For many far-right Christian groups, the pop cultural landscape of the past 40 years has been a minefield of insidious references designed for and by Satan: In the 80s, evangelicals blamed Dungeons and Dragons for drug use, suicides, and even devil worship; at the height of Pokémon's popularity, some religious groups warned that the titular pocket monsters were clear stand-ins for demons, as they are summoned, like malefic spirits from hell, to do the player's bidding; and in 2008, the Vatican's official newspaper condemned the Harry Potter books for their occult themes, calling the series' positive portrayal of witchcraft "a grave and deep lie."
The same year that the Vatican officially condemned the beloved YA wizarding series, right-wing activist Linda Harvey—who campaigned for Ted Cruz in 2016 and who heads up the homophobic publication Mission America—wrote a Christian "educational" book for parents, entitled Not My Child: Contemporary Paganism And The New Spirituality. In the first chapter, she warns, "The last seconds of a countdown are ticking away before an explosion of radical pagan practices occurs among American children, yet many parents seem oblivious or only mildly concerned." (The book goes on to decry the Disney song "Colors of the Wind," the popular science fiction series Animorphs, and the entire city of Seattle as gateways to the path of Satan.)
Harvey clearly isn't alone in this belief: To this day, numerous websites and books are dedicated to the idea that fantasy and sci-fi are fraught with peril for young people, destined to send them down the path of witchcraft and the occult. Most people in the mainstream brush this type of thinking off as paranoid extremism. But could there be a tiny, pentagram-shaped grain of truth to their concerns?
Speaking from my own personal experience, yes. Harry Potter was definitely my gateway drug to the world of witchcraft. Reading stories focused on witchcraft made me so excited and curious that I went out to seek the real thing; I can still remember finding a copy of The Witches' Almanac in a tiny bookstore when I was 13 and feeling like I had finally gotten my own letter inviting me to a magical world.
Since the publication of the first Harry Potter book, 20 years ago, the number of people identifying as witches has gone up, as has the number of Wiccans in both the United States and Great Britain. "The 'pagan' movement—what most people are referring to when they talk about American witchcraft today—has grown into a hard-to-dismiss new religious movement," author Alex Mar wrote in an article published on the Guardian. "In this country alone, a responsible estimate places the number of self-identified witches… at about one million—comparable to those of Seventh-Day Adventists and Jehovah's Witnesses."
That trite but true saying that 'representation matters' isn't any less true when we talk about the sacred.
There are numerous explanations for this fact—proposed reasons for the millennial occult revival range from its potent link with feminist empowerment, to the subversive freedom of the internet, to the fact that it's seen as a powerful tool for "combating existential angst"—but, for many witches, pop culture remains one of the most alluring gateways to the occult. Annabel Gat, a professional astrologer who incorporates chaos magic and witchcraft into her practice, says that the His Dark Materials series was what turned her on to magic when she was young. The trilogy "had a huge effect on my life as witch," she says. TV shows like Bewitched, the X Files, and Sabrina the Teenage Witch also made an impression on the budding witch. "The characters in these books and programs are usually problem solvers, or are people who are looking for answers, which was something I could relate to," she explains.
Katie Thokar, a rune reader who lives in New York, says it was the Lord of The Rings books that piqued her interest in the ancient form of rune magic. (Runes were the alphabet of the ancient Norse, as well as their divinatory system. Each rune represents an object or concept, as well as a sound, and can be chosen and read in a similar way to tarot cards.) "Tolkien was a master linguist, who took an existing magical alphabet and worked it into his fantasy story. It's an interesting relationship: The runes existed first, but my personal introduction to runes was through a fantasy novel, so I had to work backwards to get to the original source."
Some people go a step further, incorporating pop culture directly into their magical practice in a phenomenon that is sometimes referred to as "pop culture paganism." As Creatrix Tiara wrote in a piece for Motherboard, those who engage in this craft invoke beloved fictional characters in their spellwork; they "may build tarot decks based on the fictional surrealist newscast Welcome to Night Vale, explore the healing and magickal properties of the gems that make up the characters of the Cartoon Network hit Steven Universe, [or] build shrines in honor of the trolls from the sprawling cult webcomic favorite Homestuck."
Strange as this may seem, this type of thinking fits neatly into many forms of magic—particularly chaos magic, a relatively new, somewhat postmodern system that emerged in the 20th century. In chaos magic, belief itself is considered a tool, and the results of magical work matter more than the origin or makeup of the spells used.
In one of his books of practical magic instruction, Aleister Crowley, who is perhaps the most famous occultist of all time, lays out the basic chaos magic belief system, warning against assigning too much meaning to occult objects. "In this book it is spoken of the Sephiroth and the Paths; of Spirits and Conjurations; of Gods, Spheres, Planes, and many other things which may or may not exist," he wrote. "It is immaterial whether these exist or not. By doing certain things, certain results will follow." In other words, if believing in a fictional character helps your magic work, use that belief until it stops working—then discard it and find a better one.
Even though the religious right may have been right that occult-leaning pop culture is capable of ushering in a new generation of witches, their fear mongering is (of course) misguided. Even if it were true that every person who reads Harry Potter or watches Charmed becomes a witch, that's hardly a bad thing. For many, paganism and the occult are appealing because of their open-minded attitudes about gender and sexuality, especially in comparison with most mainstream religions: "I think it's interesting that the largest religions in the US are monotheistic, with a deity most often depicted as male," said F. Jennings one of the owners of Catland Books, an occult bookstore in Brooklyn. "That trite but true saying that 'representation matters' isn't any less true when we talk about the sacred."
For those out there who feel inspired by fiction in their real practice of magic, Gat says there are plenty of lessons to be learned. "Magic won't solve every problem. You'll still experience heartache, pain, and death," she says. "But life is better with wonder and whimsy than with nothing at all."