• Esmé L. K. Partridge

The demons of WitchTok

Published in The Critic.


The world of online occultism is hardly esoteric. Whether it’s social justice witches hexing the patriarchy or bored teenagers “reality shifting” into other dimensions, millennials and Gen-Zs have popularised alternative spiritual practices on platforms like TikTok. Look up #WitchTok and you’ll find hundreds of thousands of tutorials — mostly by young women — teaching you how to cast spells or summon pagan deities, interspersed with healing crystal hauls and vlogs about their latest otherworldly encounters.

You’d be justified for not taking any of it too seriously. Trends on TikTok wax and wane, and the popularity of witchy content — as with other trends like Y2K and dark academia — might be down mostly to its aesthetic. Much of WitchTok has a distinctly nineties feel about it, conjuring either the rainbow-coloured auras of James Redfield’s The Celestine Prophecy or the shadows of gothic or grunge subcultures (think pentagram pendants, smokey eyes and ouija boards). And if there’s one thing Gen-Zs love, it’s the nineties. Of course the appeal of alternative spirituality is decades old. But whereas young adults might have once been lured into it by plumes of patchouli incense, today they are lured in by algorithms.

Beyond aesthetics, even the practices of WitchTok themselves might appear shallow and inconsequential (we may presume that the virtual covens were not successful in their attempts to hex the patriarchy, nor the moon, Trump or the Taliban). Aside from these more remarkable occasions when e-witches put their wands together to cast spells en masse, the most popular practices on WitchTok tend to be individualistic and adopted like hobbies. To experiment with magic online, you do not have to be ritually initiated into a group as those in the countercultural crevices of 1960s England once did. In fact, you don’t actually have to commit to a particular worldview or belief system.

Aside from tagging it with #WitchTok, there is no criteria for what makes a “valid” alternative spiritual practice. With the melting of the metanarratives that defined the 20th century — the shift from modernity to postmodernity — subcultures are no longer bound by texts, organisational structures or physical spaces. Especially in the digital realm, there can be no clear-cut categories and certainly no authorities to regulate spirituality. Instead, individuals can freely fluctuate from Wicca to Shamanism (so long as they do not commit cultural appropriation), allowing for infinitely personalisable practices that know no bounds. In light of this, we might see WitchTok merely as an extension of the personal online brand. Perhaps for those who dabble in it, it really is just “not that deep”.

But what happens when they start summoning demons? I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on TikTok spiritualities, and whilst researching I stumbled across self-made teenage witches doing all kinds of bizarre things. Some were attempting to astral project into Hogwarts; others were “manifesting” the lyrics of rap songs. But I also found some claiming to have encountered malevolent entities. In a few cases they had done so on purpose, often as part of practices tagged with #demonolatry. But in others, they had summoned them unintentionally. In one video, a young woman reports her “first interaction with Satan” who she claims to have engaged in dialogue with thanks to her “extensively practiced clairaudience”. She claims that the encounter began with her unexpectedly sensing “a very intense spooky energy” which, after performing some kind of divination method, she identified to be the devil. Satan — who apparently goes by the pronouns “they/them” — then told her that despite being from “Hell, a very intense place”, “we are not inherently bad”. The encounter culminates in the devil asking the woman if “they” can try some of her cookies, followed by about 350 thousand likes and six thousand comments (one reads, “tell Satan I would like to be his friend he seems nice”).

But others aren’t so chirpy. In another clip, a pink-haired practitioner of “magick” reports how since beginning her rituals she has experienced bouts of “constant ringing” in her ears. Though she seems convinced that tinnitus is a perfectly normal symptom of her “spiritual awakening”, she is not the only one to have incurred negative side effects. In perhaps the most disturbing video within the genre, one young woman films herself with the caption “you were so into spirituality[,] what happened?” followed by a series of images depicting humanoid shadow entities lurking in various rooms. Now haunted by uninvited paranormal guests, the young woman — who stares into her camera with menacing facial expressions to the growl of distorted electronic music — has subsequently given up on being “into spirituality”.

Anyone who believes in the supernatural is bound to be at least slightly concerned by these incidents of young women who, after experimenting with occult practices, claim to have felt, heard or seen uncanny phenomena. Yet if you publicly express fears that they might actually be summoning demonic spirits — and that we should be worried about it — you could well be accused of riling up a “Satanic Panic”. In the 1980s when popular culture first fell under the spell of occult symbolism, conservative evangelicals reacted with virulent conspiracism about an emerging global plot to entice their children into worshipping the devil. Since this conspiracism went on to fuel groups like QAnon, sentiments faintly resembling it are deemed fundamentalist dog-whistles. Thus, fears that Satan might be recruiting young women through TikTok are most unwelcome (if not outright ridiculed).

Of course, it is quite possible that the witches of TikTok are deliberately tapping into these fears to provoke those conservative evangelicals whom they so despise. Much of WitchTok is polemically charged against Christianity, belonging to a particular subset of the culture war which pits radical, feminist, indigenous spiritualities against conservative, patriarchal, white religion. In this context, we might see their claims to have invoked demonic spirits as purely performative, a way of trivialising that which their political opponents fear. Perhaps they are a deliberate statement against those who propagate so-called Satanic Panic, along with anyone else who tries to tell them what to believe.

