I’ve got into the habit of scrolling TikTok when I can’t sleep: its lulling #cottagecore scenes are a peaceful antidote to endless news about the world’s imminent implosion. And it’s at this eerie 4am time, when the veil between consciousness and dreams is at its thinnest, that Gen Z magic practitioner Jay Kaizen enters my life.
'Alright Jay Kaizen, why do you believe in crystals?’, he asks himself, his voice calming against a backdrop of gently trippy ambient synths, his bare chest adorned with tiger’s eye beads. 'Because, my friend, I understand the fluidity of belief,’ he replies.
The Haringey resident has got a frankly terrifying 2.5 million followers on his account @jaykaizen, making him a leading light of #witchtok – the unsettling, compelling corner of TikTok where occult ideas are shared.
On witchtok, an intense teenager will teach you how to perform a hex on your abuser by stabbing a defenceless cucumber with nails and thorns. You can learn how to cleanse your room by burning sage (quicker than hoovering!). You can see how to test if your crystals are real by holding them against a lighter’s flame (fake plastic crystals will melt). You can even get witchy fashion inspo (unsurprisingly, ’90s cult movie ‘The Craft’ is a key influence).
Kaizen is on the trippier side of witchtok, the side that pushes at the outer edges of reality (herbally assisted by weed and legal Himalayan resin shilajit, which he sells via a link in his bio). He started out making comedy TikToks, but by the time I chat to him, he’s deadly serious.
'In a world optimised for control and fear, magic is a way for people to create their own reality and focus in on themselves,’ he says. He’s currently working on a book called ‘Break The Matrix’, which he says is aimed at Gen Z readers. 'We’ve witnessed our parents work this agonising cycle of nine to five jobs and subconscious control,’ he says, 'and we don’t want the same for ourselves.’
He reckons that he’s been so successful on TikTok because he makes easy-to-follow videos on fiddly concepts like chakras, the third eye, or other dimensions: ‘I’m making complex, existential topics easier for my generation to understand’, he says.
I can feel my scepticism rising. I love magic as an aesthetic. I have a little bowl of crystals in my room. Heck, I once had a pet snake called Miss Hiss. But when it comes to magic as an actual belief system, I’m a bit more cautious. Is any of this stuff actually real?
Kaizen gives an incredibly persuasive answer in his video, which is captioned 'The reason I believe in crystals’.
'Bro, we all believe in shit that ain’t real’, he says, ice cool in his trademark mirrored sunglasses. 'Social media is just a popularity contest among apes, yet you get sad about your lack of likes’.
Kaizen’s theory is that we all have a series of beliefs that have been conditioned into us by capitalist society. Freedom means breaking out of that system: choosing what we want to believe, and how we want to believe it. So bring on the crystals!
Kaizen’s world is a long, long way from old school preconceptions about magic: broomsticks, potions, purring familiars, and proudly-worn warts. Instead, modern witches are all about finding new methods of survival under late capitalism. And I can definitely see why building your own belief system is a way to find stability in a London that, frankly, makes very little sense: rents are rising, salaries are stagnating, and 46% of Gen Zers say they feel stressed all, or most of the time.
Choose your own adventure
Former stylist Semra Haksever describes herself as an 'eclectic witch’, which means that she draws on spiritual beliefs from lots of different traditions. 'In the past, people were confined by patriarchal conditioning,’ she says. 'You went to church and everything was dictated to you. But now, you can cherry pick what you believe. You can meditate, burn sage, do yoga, or go off and become a witch’.
She links this esoteric, culture-blurring approach to the rise of wellness culture. 'The wellness trend is quite extreme at the moment,’ she says. 'It’s almost like a new religion.’
At the core of wellness culture is the idea that the choices you make can transform your physical health and psychological wellbeing: a belief that many 21st century witches share.
Another idea that’s very prevalent is that of 'manifesting’, a quasi-magical practice that was popularised by 2006 film-turned-book The Secret, by Rhonda Byrne. Basically, the idea is that you set an aspiration, and then it becomes a reality.
