For untold millennia, deep into the misty pagan past, groups of women have gathered under the dark of night to commune with nature and share valuable folk knowledge. Now, a new generation of self-proclaimed witches, drawn by their own misty memories of playing with Ouija boards at sleepovers and bookmarking the dirty parts of The Mists Of Avalon, has answered the call.
Unlike the crunchy new age types who made Wicca into a (loosely) organized religion in the 1970s, these witches are more likely to be urban than rural, to be heavily tattooed than clad in a Ren Faire-style peasant skirt, and to keep their Book Of Shadows online, where a search for “#witchesofinstagram” turns up hundreds of thousands of results and “#witch” more than two million. The religious dimension of the whole thing can vary wildly as well, from committed neo-pagans to casual dabblers. They all refer to their best friends as their “coven” and abide by the sacred trio of crystals, sage, and tarot cards. And, as it has been throughout history—the most current historical data estimates that 80 percent of those tried for witchcraft in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries were female—the majority of them are women (here meaning “female-identified,” not necessarily cisgender).
Social media posts are much easier to find than a hidden grove deep in the woods, though, so a new breed of witch-hunter has come after these mystical trendsetters. Unlike the Witchfinder Generals of old, though, these hangers-on aren’t concerned with eradicating witches, but with monetizing them. Fashion magazines Vogue and W declared summer and fall 2016, respectively, to be “the season of the witch,” following the lead of all-black, bondage-inspired goth fashion shows from the likes of Alexander Wang and Marc Jacobs. Lifestyle magazines from Bust to Dazed have published guides to self-empowerment through witchcraft, and Salon went so far as to give the trend a name: “mysticore.”
Some of this is trendy bandwagon-jumping, of course. But there is an interest in fashion woven into the contemporary witchcraft movement, propelled by the visual nature of their chosen medium of Instagram. Sabat, a zine turned specialty magazine printed on thick, luxurious paper and featuring full-page spreads of women cloaked in black and staring intensely at the camera, runs fashion stories alongside earnest spiritual advice, an approach editor and creative director Elisabeth Krohn says was part of her mission from the start. “I wanted to make a publication that would appeal to a younger, more design-conscious audience,” she told design site It’s Nice That in May. The Hoodwitch’s Bri Luna, another outspoken witch who has been particularly influential in bringing women of color into the movement, takes a similar approach; she’s known almost as much for her nail art as her work as a healer and just launched a new line of nail polish on her website.
This might all seem awfully commercial, but it’s not unprecedented. High fashion had a similarly gothy moment in the mid-’90s, and repeat viewings of The Craft presumably inspired at least a few of the young women currently posting pictures of their crystal-covered altars online. And that’s nothing compared to the occult craze that swept the U.K.—and, to a lesser extent, the U.S.—in the 1960s and ’70s, two decades after the British government finally got around to abolishing the Witchcraft Act Of 1735 (which, to be fair, was originally enacted to try to curb witch hunts). That particular occult revival soon became inextricably linked with the sexual revolution in the pop cultural imagination, with cheap horror films and lurid exploitation “documentaries” like Witchcraft ’70, along with occult-themed men’s magazines like Black Magic and Bitchcraft, promising wild orgies with naked witches for those brave enough to strip down and join the ritual. And let’s not forget Stevie Nicks, high priestess of ‘70s witchy fashion whose icon status was recently confirmed on American Horror Story: Coven.
The pendulum of popular depictions of witchcraft has been swinging back and forth throughout the 20th century, a phenomenon most clearly traceable through that most magical of pop cultural mediums: film. The first recorded feature film to focus on witches was 1922’s Häxan: Witchcraft Through The Ages, showing witchcraft as an outdated superstition easily explained away by modern science while still reveling in the imagery of witches dancing naked before their master, Satan. This depiction endured more or less intact through the 1940s—an anomaly like I Married A Witch aside—until figures like Kim Novak in Bell, Book And Candle and Elizabeth Montgomery in Bewitched reimagined the witch from a haggard crone to a beautiful, kooky, ultimately harmless dame whose powers were no match for the power of love.
Witches became scary again in the late ’60s, when the growing women’s liberation movement was reflected in films like Rosemary’s Baby, easily interpreted as a metaphor for reproductive rights (your husband deciding on your behalf that you’re going to bear Satan’s baby is sort of the ultimate boundary violation, no?). Among the hundreds of witchcraft-themed films released over the next decade—most of them horror and/or exploitation—a few stand out as more than your typical, cheaply titillating fare: George Romero’s Season Of The Witch, about a bored housewife who turns to witchcraft for kicks; Ken Russell’s The Devils, widely banned for its heretical stance on sex and religion; Suspiria, the first in Dario Argento’s “Three Mothers” trilogy about a trio of evil witches who secretly rule the world; and The Witch Who Came From The Sea, about a woman sexually abused by her father who unleashes supernatural wrath on all mankind (emphasis on the “man”).
The pendulum swung back to comedy in the ’80s, when films like The Witches Of Eastwick saw three women fighting over the affections of the devil himself. (And Teen Witch, well—it had a rap.) By the ’90s, pop-cultural witches could be either comedic (Sabrina The Teenage Witch) or scary (The Blair Witch Project), but one thing was clear: Covens were back in a big way, with teams of literal sisters (Charmed, Practical Magic, Hocus Pocus) and metaphorical ones (The Craft, Buffy The Vampire Slayer) working together to achieve magical ends. This new wave of powerful witches in pop culture came alongside the resurgent third-wave feminist movement, just as the last wave in the ’70s came alongside women’s liberation.
Now, with a new Blair Witch movie standing in contrast to feminist depictions of witchcraft in films like this year’s The Witch and the upcoming The Love Witch, the idea of women supporting each other has become essential to contemporary witches. Whether online or in person, witches meet to exchange information, enhance their individual spiritual practices, and talk about their careers and creative ambitions. (They also support each other financially, through a large, semi-underground network of female-owned small businesses, who peddle witchy spell kits, jewelry, clothing, cosmetics, and bath products on Etsy and their own websites.) As a member of NYC-based group Witches Of Bushwick tells Broadly—a frequent mouthpiece for the hip witch of 2016—their collective started as a party “for girls who wanted to meet girls” before evolving into an artistic and spiritual endeavor.
Sometimes those gatherings have an explicitly political purpose, like the 600 witches who came together to put a hex on Brock Turner, his father, Dan Turner, and Judge Aaron Persky, who gave Turner an insultingly light slap on the wrist for raping an unconscious woman. Sometimes they’re therapeutic, a safe place to discuss, process, and ritually let go of past trauma. Some come looking to understand their heritage through folk magic. Others come for comfort, guidance, wisdom, clarity, inspiration, or even romance. The point is that they come, and that coming together creates an energy that is building into a potentially powerful movement. There are a lot of things for the misogynists of the world to be anxious about in 2016, our first female president chief among them. And as more and more witches discover the power of the coven, maybe they should be afraid.