As Christianity increasingly dwindles in popularity with young Americans, the occult is offering girls a safe, flexible, and feminist-friendly alternative.
Abby is nervous. This weekend, the high school junior will take the SAT for the first time and has a very specific score in mind. In order to ease her “total fear of failure,” Abby (who, like many of the women interviewed for this story, asked not to share her full name) turns to her blog on Tumblr.
At first glance, Abby’s Tumblr looks like any you’d expect from a suburban 17 year old: There are memes, GIFs of Grimes, and snippets of Maya Angelou’s poetry spliced together in a vivid collage of modern girlhood. Where Abby’s blog starts to look unfamiliar, however, is in the collection of posts with custom sigil designs, tarot readings, and high-definition pictures of crystals. Unlike most others who will be taking the SAT this weekend, Abby is a digital witch.
“It’s times like this I’m really glad I have my practice,” she says as she starts typing up a fresh blog post. Instead of unloading her fears and frustrations into a wordy diatribe, Abby carefully crafts a string of emoji: books, sparkles, a pen, the sun — which she then works backward so the line mirrors itself. Beneath this, she adds the caption: “Spell for success on all of your tests! Likes charge it, and reblogs cast it.”
Abby has been practicing witchcraft since she was 14 years old. She says her interest in magic started much earlier than that, but it wasn’t until she first came across an emoji spell on Tumblr that she realized that her interest had a practical application. “I think the person who reblogged it was trying to be ironic,” Abby says. “But whatever. I was hooked.”
Within just a few hours, Abby’s spell has over 400 likes and reblogs. “It’s getting powerful,” she says with a grin.
Even for a centuries-old practice, witchcraft is remarkably popular in 2016. In 2009, ABC News reported that the number of self-identifying Wiccans in the United States had increased to 342,000, up from 134,000 in 2001 (a number that’s significantly smaller than practitioner counts for major religions, but higher than that of Scientology and Neo-Druidism).
Meanwhile, the more loosely defined, individualized, do-it-yourself practice of “witchcraft” has become trendy: Last year, the New Republic proclaimed “The Rise of the Hipster Witch”; also in 2015, a Guardian story referenced Azealia Banks’ magic-infused Twitter rants and American Horror Story: Coven as indicators that witchcraft is an ascendant, female-driven youth movement. Just earlier this year, hundreds of witches made the news when they banded together to hex Brock Turner.
Witchcraft is one of the few spiritual schools that, even in its most primitive stages, has always been associated with women.
For today’s young, outspoken witches, the online world is integral to their practice. The #witch tag on Instagram boasts more than two million images of crystals, altars, and black-and-white portraits; a Tumblr search for emoji spells like Abby’s yield hundreds of incantations for love, protection, and the disempowerment of misogynists: “A curse on ANYONE that leaks anyone’s nudes, specifically Leslie Jones’s,” one reads.
The popularity of emoji spells has drawn some critics (even from fellow witches) who argue that today’s digital witchcraft is consumerist or meaningless. “There is no practice being put in place by reblogging a line of emojis,” Tumblr user aspiritual wrote in May. “If you want to cast magic with emojis, actually put some time and energy into it.” Yet, rather than viewing the spread of digital witchcraft as the religious equivalent of sharing a BuzzFeed post, digital witches I spoke with expressed how online witchcraft is a spiritual path that moves at the speed of pop culture, a fact that magnifies its relevance, and perhaps even its radicalism.
D, 23, has been a practicing witch for five years. She says she grew up in a strict Christian household and attended church every Sunday until she was 18. Though her congregation celebrated the principles of love and acceptance, D describes how the community around the church fed off of petty gossip and how her discomfort with the church grew when, as a young teenager, she realized she was bisexual. “I knew that, no matter what they said, I would never be accepted,” she says. “It would be like a literal witch hunt,” she adds with a laugh.
It’s perhaps no coincidence that witchcraft is gaining in popularity just as America’s predominant, far more traditional faith is on the decline. Between 2007 and 2014 alone, the number of Americans who identified as Christian (including Evangelical, Protestant, and Catholic) fell sharply from 78.4 percent to 70.6 percent; in 2014, only 56 percent of Millennials identified as Christian, according to the Pew Research Center.
The same survey, meanwhile, found that those participating in non-Christian faiths jumped from 4.7 percent to 5.9 percent from 2007 to 2014, and that the 1.2 percent uptick was comprised mostly of Millennials. Though young Americans are shunning organized religion, they are more in touch with their spirituality than ever before.
In Christianity, doubt can jeopardize one’s status as a Christian or eligibility for eternal life. But for some witches, the practice’s space for doubt (while some witches pride themselves on never questioning their practice, others admit to experiencing a daily struggle with their belief) gives them the strength to believe. “It doesn’t matter to me if it’s real or not,” Sam, 20, says. “I recognize that, even if it’s [all a] placebo effect, and I’m actually doing absolutely nothing, I feel better and have made a positive change without harming anyone else.”
The longstanding intersection of witchcraft and feminism gives the practice additional appeal for young women in particular: Witchcraft is one of the few spiritual schools that, even in its most primitive stages, has always been associated with women. Some strains of witchcraft explicitly position themselves as alternatives to more patriarchal forms of faith: In her essay “Queering Feminist Witchcraft,” Catherine Telford-Keogh studies “Goddess Centered Feminist Witchcraft,” which, by her description, “places women’s experiences, such as menstruation and childbirth, at the center of spiritual practice.” For Telford-Keogh and many more women, this practice affirms goddess-worshipping and female-centric spirituality is not simply an alternative to the patriarchy, but a natural and intrinsic path.
In modern times, witchcraft has developed directly alongside the feminist movement. In the 1970s, second-wave feminism explored Wicca and Neo-Paganism, leading to Generation X’s fascination with all things New Age. Today, “this [witchcraft] trend is tied to the rise of a new wave of feminism, and is also a response to living in an increasingly digital culture divested from nature,” says Kristen Korvette, New School lecturer and author of the forthcoming book Witches, Sluts, Feminists: Conjuring the Sex Positive. “Witchcraft is self-directed and isn’t built upon the subjugation of women as so many major religions are, which is one reason it’s so appealing.”