For Haksever, manifesting is a central part of how she views the world. 'I went to Bali, and decided to climb a volcano’, she tells me. 'I set an intention that when I got to the top, I’d have a vision about how I could make magic accessible to everybody. And when I got to the top, I had a vision that was like, “Why don’t I make magic spell candles?” I literally saw the name Mama Moon, and had a real vision of what they would look like aesthetically.’
Haksever scrambled straight down the mountain and registered the domain name mamamooncandles.com - and now she’s got a shop in Hackney where she sells candles and potions designed to help people manifest their desires. Her 'Legendary Love’ bath soak is scented with stress-relieving Frankincense, a £20 ‘Fast Money’ potion advises you to ‘Anoint your money and lottery tickets to assist with wind falls’, while her £38 ‘Spiritual Bleach’ candle claims that it ‘protects against negative vibes’.
Haksever also hosts monthly moon rituals, where witches and the curious gather round a fire to cast spells, and throw their wishes for the future into the flames: ‘it’s really high vibes’, she says.
The dark side of magic
But there’s a darker side to 21st century witchhood, too, Haksever tells me.
‘The wellness industry can be a little bit like the Wild West,’ she says. ‘A lot of people are looking for someone to tell them how to live their lives.’
It’s all very well believing that you can control your own reality, and can manifest good things coming into your life through positive thinking and witchy activities. But what happens when the universe doesn’t comply?
‘Something I see on TikTok quite a lot is this idea that you should be all positivity, all the time,’ says Haksever. ‘But that’s toxic. Because if something crappy happens to someone, they’re going to blame themselves, whereas actually, sometimes shitty things just happen.’
Imperial College historian Dr Thomas Waters knows all about the riskier sides of magical thinking. He’s the author of Cursed Britain: A History of Witchcraft and Black Magic in Modern Times, which tumbles through two centuries of occult beliefs.
‘There’s loads of potential for people to be ripped off and abused’, says Waters. ‘I know a lady who lost both parents when she was young. And she went to a magical healer who convinced her that there was a curse on her family, and that if she didn’t pay thousands of pounds, the curse would continue.’
There’s loads of potential for people to be ripped off and abused
Medicine is tightly regulated. Magic very much isn’t. So there’s little to stop magic practitioners making whatever claims they like for their products and services. And that process is only accelerated by platforms like Tiktok and Everclear, an app that matches people to ‘top psychics, empaths, astrologers, tarot readers, and other advisors’.
Artist and tarot reader Ilayda Arden is all too aware of the risks. ‘There’s a dangerous element to the world of magic, and it comes from the capitalistic desire to hustle’, she says. ‘Right now, as a society, we need help. Young people are under pressure from so many angles. And TikTok often packages magic as a get rich quick scheme, or preys on people who want easy answers.’
The power of ritual
People don’t solely turn to magic to solve problems in their life. ‘Rituals are very powerful, emotionally and psychologically,’ Waters tells me, ‘a lot of people find them soothing, like a form of meditation.’
I feel like I’m getting too cynical about magic. Maybe it’s something you’ve got to feel, rather than think, your way through. So I sign up for one of eclectic witch Leila Sadeghee’s altar-making workshops, which she hosts in a white-draped, shagpile carpeted room belonging to Broadway Market spiritual emporium She’s Lost Control.
She’s a sparky, wonderfully earnest presence, studding her tutorial with phrases like ‘blessed be’ as she makes a convincing case for incorporating a bit of magic into your everyday life. Under her direction, I create an altar based around the four elements: candles to represent fire, crystals and bones to represent earth, incense to represent air, and tarnished old glass bottles to represent water.
As I scour the house for objects to fulfil each category, I realise that I’ve long been making altars without realising. Little collections of objects that hold meaning, gathering dust on windowsills and mantelpieces (apologies to all my past housemates, especially the asthmatic ones).
