Our collective reality is splintering. Whether you’re negotiating the COVID-19 precautions or buying near-identical wellness products from Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop versus Alex Jones’ Infowars, you might have noticed we’re not all on the same page.
Arcane Bullshit creator Evan Doherty has been noticing this for quite some time. In his Kickstarter projects and occult memes on Instagram, he pokes fun at that dynamic by exaggerating it, creating a weird world of pre-scientific and pagan ideology. His latest Kickstarter campaign, for example, is a series of shirts pitting sun and moon worshippers against each other and asking both celestial bodies to spare us all.
“The world has gotten weird,” Doherty says. With more information at more fingertips than ever before, ‘truth’ becomes complicated. “People don’t trust science, people don’t trust the government, they have less and less faith in institutions of any kind,” Doherty says. “They want to make their own destiny.”
This directs some people towards extreme political ideologies, conspiracy theories, or even Armageddon supplies, but Doherty notices “even unawaked sheeple like me who wear a mask and trust the CDC feel the dominant narrative is not quite good enough, so they’re seeking out things that help them feel a little bit more in control.”
That has a number of effects on culture of course, but one he’s noticed is a growing interest in magical thinking, manifestations, crystals, and especially tarot—an incredibly popular theme on Kickstarter and a large portion of the wider category called ‘Witchstarter’.
“My attraction and involvement with the occult was at first purely aesthetic and satirical,” Doherty says. He made his first oracle deck more than a decade ago as a last-minute idea for something to sell at a friend’s zine fair table. Instead of traditional arcana cards like “The Magician” it features, for example, “The Former Child Star.” He continued handcrafting these decks up until 2018, when he realised a Kickstarter campaign could allow him to self-publish on a larger scale—and the all-or-nothing funding model would allow him to measure interest before placing a big order.
That Kickstarter project got support from well over a thousand backers, in part because Doherty’s romantic partner encouraged him to try promoting the campaign with some occult-themed parody memes.
Doherty describes himself as “really bad at social media,” but the second meme he ever made took off, clocking millions of views despite his relatively low following at the time. It’s about some of the…lesser-known benefits of crystals—“crunchy,” “neutral scent”—as well as what appears to be a potato and a wad of gum.
Since then, Doherty says he’s become “addicted to the engagement and response,” prompting him to research witchy topics as well as closely follow what he calls “surreal” meme accounts: @WelcometoMyMemePage, Special meme fresh, @BabaYagaBiscuits, @TrueWagner, and @PhysicalMemes are a few favourites.
The admiration is mutual. @ObviousPlant recently reached out for a collaboration. And though Doherty was “starstruck” when the bizarre, beloved account reached out, he’s even more surprised by his reception in occult communities.
“I started out doing this parody fully like, ‘Oh, I’m going to get hexed by witches immediately’,” Doherty says. “It hasn’t been like that at all—not that I know of. I’ve been so embraced by that community and think of witches and occultists now more as my peers. So I feel like I have a responsibility to know what I’m talking about a little bit.”
Kickstarter director of music Meredith Graves (unofficial title: “head witch in charge”) cheered on Doherty’s launch, and Doherty says that the more time he spends talking to occult practitioners, the more he appreciates the intuition and creativity and imagination behind what they do.
“Even though sometimes the stuff I’m making is misinformed or not particularly deep,” he says, “I think what people connect to is that I am being super creative with it and I’m taking it in these new directions. It becomes a homage, even if it’s accidental.”
It’s no secret by now that witchcraft is having a moment. If your algorithms haven’t led you to #witchtok (the wildly popular TikTok hashtag, which has grown from 6 million to 6 billion views since January), then maybe you’ve seen members of the witchcraft community making headlines for hexing the moon and Donald Trump, among other things.
Young people have long been moving away from organised religion, and towards spirituality and self-care (millennials, I’m looking at you). Now, thousands of gen Zers are becoming witches from their bedrooms. You can see why: the world in 2020 is a messy mix of late-stage capitalism, culture wars and an overwhelming climate crisis. The practice of magic—which involves tapping into the power of nature and the self—feels like both a reaction and an antidote to the world we find ourselves in.
