For the bulk of the American public, the brief and unexamined suggestion that the nation’s Witch population is significantly increasing might be enough of a “sound bite” to tantalize and, in some cases, even scare. However, for those people who have long identified as Witches or the like, the flippant mention of Witchcraft in a seasonal article is not enough to satisfy.
Such a conversation triggers a longstanding debate within these communities, evoking a range of emotions including frustration, anger, and curiosity. Are pop-culture Witchcraft trends detrimental to the deeply-held religious practice of Witchcraft?
Looking more closely at the situation, there are questions that need answers. What exactly is trendy witchcraft, what is now being termed by some “basic witchcraft?” Is it related to Wicca and other Pagan religions? Who is creating and adhering to it, and why?
Mashable writer Heather Dockray recently dove into this discussion, answering a few of these questions herself. She writes, “The term ‘basic witch,’ I know, reeks of a kind of glib internet-insular condescension. But screw it: this kind of witch does exist in nature, or at least progressive fashion circles in Los Angeles. And she’s mostly here to do good, not evil, even if her brand of witchcraft ends up being largely self-indulgent.”
The idea of “trendy” Witchcraft, or “trending” anything, suggests an upward swing in popularity, and is observable through parallel cues across pop culture, from movies and television to commercials services and products. For example, Christian Dior’s 2018 Resort fashion line includes images from the Motherpeace Tarot deck designed by Karen Vogel and Vicki Noble. Similarly, in the 2017 Autumn show held this summer in Paris, one of the Dior models sported a now-famous tarot coat.
“Monsieur Dior was very fascinated with tarot and astrology. Me too,” explains Maria Grazia Chiuri, current creative director for Dior, to Elle magazine. Chiruri reportedly is looking to define the Dior brand as a feminist one.
The following video shows the process of constructing the coat, which is made of embroidered tarot images from different decks:
The international fashion industry, which has regularly flirted with occult themes on and off for years, often employs language like a ‘Wiccan aesthetic’ or ‘Witchy-chic’ to describe hair styles and couture choices. These stylings typically rely on occult imagery, such as tarot decks, and on a Gothic or Renaissance aesthetic.
Outside of the fashion industry, there has been a rise in public hexings, or at least in reports on public hexings, due to the current sociopolitical climate. These actions have been organized or performed by more than just Pagan community members, and they continue to dot the media landscape.
In July 2017, American singer Lana del Rey confirmed once again that she had in fact participated in and encouraged the mass hexing of Donald Trump. In a July interview, she told NME, “I’m in line with Yoko [Ono] and John [Lennon] and the belief that there’s a power to the vibration of a thought. Your thoughts are very powerful things and they become words, and words become actions, and actions lead to physical charges.”
The singer’s visibility increased the media’s awareness of such occult-based political actions, some of which were directly related to Del Rey’s own working and some not. These mass hexings were being performed before the 2016 election and have continued into today.
Has hexing become trendy, a part of “basic” Witchcraft? This is an interesting question given the fact that hexing still remains a powerfully contentious topic within long-established Witchcraft communities, and it leads to another question. What parts of Witchcraft do become trendy and what parts stay out of the limelight?
Ye olde witch shoppe
Metaphysical stores have been around for ages. However, there has reportedly been a growth in the number of such venues, both brick and mortar, and digitally-based. New occult-oriented stores are, according to some news sites, popping up around the country, which points to an increased interest in the occult.
In one of Atlanta’s newest trendy districts, a store called ATL Craft has opened. The store is mostly unattached to the city’s long-established Pagan population, but is successfully feeding the downtown area with “alternative and holistic products and services.” It joins a number of other metaphysical stores in that metro region.
Similarly in south Minneapolis, a local reporter has labeled one area a Witch district, due to a reported rise in stores with occult leanings. This new “district” label confused the city’s famously-large Pagan population because the entire area already has a nickname: Paganistan. One of the article’s commenters writes:
While I appreciate the new shops and the potential they have to add to the larger Pagan community, let me add to the comments that this is nothing new. The Twin Cities area has been a hub for Pagans for many years.
From trendy new stores and Sabbat boxes to fashion-forward witchy hoodies and professional “sex sorcery services,” Witchcraft does appear to have permeated mainstream culture, for better or worse, in powerful way.
This is not new
It is often the case that people assume that any given modern trend, whether good or bad, is unique and fresh, and that it has never happened before. However, humans are not that creative. The occult’s popularity within mainstream American culture has ebbed and flowed across time, as a result so does the commercialization of the practice.
In the 1800s, spiritualism rose in popularity within society and, by 1840, the country entered into what historian Mitch Horowitz labels the spiritualism era.[i] Many famous writers followed related occult paths. In his book Occult America, Horowitz describes how the practice was “one of deep intimacy”[ii] and experimentation.
Regardless of the intention of devout followers, spiritualism did spread into mainstream culture, producing what Horowitz describes as “fashionable” classes and elite clubs around world.[iii] It also birthed the commercialization of the ouija board. “It was only a matter of time before experimenters and entrepreneurs began to see the possibilities,” Horowitz writes.[iv]
Flash forward nearly a century, the commercialized ouija board found renewed popularity in the 1960s and 1970s, during a period of time when Witchcraft was once again gaining popularity. The cultural revolution and political upheaval created fertile ground for deep spiritual seeking as well as counter-culture experimentation.