Even if WitchTok is a product of American cultural tensions, its influence is global. The appeal of online occultism goes well beyond midwestern teenagers rebelling against their parents — and so do its dangers. Recently a colleague of mine, a Muslim academic based in Europe, contacted me in distress having just learnt that his fourteen year old daughter’s friends were experimenting with occult practices they had seen on TikTok. As well as having concerns about these practices on the grounds of his Islamic belief, he was personally disturbed by the impact they were having on the girls. In a later interview, he detailed that some of them had begun exhibiting out of character behaviours including self-harm:

“I was very concerned as a father because some of the girls hurt themselves … once they dabbled with it and were absorbed into it, there was no antidote or remedy … that involved hurting themselves and secluding themselves from others in the class … it was really concerning”.

He told me that one girl, also from a Muslim family, had entered what sounded like a depressive phase. She had isolated herself from her classmates, stopped wearing the headscarf, and suddenly started to doubt her gender identity. Questions of correlation versus causation aside, it is hardly implausible that exposure to ideas of the supernatural and the demonic — ideas which have an inherently strong hold over the human imagination — could have such powerful effects, especially in the case of young and insecure minds going through puberty. Whilst my colleague’s concerns were informed by his theology, they are eminently plausible even from a purely psychological perspective.

Evidently, the idea that fears of demonic forces corrupting the young are exclusive to white conservative Christians is simply false. In multicultural contexts, there will be numerous communities who follow traditional religions and take the risks of dabbling with the supernatural seriously. Reducing this to “Satanic Panic” is at best insufficient and at worst insensitive; though fears of the occult can and have been ideologically instrumentalized, they are much more than a weapon of the culture war. They can arise from a number of different theological frameworks and perspectives. In many cases, they express themselves as a compassionate concern towards those who trivialise the supernatural and subsequently become vulnerable to spiritual and psychological harm.

In pre-modern societies, virtually everyone would have shared this concern. Before the European Enlightenment, the veil between the seen and the unseen was perceived as thin. To experiment with spiritual practices without instruction would be to risk fraying this veil, letting in demonic forces which could harm both the individual and the community. Since Kantianism, which flung the supernatural into a faraway realm distant from human consciousness; and postmodernism, which effectively denied its reality altogether; the transcendent and the immanent have come to be seen as wholly separate. Today, Western society operates on the premise that the supernatural either does not exist or does not matter. That premise is secularism.

Since secularism denies the entry of the supernatural into human societies, ordinary people cease to worry about malevolent spiritual forces infiltrating reality. If the Divine is sealed-off, then so is the demonic. Ironically, it is precisely because of this secular mentality that young women — in seeking to “re-enchant” their lives — underestimate the severity of the impact that supernatural experiences can have on them. Though they flirt with the idea of the unseen, at first they may not seriously believe in it, only to be shocked and disturbed when they encounter its contents. Seeking enchantment without the guidance of tradition can be psychologically destructive in this way. Moreover, as millenia of mystical traditions can attest, it is practically an invitation to be deceived and exploited by malicious actors — both human and inhuman.

Since it neglects supernatural existence altogether, secular society lacks the infrastructure to help people safely navigate it. Nor does it actively guard against spiritual deceptions which, if the testimonies of the TikTokers and my colleague’s daughter are true, can have serious consequences. We no longer have a culture of pastoral care which could readily advise young people in such situations and, if necessary, expel the demonic forces acting upon them. Instead, the creed of today’s parents and politicians is “do what thou wilt” — the maxim of Aleister Crowley and liberal modernity alike — with the cardinal sin being to interfere with an individual’s will. If a fourteen year old wants to dabble in #demonolatry on their smartphone, who has the right to stop them?

It seems unlikely that even those experimenting with online occultism themselves will take their own encounters seriously enough to seek advice should things go wrong. One struggles to imagine a WitchTokker, afflicted by hauntings, magick-induced tinnitus or literally Satan they/themself, approaching a priest or an imam for help. For most Gen-Zs, these figures are not integrated enough in their lives to be seen as “relevant”. And so, as my colleague described in his account, there is “no antidote or remedy’” for them. Society today is quick to authorise life-altering medications like antidepressants and hormone treatments for teenagers, but it would never dare prescribe prayer or exorcism.

Yet if young people really are getting themselves into spiritual troubles, they require spiritual solutions. Whilst supposed encounters with demons on TikTok can seem performative or even outright fabricated, we should still take them seriously as examples of what can happen when spirituality, bitterly divorced from religion, becomes trivialised and effectively profaned. Whilst the limitlessness of the internet may “liberate” individuals from the structures of teaching and tradition, it equally exposes them to ideas and forces they are ill-equipped to confront.

It is only natural for young people to seek re-enchantment in a secular age which continues, if covertly, to separate the immanent from the transcendent. Without spiritual safeguarding, these impulses are all too easily misdirected. So we should take movements like WitchTok seriously, along with the fears that surround them (instead of reducing those fears to “Satanic Panic”) — and we should recognise the redundancy of secular biases when it comes to a generation seemingly more receptive to the unseen than ever.