborate spellcraft of finance capitalism explode on the rolling news, taking our own stories of a secure future with it. I moved into a squalid London flatshare with five other people including a stoned wizard, who led the household in rituals that were a reasonable way to pass the hours considering that none of us had money to go out. Roger, as I will call him, was a suspiciously bearded individual who was deadly serious about modern druidry. His version of sorcery was patriarchal, pompous, and didn’t really work, all of which was consistent with his personality. There was a lot of burning sage, calling on the Horned God, and playing Fairport Convention songs until everyone fell asleep on the sofa.

Nevertheless, most of the rest of us, like a lot of arty kids in the 2000s, got into some type of chaos magic, which seemed to be like witchcraft but more sincere, because it was for boys. It involved, in practice, a lot of chemically-assisted meditations on the nature of reality, hanging out on the Barbelith forum, reading the works of Alan Moore and Grant Morrison, trying to figure out if you could replace the elements of a summoning circle with cooking salt, a busted lighter, and drawing sigils on our arms in sharpie. 

Chaos magic was a conversation about power that didn’t require us to take it seriously.

And all of this messing around with magic did the trick, although not in the way we intended. It was fun, and it was a way to feel a bit more in control of things when the rules of the outside world were just as arbitrary and made just as little sense without the benefit of an awesome semi-goth aesthetic. Chaos magic was a conversation about power that didn’t require us to take it seriously, and none of us really did, except Roger, who considered himself on too high a spiritual plane to be bothered with things like washing up, and paying his full share of the rent. Eventually, Roger tried to start a real cult and informed me that I’d be producing children for the community, and a few days after I’d asked him who the fuck he thought he was, he punched a wall next to my head, and I moved back in with my dad.

It took me a while—several years—to look at all my old witchy-weird stuff again without an internal shudder. I left the tarot cards in the box unless there was a really desperate need to freak out a hipster at a party. Recently, though, I got them out again. What can I say? Of course, the accoutrements are silly, and of course I’m skeptical, but not skeptical enough that I’ll mess around with the Thoth tarot deck, because Crowlian magick gives me what scholars of the arcane call the heebie-jeebies. I suppose I’d be considered a white witch, if only because I have on more than one occasion considered buying yoga pants with inoffensively arcane symbols on them, although I haven’t ponied up the cash quite yet. And I’ve never, even in jest, tried to call down a curse on specific enemies, because you just know that nonsense’s going to come back to you three times three—even though the threefold law was brewed up in the 1970s, according to folklorist Adrian Bott, who told me that:

There’s a distinction between witchiness as a sociocultural concept and witchcraft as a historical phenomenon—and an alarming amount of fakelore in circulation. Part of the appeal of identifying as a “witch” involves harnessing a general societal fear, and we have to make it plain that people elsewhere are viciously persecuted because of that exact same fear. 

To put it another way, the reason people over here can comfortably assume the witch mantle is because popular belief in the supernatural is nothing like what it once was; there’s a frisson where there would once have been alarm and terror.

Other scholars and practitioners also urge baby witches to proceed with caution. Katelan Foisy, a Chicago-based artist and occultist from a Roma background, says that the lack of historical reflection

bothers me and my fellow occultists that have trained under a parent or grandparent or teacher of some sort. I do feel it is irresponsible and dangerous for young practitioners to throw around energy, work with spirits, etc, without proper training . . .  Magic is also in the storytelling of the elders. I think a lot of people claiming themselves to be witches these days have forgotten to talk to elders, learn the stories and understand what a witch is. There’s a lot in those folk tales and even fairytales that reminds us how much patriarchy and colonialism did to undermine not only matriarchy but the cultures themselves.

Others, though, are more sanguine. Christina Oakley-Harrington is the proprietor of Treadwell’s bookshop, the best place in London for anyone who wants to buy a grimoire from someone who actually knows what they’re talking about. Many of Oakley-Harrington’s customers are of this new, digitally-driven school of witchcraft. “I see them in their hundreds,” she says.

