Downtime

The Decade Witchy Things Went Mainstream

Burning down capitalism, one incense stick at a time.

A person sits in front of tarot cards.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Jen Theodore on Unsplash.

Read the rest of Slate’s coverage of the end of the decade.

Marlene Vargas and Alex Naranjo had been making a decent living in real estate when the economy collapsed. “We were devastated,” Vargas said in an email recently. “Alex and I both gravitated towards more than just religion for answers and always felt connected to an esoteric practice.” Coming from religious backgrounds, the couple wanted something to connect to that wasn’t as austere. “This is when we found wellness, self-love and magic.”

In 2010, the couple opened a “metaphysical shop” in Echo Park, Los Angeles, called the House of Intuition. One store turned into two, and then eight—a chain of metaphysical shops selling things like incense and candles and one location offering healing and reading services. “The past ten years have been unbelievable for us,” said Vargas. ”We never expected to be part of the movement to bring magic into the mainstream of wellness.”

The couple had tapped into something—call it the widespread existential dread caused by the end of the previous decade’s instability—and they weren’t alone. “There’s something that’s happened in the last five years,” L.A. astrologer Chani Nicholas told the Atlantic in its 2018 piece on astrology’s resurgence, “that’s given it an edginess, a relevance for this time and place, that it hasn’t had for a good 35 years. Millennials have taken it and run with it.”

A timeline of the "Decade in the Occult" with entries about the opening of House of Intuition and the popularity of Goop.
Graphic by Slate. Photo by Phillip Faraone/Getty Images for Goop.

“New Age,” as ye old boomers called it in the ’70s, has come back in a major way this decade, shedding its corny rep for well-designed apps and sleek websites. What once was considered fringe or weird or from another era—talking about astrological charts on a first date, getting your aura read with friends, sound baths—is now kind of just regular among millennials (at least according to various market research firms who track the spiritual industry, one pegging the “mystical-services market” as a $2.2 billion industry). I call it “the palatable occult.”

My first genuine experience with the palatable occult didn’t happen until 2017. Several of my friends were already occult curious or occult serious, and I had smelled my fair share of ancient burning wood, held crystals at friends’ homes, and got a tarot reading from a guy I dated briefly. (I pulled the “death” card, which he quickly explained didn’t mean I was going to croak but was a metaphor for transition.) I remained cynical. The trend seemed silly and manufactured, a distraction from the all-consuming Trump-era resistance, and the result of a nefarious and ascendant wellness industry that just wanted to take my money.

The Wild Unknown Terror Deck of cards.
Graphic by Slate.

But then, with a freshly broken heart and a fair amount of professional ennui, I headed to Joshua Tree, looking for something to fix both. Perhaps other semi-spiritual thirtysomethings tripping their way through the California state park would pump new life into me. If not, maybe the open desert air and cacti-studded landscape would be the thing I needed to spark some genius. Worst-case scenario, my Instagram pics would inspire deep envy in my snowbound friends back East.

When I returned to New York a month later, I was less grizzled and less sad. I had a brand new crush and a belly full of açaí, and left a trail of patchouli everywhere I went. I was very busy looking up, down, and around for meaning in the letter “M” after a clairvoyant told me they saw the letter in a tunnel and it might turn out to be significant to me. My apartment was stocked with new devotional items: sticks of palo santo, copal, more than a few crystals—all of which I promised myself I’d remember the meaning of (I did not).

I’m still a bit cheeky when I talk about mixing my essential oils or send a Not All Geminis meme to a friend. But I no longer see the palatable occult as just an offshoot of the Goop Industrial Complex. Instead, it has become a way for people my age to engage with different forms of spirituality without subscribing to a single religion or belief system. It’s a way to make sense of the senseless and find meaning in an increasingly chaotic political climate. Taking a moment away from social media to cleanse your house with an ancient wood, holding a crystal that burns hot in your hand while you direct energy toward healing your broken heart, rubbing lavender on your temples to help you fall asleep—it can help you, for a moment, find a bit of peace.

A timeline of the "Decade in the Occult" with entries about the app Co-star and the Instagram account @NotAllGeminis.
Graphic by Slate

So why did the mystical trend take off, and get to me too? Big features in the New Yorker, the New York Times, and the Atlantic have all pointed to the internet for astrology’s rise among millennials, which—sure, yes, the internet can take credit for the rise of pretty much everything in my life. Others have noted that the increase in nonreligious spiritual practice corresponds to the decline in religious ones. One astrologer I talked to, Alice Sparkly Kat, who comes out of a robust queer people of color astrology community, told me that astrology’s popularity has long tracked with a rise in far-right ideology. And Julie Beck, author of that Atlantic piece, noted that astrology’s popularity often corresponds with stressful times, such as, say, the politically tumultuous years after a particularly fraught election.

All of these theories make sense to me, but the one I can’t shake is one that Vargas and Naranjo said sparked their mini-metaphysical empire, which echoed what I heard from others in the course of reporting this piece: the destabilizing force of the financial crisis, or put more broadly and in a way that appeals to many millennials I know, the oppression of capitalism. Of course, reacting to capitalism’s oppression by buying crystals or a healing session doesn’t make total sense. But when I’m feeling unmoored, putting my faith, and sometimes my money, in the metaphysical, in life’s mysteries instead of institutions (or face creams) that claim to have all the answers is a real comfort.

Read the rest of Slate’s coverage of the end of the decade.