When Maira Khan’s boyfriend left her last year, she was desperate to win him back. “I knew he was seeing someone else, but I didn’t know how serious it was,” said Ms. Khan, an influencer in Toronto. “I kind of just wanted her gone.”
At a loss, she decided to consult the occult. “The first spell I bought was a cord cutting spell, which for me was about removing a third party,” Ms. Khan, 28, said. She found a witch through TikTok who only required the former couple’s name to perform a candle ritual: tying a length of twine around two candles and letting the wicks burn down until the string is broken by the flames. “She said that it went well,” Ms. Khan said.
It’s a good time to be a witch. Those steeped in the “craft” are part of a $2.3 billion industry in the larger psychic-services universe, a field that includes palm reading (palmistry), tarot cards (cartomancy) and astrology.
People aren’t dialing psychics from the phone book or knocking on witchy storefronts and back rooms for their fortune anymore — supernatural entrepreneurs have set up shop on TikTok and Etsy. There are nearly 36,000 Etsy sellers offering “psychic readings” and related paraphernalia like enchanted candles, apothecary kits, ritual oils and voodoo dolls.
The business of witchcraft is nearly as old as the practice itself. In Europe, “Witchcraft offered women in the Elizabethan period up to the 18th century a good and sometimes lucrative way to make a living,” said Marion Gibson, a professor of Renaissance and magical literatures at the University of Exeter in England, who wrote “Witchcraft: A History in Thirteen Trials.”
Poor people would often visit witches and other “magical people” — like soothsayers and conjurers — in times of sickness or a bad crop year. It was expensive but often cheaper than seeking medicine and doctors or buying new tools.
Traditions also grew from historical forces. Hoodoo — a spiritual practice started by enslaved African Americans in the Deep South — blends regional African beliefs, Indigenous customs and Christianity.
“I’m from Alabama, right next to Florida, so Hoodoo may look a bit different there than for Gullah Geechee people from South Carolina,” said Eve Hardy, a medium and Hoodoo practitioner in Atlanta.
Ms. Hardy began offering services like “road opening” rituals, which clear life obstacles, on TikTok and Instagram in February, and her client base ballooned. She doesn’t consider herself a witch, however, but rather categorizes hoodoo as a subset of traditional African religions — which can incorporate supernatural practices.
“It’s a lifestyle, and it’s a religion,” said Ms. Hardy, 26, who clarified that they could be considered “boo hags or priests” but not witches.
The progression of magical practices as an economic force has mirrored our own changing world. “People used to offer mail order spells, so you would write off to somebody and they would send you back instructions and maybe a charm,” Ms. Hardy said. As commerce moved online, so did those in tune with the supernatural.
Witches also often play a dual role of occultist and confidant for customers, like Lavender Grey who operates Grey’s Witch Emporium from her home in Knowlton, England. “The actual casting is one bit, but the other half is just being there,” she said. “I’ll offer advice and guidance because if people go off and do something silly after a spell is cast, nothing is going to work.”
Ms. Gray, 39, sells enchantments like the “Fiery Wall of Protection” for $27.89, which, she said, “shields your aura and spiritual self from any negativity, ill will and other spell work.” In 2019, she opened an Etsy storefront but she doesn’t say yes to every customer. “I stay away from people who want to be in a relationship with someone else who is already in a relationship,” she said. While those love spells rarely work, Ms. Grey claims a high success rate otherwise.
The complexities don’t stop at star-crossed lovers. Curses and spells can be an especially personal piece of merchandise. Buyers typically have to participate in the ritual, which can require divulging details more commonly heard in a therapist’s office.
Rhiannon Headrick, the owner of All About Intentions in Rolla, Mo., said that a lot of requests can feel like a last resort for people — usually women — who are out of options and hope. “My wife reads the majority of our messages now, because I got to a point about eight months ago that it was just breaking my heart,” said Mx. Headrick, who uses they/them pronouns.
“We’ve done hundreds of legal cases, typically nasty divorces and custody battles where there’s one partner who is in control and has more access to the funds,” Mx. Headrick, 35, said. But it’s impossible to verify, they said, whether the spells are effective. “We recently had a man admit in court that he assaulted our client’s young son,” they said. “He’s now in jail.”
A “Winning Legal Matters” spell costs $75.55 from Mx. Headrick’s store, while a “group cord-cutting ritual” to facilitate harmonious co-parenting costs $45.55. Casting a curse on a defendant or plaintiff during a family court case is not illegal. However the sale of “metaphysical services” that guarantee outcomes has been banned on Etsy since 2015, causing an uproar in the witch community. The services of many Etsy witches and practitioners now have “entertainment only” qualifying riders.
Still that hasn’t deterred repeat customers. Bernadette Giacomazzo, a journalist and writer in Atlantic Beach, N.Y., works with Mx. Headrick at least once a month, mostly on career-centered rituals. Ms. Giacomazzo, 45, credits her disillusionment with Catholicism for her interest in witchcraft and other supernatural practices, comparing her monthly payments to Mx. Headrick to tithings.
In return, Ms. Giacomazzo feels as though she has a psychic cheerleader. “I know that someone’s praying on my behalf in a positive way,” she said. They’re “somebody that has my back in the spiritual realm.” She attributes landing a publisher for her book after years of trying to Mx. Headrick’s spell casting.
Visiting witches for help is a longstanding tradition, sometimes a last resort, especially when all other avenues have been exhausted. “If you go to a witch, you might be asking for something which, as a woman, you couldn’t have access to in other ways,” Dr. Gibson said. “Power, wealth, health, security.”
Unfortunately for Ms. Khan, the spell she bought from the Etsy witch didn’t bring her ex-boyfriend back. But that hasn’t damaged her faith in the supernatural, nor will it be the last time she seeks out an online witch.
“Things didn’t work out, and I just kind of wanted him to feel the pain of what he had caused me,” she said. “So I move on to a revenge spell.”