(CNN)One August evening, hundreds of people used a Sharpie pen to write their greatest desire on a single bay leaf. Then, they lit the bay leaf on fire, letting the ashes fall into a bowl.
'WitchTok': Amid uncertainty, a new fascination with astrology and the occult bubbles up
This ritual, meant to manifest people's goals into their lives, is one of many that has been circulating on social media app TikTok in recent weeks. Videos of rituals, spells, healing crystals, Tarot card readings and astrology predictions rack up millions of likes, while drawing in untold numbers of curious viewers.
The TikTok community in which such rituals thrive goes by many names: "WitchTok," "SpiritualTikTok," "AstrologyTikTok." These names are a shorthand of sorts, as the practices shared among followers originate from a multitude of religions, philosophies or cultural backgrounds. As a whole, they are united by a fascination with the unknown, and the unknowable.
This increased desire to find spiritual meaning and purpose through occult practices isn't confined to social media -- psychics and astrologers have seen their customer bases increased exponentially during the pandemic.
Jade Sykes, an astrological reader for R&B singers SZA and Kehlani, told CNN her subscriber count on Patreon grew by 5,000 since the pandemic began. While astrology is typically associated with things like personality traits and compatibility, Sykes points out the discipline, which studies the movement of planets and stars in relation to the Earth, is far more complex. Its philosophies are prevalent around the world and many people rely on it to make big decisions and gain some insight into the future.
Meredith Grubb, a psychic with multiple viral videos on TikTok, told CNN she's done thousands of readings and is booked until January. This swell of interest has allowed Grubb to begin practicing professionally.
"It was never my intention to start a business. My intentions were, I want to help humanity, to be able to share this with the world, so that's where it really started," Grubb said. "But it took off from there."
For some, seeking astrological insight is a daily routine. Astrology app Co-Star has been downloaded 20 million times, nearly every 3 to 4 seconds in the United States, with no spend on marketing, a spokesperson told CNN.
Even the aesthetics of various practices have found their way into the mainstream. Healing crystals and occult imagery have become popular home decorations and luxury status symbols. Herbs to cleanse and protect, rose quartz to aid romantic relationships and candles to seal a spell are artfully displayed on Etsy and in cosmopolitan boutiques.
Kemi Mani runs a spiritual wisdom account on Twitter and increased her following from 50,000 to 300,000 over the course of the pandemic. Mani said while many people's relationship with astrology is superficial -- as seen through interactions with astrology memes on Twitter -- that actually makes the study and practices like it more accessible.
"It brings people to a new awareness, people can be interested in it and dabble," Mani said. "When you're in the house, and you don't have many people to connect with and the only thing that you're craving is connection — that's what people find in the spiritual spaces. Connection. Somebody that can see you beyond the material."
The link between spirituality and uncertainty is as old as humanity itself. People look to spiritualism in times of turmoil, said James Alcock, a professor of psychology at York University who studies parapsychological beliefs. That's why interest in the occult was already increasing before the pandemic, with the chaotic political climate in the US and existential issues like climate change haunting the global consciousness, he said.
"This anxiety cries out for some kind of answer about the future, and [the occult] provides an avenue where people can get some kind of answer about the future," Alcock said. "When you go to a Tarot reader or a fortune teller or you look at your horoscope, you never get any precise predictions about the future. But what you tend to get is something that's reassuring in some way."
The pandemic isolated people from each other and rocked the stability of people's lives, often leading them to question their career choices, life priorities and general place in the world, said Ian Anthony Waller, a PhD candidate at the University of California at Santa Barbara. Participating in rituals like astrology or Tarot offers a chance to reclaim that.
"It's just a conversation where you're getting to know yourself better and you're getting to know the person that you're having that conversation with better," Waller said.
"It's literally cosmic, so you're having a conversation about who you are in relation to the rest of the universe," he added.
As the amount of Americans who actively practice traditional religion has fallen, many who feel rejected by those religions have found places in alternative practices instead.
Kirah Tabourn, an astrologer with more than 25,000 followers on Instagram, helped found Fresh Voices in Astrology, an organization that hosts monthly webinars to showcase diversity in astrology. She said many of the people she's worked with at Fresh Voices are queer or nonbinary, and find a true connection with the spiritual side of astrology.
"A lot of people get into astrology because of the aspect of self acceptance," Tabourn said. "It can also speak to your marginalized experience in a way that can be just very helpful and healing."
Occult practices are also regarded as woman-dominated, Waller said, because they often allow women to hold power over their spiritual relationships.
"Women have said they've been able to take some power back by not having an intermediary that was usually a man," he said. "If you were Christian, then there was the father, the priest or the pastor that the word of God came through. But with astrology, just like witchcraft and Tarot, there's a divination kind of element that is not mediated by any literal middleman."
Crystals, sage, sacred herbs, incantations -- the material aspects of the occult appeal to one's senses. But as a trend, they sometimes appropriate the traditions of other cultures in ways that are considered disrespectful.
"When people start engaging with things like astrology and Tarot and spirituality, a lot of them just see it all as one, instead of a bunch of discrete approaches to engaging with the world, or engaging outside of the boundaries of scientific materialism," said Diana Rose, a Black astrologist, Tarot reader and business owner.
For instance, white sage, a plant often used for spiritual practices, is important to Indigenous American traditions. Using it without proper knowledge or respect is considered cultural appropriation by many in the community. When the beauty store Sephora was selling a "starter witch kit" with a bundle of white sage, writer Adrienne Keene pointed out that Native spiritual practices are often suppressed, and selling parts of these same ceremonies revealed what she considered to be a double standard.
Similarly, many popular Black creators on WitchTok have addressed their frustrations regarding non-Black people using Hoodoo, an African American spiritual practice (not to be confused with Voodoo).
"Cultural appropriation is if you are engaging with those practices in a way that directly goes against the stated preferences of the currently alive people who are from that culture that the practice comes from," Rose said.
At the same time, she said there is nuance to these conversations, and the point isn't to just keep certain practices away from other communities.
For some, an interest in astrology and other occult practices will last for the length of a 30-second TikTok. For others, the act of burning herbs or looking to the stars for answers is part of a deeper cultural identity. It's part of their lifestyle, or their religion.
What unites these various experiences is a desire to reach out and connect with each other, and touch parts of our existence that can't be understood or controlled. Through new channels, these old ideas are providing people ways to start conversations and engage socially with introspection.
And even if one doesn't rationally believe burning a bay leaf with the word "happiness" written on it will change their lives, there can still be a positive power in doing something -- anything -- to make sense of it all.