Looking at them makes me feel calm and grounded: I wouldn’t describe what I’m doing as worship, maybe, but it’s definitely a meditative, soothing activity.
It brings me back to something that Haksever told me. ‘Magic is really just about having your eyes open’, she said, ‘and looking at everything in nature, the moon, the stars. It’s noticing how magical the world is.’
It’s an idea that makes me think of mindfulness – the NHS’s current mental health therapy of choice – and its emphasis on existing in the moment, not in your head. I might not be able to create my own reality, but I can at least find a corner of peace within it.
Magic against the system
I find it incredibly soothing being in She’s Lost Control, with its magazine supplement-worthy collection of glossy crystals. Still, there’s a kind of irony to the idea that fighting against the hectic tide of the capitalist, corporate world we live in should involve buying so much stuff: workshops, crystals, sprays, candles and oils.
For non-binary witch and artist Byuka Krow, magic involves a much more DIY approach: ‘I use methodologies that do not involve buying expensive crystals, or trade-based ways of being’, they explain.
They’re currently running experimental coven Lunarrr Playgroundz, which holds moon-centric workshops at Bermondsey arts space Ugly Duck. One event facilitated by trainee psychotherapist Bea Xu is BYOB: Visceral Symbol, which invites you to BYOB or Bring Your Own Blood (‘menstrual or extravenus - as long as it's collected with loving intentions’, the eventbrite page helpfully explains).
For Krow and their collaborators, magic is an opportunity for queer transformation, and for expressing complex, sometimes ugly emotions: ‘our anger has a very potent magical power,’ they say.
It’s also a way of rebelling against mainstream ways of seeing the world. ‘Moon magic is an ancient technology that can help us rebel against the industrial machine that dominates our lives’, they say. ‘Instead of the linear focus on productivity, there are phases of the moon for rest, reflection, growth, celebration and gratitude.’
Krow’s anti-capitalist perspective is a reminder that you can’t separate magic and politics. The legendarily grumpy sociologist Theodor Adorno’s 1953 essay The Stars Down to Earth linked surging interest in magic with the rise of fascism. Today, TikTok users issue warnings about accounts that are associated with Nazism (Hitler was deep into magic) or alt right thinking. As the world becomes a weirder, scarier place, people are losing trust in the establishment and forging their own belief systems - and that can be risky, as well as liberating.
More than a vibe
‘One of the impulses for people to start taking an interest in magic is being in a moment of crisis,’ says Waters, ‘whether that’s financial problems, personal problems or health problems. And those moments of crisis are more likely to occur in an economy with declining living standards for most people.’
The current cultural fascination with magic is easily reduced to an aesthetic: jangly moon and stars jewellery, goth boots, pentacles, and crystal pendants. But it’s so much more than that.
Magic is a way of bargaining with a mysterious and often cruel universe. It’s a way for people on the margins to try to seize control over things that are well outside their power. That teenage TikToker I saw pushing nails into a cucumber to hex her abuser probably didn’t have the real-world power to speak up, and be believed. And you can bet that actually wealthy people don’t feel the need to buy ‘Fast Money’ potions to bring cash into their lives.
It’s easy to see why the Christian church spent centuries trying to wipe out witchcraft - it’s subversive. Instead of imposing faith in a top-down way, it lets people dream up their own belief systems, and lets women and non-binary people come to the fore.
And if 21st century witchcraft comes with dangers, it also brings huge benefits, too. It’s liberating to let ritual and magic back into a modern life that’s been cleansed of all that stuff. We’re hungry for the kind of moments of collective catharsis and celebration that dominated our caveman ancestors’ lives - for a deep connection to the skies above us and the earth we’re standing on. I’m still not sure I believe in crystals. But as I look out at the sky on the long bus home from my nine to five, I can feel the moon and its rhythms calling to me, with the soft insistence of a dream that returns to you night after night, and won’t quite let you go.