How Witchcraft Became A Brand
It's a spirituality, it's an aesthetic, and it's more popular than ever.
There are many simple rituals practised in the house that Katie Karpetz shares with her husband in Edmonton, Alberta, from yoga to herbalism to candle magic. In the morning, she often waits for inspiration to strike before posting a photo or found image to her Instagram feed, and the mood captured will go on to determine her activities for the day.
Running her online store, The Witchery, from her home is a mixture of mundane, structured tasks, and more spontaneous and esoteric work. Sometimes she’s tracking, packing, and sending orders for the many hundreds of items she ships out to her customers in twice-weekly mail batches. Other times, she’s tapping into her own experiences and the knowledge contained in her many books on magic to create new blends of oil or incense with mystical properties ("bring luck in a hurry," "use to draw love to you"), or to cast spells on behalf of clients.
Karpetz is one of many entrepreneurs blending a passion for the occult with an understanding of e-commerce to capture a share of the new economic activity surrounding witchcraft. “What I sell is basically what I’m interested in,” she says. “My business plan was always just, If I like it and no one else wants to buy it, well then I get to keep it!”
It’s a project that has been years in the making, starting as a hobby and slowly developing into a steady source of income. But it’s also something that taps into a trend, which may seem hidden or ubiquitous depending on the circles you frequent: Witchcraft has undeniably become cool again.
In the last quarter of 2013, the trend forecasting agency K-Hole published a report that came to define the overriding fashion trend of 2014: normcore. The document argued that young millennials were bored of the advertising industry's doctrine of individualism through brand consumption, and were instead adopting a kind of radical conformity that favored unadorned clothing and knowingly mainstream tastes.
As a movement, “normcore” came and went — apparently there is only so long that the fashion world will entertain the idea of no style being a viable style — and two years later, the tastemakers at K-Hole published another report identifying the new cultural trends they had observed: Conformity was out. In its place?
Once again K-Hole was right on the zeitgeist. Individuality was back in, magic was cool, youth brands were making documentaries about covens in Bushwick, and seemingly everyone was carrying crystals. But belief in magic and witchcraft is old, far older than Christianity or any of the Abrahamic religions; it wasn't summoned into being by trend forecasters and it won't die out when the hype is over. So what does it mean in this cultural moment for witchcraft to be be both a spiritual practice and a brand aesthetic?
The range of products now marketed as having some connection to witchcraft and the occult is truly vast, and while physical stores selling occult items have had a modest presence in small towns and big cities across North America for decades, online retail has really allowed the trade in all things witchy to take off.
It’s now possible to sign up for monthly subscription boxes to deliver spiritual items to your door: The owner of one such business, Goddess Provisions, said her customer base has grown from 300 subscribers to almost 6,000 in the last year and a half. But the real gravitational centre of the online witchcraft economy is Etsy, the marketplace that has revolutionized the way handcraft makers of all kinds list and sell their products online.
A search on Etsy returns just over 28,000 results for the query "witchcraft," ranging from laurel wands to animal bones, leather-bound grimoires to tie-dye sigils. Data provided by the company confirmed that interest in witchcraft-related items has grown significantly, with searches up nearly 30% and purchases increasing by nearly 60% based on figures from 2015 to 2017. (In the past Etsy was involved in a small controversy over banning "metaphysical services" from making claims of efficacy, but the company permits the sale of a range of esoteric goods provided no concrete outcome is promised.)
One popular seller in the occult category is Burke & Hare Co., a store selling “darkly inspired” candles and home decorations from a studio in Providence, Rhode Island. The store is a typical part of what could be called the auxiliary industry of occult products: items that are not claimed to be in themselves magical but draw on the general imagery and, according to owner Erica Molitor, are purchased by customers who may well have deeper ties to the lifestyle.
"The witchy, occult community is very close-knit, so I have support from a lot of people in the community and other artists who are doing the same thing," Molitor says. “So although half of my candle line is just about the aesthetic, the reason it does so well is because of the community.”
In just over five years of operation, Molitor has seen her business grow steadily, a sign that she, like many others, has tapped into a market that is booming, and a potential client base that is larger than you might imagine.
In her 2015 book Witches of America, Alex Mar estimates that there are up to 1 million people practising some form of Paganism in the US (which for comparison is only slightly less than the number of Buddhists at 1.2 million). She writes of witches gathering in the deserts of California, the forests of Illinois, apartments in New Orleans, all embodying a wide variety of traditions and lifestyles with deep roots. But Mar's study, which saw her spend time with witches across the country over a number of years, also happened to coincide with a resurgence of interest in witchcraft in popular culture.
"When I started working on [the book], I would talk to people about the project and be met with blank looks," Mar told BuzzFeed News. "Then by the time the book came out, I was being accused of riding a trend. So much had changed in that few years ... There was much more of an appetite for the occult as being a hip thing."
Part of this hipness, Mar says, translated into artists or musicians dabbling with the use of occult symbolism in their work (of which the early 2010s musical genre of “witch house” was a precocious but illustrative example), but it has also become an aesthetic that can lend an air of cool to products targeted at consumers with only a passing interest in the lifestyle.