This movement feels much more tender than the second-wave feminism witchcraft I knew in the late seventies and early eighties. The witchcraft of these young people is so sensitive—and yet committed to being active, being creative. I keep seeing that they want to be kind to one another, and all unusual people, and indeed to have understanding for others—and yet to destroy a patriarchy which destroys the earth, animals, and them. They are aware that it’s the patriarchy that has infiltrated their consciousness and has them self-harming, self-loathing, and struggling with eating disorders. They ask about goddesses, and getting to know goddesses of ancient religions, as inspirations and forces they want to work with to empower them and inspire them.

I plainly confess to sharing Harrington’s admiration for the sweetness and sensitivity of these young people, that softness wrapped around a deep core of courage. What is curious, given the tidal wash of teenage fads, is how little the current witch-craze has to do with the cozy fantasy spellcraft of the Harry Potter universe, which is essentially nice story about nice people making good decisions and generally maintaining the status quo. The witches and warlocks of Tumblr today are less likely to be interested in a safe, fluffy-sounding magical aesthetic, all chocolate frogs and jolly Quidditch sticks and private school privilege—even though that sort of magic works as well as any other.

Of course it works. I should know, I was trained in it—I had the letter with the official seal land on my doorstep, and I went to the fancy school with the strange uniform and I learned to speak a lot of Latinate mumbo-jumbo. And guess what else I learned? I learned how to open locked doors. I learned the right words to say to turn strangers into friends. I learned how to walk into a room you’re not supposed to be in by becoming someone else for a few hours. I learned the value and uses of invisibility, and how to spot a snake in disguise.

Why, what exactly did you think magic was? Eye of newt and black-candles and broomstick riding? That’s just set-dressing, like any of the adornments of power, and that’s all magic really is—power games. Illusion and misdirection, manipulation, and entitlement. It happens when a queen puts on a crown and poses for the papers, when a president rides in a golden elevator. These are simple glamours—“glamour” being another word for a type of spell that makes a thing seem more important or attractive than it is. And as the greatest literary witch, Terry Pratchett’s Granny Weatherwax, observed—it doesn’t stop being magic just because you know how it’s done.

Truth is a moveable quantity that can be shaped according to the whims of the mighty, aided by types of technology that we are told are too advanced for our peasant brains to comprehend.

No wonder young women want a piece of it, especially right now. So much of the way we understand power today on a global level is occult—quite literally. The root of the word “occult” is the Latin “occulere,” meaning to conceal—to practice the occult is to have knowledge of secret, hidden things, to conceal where power comes from or to seek out buried secrets. We live in a world where the nature and practice of power—cultural, political, and economic—is deliberately obscure and occluded, where truth is a moveable quantity that can be shaped according to the whims of the mighty, aided by types of technology that we are told are too advanced for our peasant brains to comprehend. Arthur C. Clarke famously wrote that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” and culturally speaking, this is very much how we understand the way elites accumulate power. Politicians and corporations do not sell products and policies. They sell stories.

“Myths and symbols,” as Eric Csapo notes in Theories of Mythology,

constitute the reality of political and social life every bit as much as the economic, politics has become more theatrical and more stage-managed than ever. . . . Indeed, even if the real political agendas emerge from behind the smoke and mirrors, they seem to matter less than such purely artificial and openly manufactured glamours as “leadership.”

Resistance is a war of stories, a dance of symbols, too—and the feminists of W.I.T.C.H. understood this with their street theatre in the 1970s. Today’s witch-resistance is less explicitly in the streets—but then, it doesn’t need to be. We’re long past the point where you had to leave your bedroom to get your picture in the papers. 

Resistance movements seek to change the story of power, and what else is a witch but a break point in that story? Traditionally, witches did not do magic in order to rule the world, or damn it. Witches worked in their communities for the common good, as well as their own. Witches took control of their own destinies and helped others do the same—and there’s danger whenever a woman decides to do that, whatever the cost, no matter what she calls it. The magic might not be “real”—but it works anyway.