This is the era in which many of the original Pagan organizations and institutions, such as the Church of All Worlds, Circle Sanctuary, and the Covenant of the Goddess, were born; and the city of Salem began to fully embrace its notoriety as the “Witch City.” It was in the 1970s that Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis proclaimed Laurie Cabot the first “official Witch of Salem.”
In addition, the feminist movement fueled the desire to define and nurture female power within society. The 1969 activist organization W.I.T.C.H., for example, captured this idea in their own work. Known as the Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell, the group embodied a more radical, socialist viewpoint than the mainstream feminist movement. Using the archetype of the witch, it engaged with its political agenda to speak out for gender equality. This correlation was trending well into the late 1970s, and captured in George Romero’s film Season of the Witch (1972) also known as Hungry Wives.
Moving forward twenty years, Witchcraft popularity rose again after being demonized in a moral panic. Andrew Fleming’s film The Craft (1996) is often cited as a marker of that trend. As Fleming has remarked in a number of interviews, the production crew was caught off guard to learn that the film caused an increase in inquiries to Pagan covens and organizations. But The Craft was not alone. The late 1990s saw other pop-culture witch-related products including the birth of the Harry Potter franchise.
At the same time, the internet was allowing for an increased awareness of modern Witchcraft practice as well as an more fluid and open connectivity between communities and individuals. This period saw the birth of Witchvox and other similar sites, for example.
The mainstreaming of Witchcraft in the 1990s is best demonstrated by the film Practical Magic (1998), a romantic comedy that struggles with this very topic. The narrative constructs the Witches as an oppressed community members, rather than as spooky monsters, oddities, or evildoers. It continually reinforces the idea that the Witches are “just like us” by mainstreaming the look and feel of the craft. For example, the herbal witch shop is more like a Bath and Bodyworks than the average occult shop. This is a type of declawing of Witchcraft for popular consumption.
More recently, a new “season of the witch” was declared in 2013, and it appears that it is not over yet, as per the current reported trends. Why the ebb and flow?
Rise and fall of magic
It appears that trend is directly related to political and social unrest. Even the spiritualism movement of the 1800s has been linked to politics. As Horowitz reports:
Spiritualism was as much as an occult movement as a political one. It attracted utopians, suffragists, and radicals, because among other things it provided a setting in which women – for the first time in American history – could regularly serve as religious leaders, at least of a sort. [v]
The search for agency within an oppressive system, through spirituality and the occult, seems to be at least part of the recipe to produce #witchcraft. With that popularity comes a certain amount of commercialism as entrepreneurs, Pagan or not, find opportunities within the trends.
However, the dynamic of the trend has changed from the late 1800s to today due to the differences in society, or maybe it is just the concept of “mainstream” that has changed due to an increased awareness and availability of products and practice. The barriers to entry into Witchcraft practice, religious or not, are nearly gone due to blogs, social media, book publications, and community visibility. In addition, the internet has lowered similar barriers to the commodification of occult products and sales.
The Witchcraft trend gets fed at the level of visibility and apparent needs of that particular era.
A double-edged sword
With that in mind, the growth of so-called basic Witchcraft is not at all surprising. The current unstable political climate and the social unrest, which is no longer brewing beneath the surface, has provided fertile ground for a upswing in occult interest, or a search for power and control.
In addition, the internet provides an awareness of practice and community previously unknown, including access to teachers, covens, and also potential buyers. All of this allows for the buildup of a trendy aesthetic that is often a product of a mainstream sensibility, for better or worse.
Within the Pagan community, there are those that question whether or not the trend is damaging to their practice or offensive in some way. Is the practice of Witchcraft as a something “chic” rather than deeply spiritual a problem? That answer depends on who you ask. Some see it as indicative a greater socioeconomic problem, while others consider it a benefit to demystifying otherwise marginalized religious communities.
It is the proverbially double-edged sword, and one that is not going away any time soon.
Getting back to the original question, who are these basic Witches? Dockray writes, “What makes the ‘basic witch’ different from earlier breeds of witches is her spiritual commitment to consumerism. If early generations of witches turned to witchcraft as as a spiritual practice or political aesthetic, the basic witch identifies with witchcraft as a lifestyle brand, nothing more.”
Perhaps that is true to a degree. However, the question sends the conversation down the popular rabbit hole titled, “What is a Witch?”
A trend is a trend and will attract a variety of people, for awhile. At this point in time, the commodification or simply the mainstreaming of the occult or Witchcraft practice does appear to be a nearly accepted reality. As Dockray notes, this trendy or “basic” practice doesn’t necessarily evoke a religious sensibility or a similar deeply-felt spirituality. While it may be for some people, it is not for all.
At the same, it is possible that non-spiritual “basic practice” may eventually lead to a deeper inward path, but not always. The question to ask is: does it matter? Regardless of that answer, Witchcraft in one form or another continues to thrive in society, sparking depth of focus, igniting imagination, and inspiring action.