I don’t trust anyone who didn’t have a teenage Wiccan phase. More than being gay, or British, or refusing to upgrade my iPhone, having been a teenage witch is a crucial part of my identity. I treat my dabblings in the craft like a competitive sport. Sure, you were into Charmed – but did you do your high school work experience as a fortune-teller? Did you ever travel to Croydon to attend Witchfest? Did you pay a membership fee to use a coven directory service, only to discover that none would accept ill-adjusted 14-year-olds?
While some kids embraced the late-90s witchcraft boom by hoarding Buffy The Vampire Slayer box sets, or playing light as a feather, stiff as a board at sleepovers, I was not messing around. All it took was a single viewing of seminal teen horror film The Craft for me to realise that the lifestyle portrayed – being intimidatingly mysterious, wearing pleather, having supernatural dominion over others – was very much my vibe.
As an adult, I’ve realised that a teenage obsession with witchcraft is much more common among kids who grew up to be queer. It checks out. At that age, you already have a secret that you’re terrified might get you set alight – of course you identify with the maligned women of Salem. Plus witchcraft is inherently camp. Candles? Capes? Crystals? I shouldn’t have to join the dots. Factor in that witchcraft is an established gateway to boys wearing eyeliner and sure, I was interested.
Other kids might have imagined life would be perfect if only their parents hadn’t divorced, or they’d made it into the football team, or could will themselves to go up a bra size. As a heroically camp child who was obsessed with Richard Madeley, I knew that any chance of leading a happy and fulfilled school life would require serious occult intervention. I wasn’t into football, or South Park, or casual racism. It was clear that I stood more chance of communing with the spirits of the four quarters than with my actual classmates.
In lieu of a social life, weekends were spent hovering around the mind, body and spirit section of our nearest Waterstones, hoping that a passing witch might invite me to join her coven. (Unless you’ve actually visited Merry Hill shopping centre in Dudley, it’s impossible for me to impress upon you just how much that was Never Going To Happen.) My favourite book was Teen Witch by Silver Ravenwolf, largely because the cover illustration featured four girls and one boy, the precise gender ratio that teenage gay boys need to feel safe. Evenings were consumed by asking my tarot cards if I’d ever meet a Spice Girl or (this felt like a reach) have physical contact with another man. I spent a lot of time performing midnight rituals designed to make myself popular, and no time at all wondering whether the lingering scent of mugwort was stopping me getting invited to the cool parties.
I wasn’t raised in religion, so had no prior experience of the altered states that can be achieved through ritual. This was a revelation. Surrounded by flickering candles, smoking incense and crudely drawn pentagrams, my senses would heighten as I cast a magic circle with my wand. Reciting incantations in a hushed voice, I’d feel the veil between our world and the next begin to shimmer. Nine times out of 10, this rapture would be interrupted by my sister storming into my room to reclaim her nag champa incense sticks. Still, I felt sure that my ascent to a higher frequency was simply a matter of time, dedication and copious amounts of sandalwood oil. When a money spell led to me finding £10 in the street, I became convinced I was channelling powers – dangerous ones – beyond my comprehension. I was delighted.
By the time I was 15, I had to choose where to do my mandatory week of work experience. I was torn between Toni & Guy hairdressers (proximity to gay men meant that I might finally lose my virginity and/or emerge with a trendy mullet), or the nearest metaphysical supply store (I was pretty sure they’d teach me to levitate). In the end, I plumped for being bestowed unimaginable powers, but it was a close call.
In case you’re picturing Hogwarts, I should say that the scene of my mystical education was a cluttered shop next to a chippy in suburban Birmingham. I was already on first-name terms with the staff, who were used to answering my various questions (Is bergamot or coltsfoot better for protection spells? If I can’t afford a cauldron, is it OK to represent the goddess’s womb with a Simpsons mug? Why am I so lonely?). The owner, Jemima, was a huge advocate of urine, which she insisted could be used as a substitute for pretty much any medicine or cosmetic. On my second day, she pulled me to one side and suggested I get into the habit of washing my face in my own wee, which was apparently more potent than the animal urine she said was used in expensive face creams. When I expressed surprise that luxury brands were trafficking in pig piss, she assured me that they got away with it by labelling the ingredient as plant urine. After a moment spent watching me grapple with the ramifications, she assumed the smug expression of a prosecutor about to deliver their killer detail, and hissed: “But. Plants. Don’t. Urinate.”
The next day I listened as Jemima regaled a customer with her conspiracy theory. When they remained unconverted to the notion that bathing in urine guaranteed eternal youthfulness, she lifted her fringe and demanded to know, “How old do I look to you?” I pretended not to hear when Shola, the shop assistant, muttered, “About 79.” Shola was a non-believer, and nurtured a long-running feud with one of the mediums after he implored her to listen to her child’s psychic pronouncements. At 18, she was livid that he thought she looked old enough to have a child capable of speaking, never mind to dead people. When a pair of schoolkids burst in and screamed, “Is this a hippy shop or something?”, she didn’t look up from her copy of Take A Break before responding, “Yes, now fuck off.”
Fortunately for me, the owners were too busy contemplating their own auras to think that there might be a conflict of interest in asking me to price the assorted amethysts I’d later be buying. My other duties included cleaning the flotation tank, dusting the wands and studying Cunningham’s Encyclopedia Of Crystal, Gem & Metal Magic as if it were a GSCE set text (I hadn’t been explicitly asked to do this, but my work experience guidelines encouraged me to use my own initiative). I should have been on cloud nine, but by the end of the week I felt deflated. I hadn’t learned how to astrally project, or divine the future with runes, or even mastered working the till. At the very least I’d hoped I could leverage my week of retail experience into a Saturday job at Waitrose; but when I later had an interview for the fish counter, they seemed unimpressed by my extensive knowledge of crystal balls.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment was that I still hadn’t found my people. The witches I idolised were glamorous and enigmatic – like Maxine Sanders, the peroxide blond Witch Queen who ruled the sketchier parts of 1970s London. The pagans I met in real life didn’t look like people who had harnessed the unseen currents of the universe. A surprising number wore fleeces. I began to wonder whether people drawn to mystical realms really were charmed souls, or misfits who had struggled to find a place for themselves anywhere else. It was painful to consider that I might belong to the second category.
As I entered my late teens, other things started to preoccupy me, like reordering my Myspace top eight and tending to an asymmetrical haircut that required straightening every four to six hours. By the time I left school for a different sixth form, I’d reinvented myself as someone who wore distressed denim and had never accidentally referred to their form teacher as “Mum”. There was no single moment when I disavowed my pagan past, but my esoteric pursuits began to take up less space. Sabbats would pass unmarked, and I discovered a gay club that charged £8 for entry and all-you-could-drink spirits and mixers. I imagine many of history’s most promising occultists fell by the wayside in a similar manner.
While my interest in mysticism receded, it has never entirely left me. I still occasionally visit psychics, and maintain a crystal collection that could fairly be described as unnerving. As a teenager, I felt powerless in a world I couldn’t make sense of; sometimes I still do. But somewhere along the way, I lost my conviction that the solutions lay in a red candle, or a green knotted ribbon, or a five-pointed star. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss it.
• Comments on this piece are premoderated to ensure the discussion remains on the topics raised by the article. Please be aware that there may be a short delay in comments appearing on the site.