Then there’s that tiny weeny pandemic. More uncertainty and more spare time, which we’ve mostly spent online, looking to cure our existential crises. Witchcraft, it seems, is one of those answers. Make no mistake, magic isn’t new to the internet: witches have been forming online communities since the internet’s inception. But these pockets of Reddit or Tumblr have largely stayed out of public consciousness until now.
This feels different. We are seeing the mass adoption of an ancient spiritual practice happening almost entirely via people’s phones. More than that, this surge of activity in the witch community is spawning entirely new forms of the craft, with new witches harnessing the digital tools that are now just as much a part of our ecosystem as the plants, stones or household objects that have been used historically.
Our devices are undoubtedly a powerful source of energy. Not only are they electronic, but they now process pretty much every thought, feeling, desire, and curiosity that we have. Witches like Nancy (@thehomebrewwitch) are sharing spells that can be cast using technology, while practising ‘techwitch’ Maxine (@spookthespoon) tells me how they “use games such as Minecraft to set up virtual altars, create art pieces based on [their] craft or cast spells,” explaining how “it’s a great way to have fun with your craft” and “can be cheaper and easier for those starting out.” Emojis, meanwhile, have reached their ultimate symbolic potential, being repurposed by many as sigils, which are groups of symbols that are used in spells to represent a desired outcome.
Aryn (@driftwooddreamer), who identifies as a green witch, describes how some tech witches harness electronic energy in their magic using circuit boards to charge their crystals. For her, the use of technology is simply more practical. “Whenever I find medicinal plants that I want to work with I have to memorise where they are, so I use Google Maps. I’ll put a pin that says, like, ‘rosemary’ on the map, so then, whenever I want to find rosemary, I can just look at Google Maps to find the herb I’m looking for.” For identifying plants, instead of carrying books around with her, she uses plant identifier apps like PlantSnap.
Tech is, crucially, the ultimate educational tool. The witchcraft community has a complex past, plagued by oppression, violence and, more recently, racism and cultural appropriation. Having infinite access to information via our phone screens might make it easier to borrow from other cultures, but it also makes education completely non-negotiable. New witches are using the internet to actively work against the spiritual colonialism of previous decades, encouraging each other to educate themselves of the history, nuances and sensitivities of various traditions.
“Google is [a witch’s] best friend,” eclectic witch McKenzie (@mckenzie.limonoff) tells me, and it’s true. There’s infinite Youtube videos and TikToks, Instagram accounts and Reddit feeds, plus a host of Google Classrooms and Discord servers that have been set up by witches to learn and collaborate together. Armed with knowledge, young witches are able to practice respectfully and creatively, carving out their own craft using whatever feels authentic to them.
This joyful emphasis on respect, accessibility and democracy seems to define the mood of the Witchtok generation. Rallying against the pretty gross commercialisation that witchcraft has seen over recent years (see the ‘Starter Witch Kit’ that was created and later cancelled by Sephora after accusations of ‘spiritual theft’), younger witches are championing the resourcefulness of their predecessors, shunning overpriced, over-marketed, mass-manufactured tools and accessories in favour of household objects, local wildlife, and tech.
On social media platforms now, perfectly curated witchcraft content is kept in happy company by practitioners making fun of their improvisations—from the obvious (who needs to buy expensive dried herbs when you can get them in Tesco?), to the less so (pasta for smudging, anyone?)—and whole hashtags dedicated to practising magic on a budget. Many ‘tips for beginners’ posts see practitioners urging new witches to forego expensive tools and instead work with what they’ve got, citing the use of tech, in all its abundance, as a great way to do this. It echoes a wider move away from Instagram’s filters and fakery, into a world of authenticity, spontaneity, and TikTok.
Some witches have found it difficult to accept the new forms of craft that are emerging online. “That’s something that the community is juggling at the moment,” Aryn says, but “technology is a part of human life now, so there’s no need to be old fashioned.” She makes the point that someone had to be the first witch to practice any kind of magic. “Witchcraft is something that works with cosmic or earthly energies and gets results, so what’s to say it’s not valid?”
You only have to look at the amount of energy bursting out from Witchtok, where young people all over the world are sharing spells to aid anxiety or promote self-acceptance, working to educate each other on everything from religion and philosophy to geology and botany, and conspiring to topple capitalism. It’s some kind of magic, that’s for sure.