In interviews for this article, buyers, sellers, and practicing witches frequently mentioned a new way they were connecting with one another online: Instagram. Over the past few years the image-sharing app has become a gathering place for younger witches, where tags like #witch (more than 3.7 million posts), #witchy (more than 600,000) and #witchesofinstagram (nearly 700,000) bring a community together around a constellation of imagery, including jewelery, makeup, séance circles, tattoos, astrological charts, herbs, crystals, and lots of vaguely gothic selfies.
It's on Instagram that witchcraft as a spiritual practice and witchcraft as a lifestyle signifier really start to merge. As in any other Instagram community, certain accounts emerge as “influencers,” usually combining a recognizable visual identity with taste-making content and a distinctive voice that followers can relate to, creating a connection that feels personal even as it's transmitted to a large audience. Perhaps the archetype here is Seattle-based Bri Luna aka @thehoodwitch, whose 155,000 followers delight as much in her extravagantly manicured nails as her knowledge of spells and crystals.
Like many Insta-influencers in other fields, The Hoodwitch's carefully curated content is uploaded for free in order to draw attention to a for-profit venture: an online store selling the products pictured in Luna's elegant hands. Some posts feature items directly for sale — divination cards, occult books, tote bags printed with the names of goddesses, and of course the ubiquitous crystals — but far more of them are illustrations, found images, and quotes without any apparent marketing push, helping to build loyalty from an audience that will translate into sales further down the line. It's very much a business model of the social media age, and highlights the fact that — for those who can master the elusive combination of branding, content, and product — witchcraft pays. (The Hoodwitch was approached for comment for this piece but declined.)
Elisabeth Krohn, founder and editor of Sabat — described by Vice as “the magazine for the modern witch” — also knows a thing or two about building a brand around witchcraft. Krohn came up with the idea as a journalism student at the London College of Fashion, inspired by nostalgia for the somewhat kitschy period of pop cultural interest in witchcraft in the ’90s and early ’00s (think Charmed or Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and the sense that there was a desire for a more modern take.
Krohn explained that these trendy representations can serve as an entry point for the cultivation of a more serious interest.
"I realized that a lot of people who are deeper into witchcraft than me first got into it through pop culture references — that's more accepted in the community than I first thought," she said. "In terms of being attracted because of the aesthetic, if someone picks up a pentagram because they think it's a cool symbol, it doesn't mean they won't then learn the meaning behind it, too."
"I think for most [young witches] now, it's a combination of the aesthetic and the search for something spiritual," she added.
Unlike other religions, witchcraft is a loosely defined set of practices with no canonical text at its heart. Some witches are followers of disciplines like Wicca, founded by Gerald Gardner in England in the 1950s, but many others choose an eclectic, self-made path drawn from aspects of Paganism, Wicca, chaos magic, herb lore, or other practices. Tess Giberson, an artist and witch based in Ottawa, is passionate about the DIY aspect of witchcraft, and says that energy and intention are more important for casting spells than expensive equipment. ("You don't need a $150 cauldron to burn herbs," Giberson said in a Facebook chat. "You just need a heat proof dish.")
But Giberson also says that the increasing appetite for occult items has led to problems of cultural appropriation, where incentives are created for mainstream vendors to market products with little respect for their deeper significance. Urban Outfitters, for example, was selling a smudge kit for $39.99 that mimicked Indigenous practices.
"I think it's important to note the correlation between a sparked interest in witchcraft and increased oppression against marginalized folks," Giberson said, pointing to Silvia Federici's feminist history Caliban and the Witch by way of evidence. It's a sentiment that Gordon White, host of the Rune Soup podcast, also echoed in an interview, stating that the current turn towards the occult is unsurprising given the troubled state of the world: Magic has always been a tool of the underdog, less structured than any system of priests and clergy, more resistant to control thanks to its archaic origins and anarchic, individualist spirit.
Surges of interest in witchcraft have happened on a roughly 20-year cycle since the mid-20th century, often corresponding to changing perceptions of women in popular consciousness and new strains of feminist thought. In the 1970s, a boom of interest in the occult throughout the cultural underground dovetailed with a growing recognition of female potency in both creative and sexual terms, and a form of spirituality focused on the Goddess(es) and the divine feminine. Then in the 1990s, movies like The Craft and TV shows like Charmed, Buffy, and of course Sabrina the Teenage Witch tapped into another cultural archetype of the time, portraying witches as women who were independent and quietly powerful, not to mention smarter than the mostly oblivious men in their lives.
We’re now seeing another of those high-water marks, spurred on by the hyperconnected world of social media. It’s no surprise then that another witchcraft renaissance is at hand, and one that makes heavy use of the same media to disseminate text and image representations of the craft in a way that speaks to a new audience of digital natives.
The same media that connects witches to one another also connects the subculture to the world of business, brands, and profit, and it is hard to say exactly how long the modern incarnation of witchcraft can hold out against capitalism's rapacious desire to commodify the authentic symbols of rebellion, or the tendency of trends (by definition) to come and go. But if the pattern of past cycles holds true for the future, it won't be the last time that pop culture rediscovers witchcraft — and in the meantime, as interest waxes and wanes like the moon, the witches will be there, waiting.