Store window of a psychic parlor in the East Village, Manhattan, New York City

In 1552, the Protestant minister Hugh Latimer delivered a sermon in Lincolnshire, England. He stated that when people encountered challenges, illnesses, or losses, they often resorted to seeking assistance from wizards or sorcerers, known as “wise men,” in an attempt to find solace and resolution. Latimer viewed this reliance on magic as an issue because it led individuals to abandon their faith in God. The preacher raised a valid concern: during his time, there existed an abundance of spells and incantations intended to address various problems, and numerous individuals were willing to sell these remedies to desperate clients. Nevertheless, Latimer’s efforts to eradicate such practices were futile.

Regardless of the numerous sermons dedicated to condemning these practices, magic and mysticism continued to resurface during times of crisis. While Latimer expressed dismay over the tendency of Tudor people to consult cunning folk, individuals were utilizing every resource at their disposal to cope with challenging times. One 16th-century cunning woman, Joan Tyrry, sought guidance from fairies to diagnose illnesses in children. The 15th-century vicar-cum-magician William Dardus employed the summoning of spirits to locate stolen property. In the same year that Latimer voiced his concerns, a servant named Joan Hall purchased a spell to enhance her prospects of securing a “rich marriage.” As time progressed, this reliance on magic intensified during periods of widespread adversity: when crops failed or war erupted, the urge to resort to magic became even more prevalent. As we will observe, this pattern has remained consistent from the Early Modern era to the present day.

The belief in magic and the supernatural has persisted throughout history and continues to exist today. It was once widely assumed that the Enlightenment had led to a decline in the belief in magic, ushering in an era characterized by rational decision-making and scientific advancements. While society has undoubtedly evolved, the extent of this transformation may be overstated. In times of adversity, individuals tend to revert to practices similar to those employed by their ancestors.

The most notable example from recent history is the COVID-19 pandemic. As the novel virus spread across the globe, the demand for psychics and fortune-tellers surged in parallel with infection rates. From the United States to India, from Australia to the United Kingdom, people sought answers and solace from supernatural sources amidst the unprecedented global upheaval. The online directory Yelp reported a significant increase in searches for mediums in 2020. Some psychics even reported being overwhelmed by the demand and had to turn away clients. The inquiries frequently centered around the health of individuals and their loved ones, financial stability, and the duration of the crisis.

Similar trends have been observed during other periods of stress, both on a personal and national level. Google data reveals that searches for psychics peaked in the final weeks leading up to the 2016 Brexit vote and around key dates during the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union. There was also a noticeable spike in searches for “money spell” during this period. Additionally, mediums experienced increased business during the 2008 financial crisis, with IBISWorld recognizing fortune-telling as one of the few “recession-proof” industries. Notably, spiritualism and seances gained popularity during the First and Second World Wars. During the period of my research, there was a surge in astrology in 1640s England, coinciding with the English Civil War. Much like in contemporary instances of social upheaval, astrologers such as the Londoner William Lillie were consulted to predict the fate of individuals and the end of the conflict.

At first glance, seeking the guidance of a medium may appear as an act of resignation, an acknowledgment that one’s destiny is beyond their control. However, this is seldom the case. Rather, magic is often employed as a coping mechanism. Foresight is one aspect of this, while casting spells to influence outcomes is another. We witnessed this during the modern-day “hex the patriarchy” movement, along with the prayer circles organized to counter the witches’ spells. What’s particularly intriguing is that those involved in such rituals did not solely rely on supernatural abilities: they incorporated magic into a broader strategy that included activism and political participation. This often-overlooked aspect of magic distinguishes it from mere wishful thinking. It represents an active attempt to gain control over a situation, and as such, most practitioners combine supernatural methods with other approaches to improve their lives. This has been true throughout history—Tyrry, the fairy healer, complemented her incantations with carefully selected herbs for her patients; Dardus leveraged his position as a priest to investigate his parishioners. Ultimately, magic has consistently been one of several tools that people have utilized to cope with life’s challenges.

Of course, there is a darker side to magic in times of crisis. Difficult circumstances can bring out the best and worst in individuals, especially when fear prevails. Soldiers purchased protective amulets during the English Civil War, but they also accused their neighbors of practicing malevolent witchcraft. The social divisions and trauma caused by the war led to the largest witch hunt in English history, with over three hundred individuals accused and more than one hundred executed. Across the Atlantic, the Salem Witch Trials resulted in over 200 accusations and at least 20 deaths. Fear during the COVID-19 pandemic also manifested in horrific acts, with The Associated Press reporting an increase in ritualized murders as certain individuals sought to use body parts for magical cures.

It’s easy to believe that we are distinct from our ancestors. However, when faced with adversity, we continue to make space for magic in our lives, for better or for worse. It’s one of several strategies people employ to survive, and in itself, there is no inherent harm. In fact, our reliance on magical thinking is a fundamental aspect of human nature that deserves recognition. We are beings who crave hope and a sense of control. Perhaps magic serves as a psychological and spiritual crutch—but it’s a surprisingly potent and enduring one.