How to ‘Put the Devil on the Run’ as Cultural Interest in the Occult Grows
Exorcist says active sacramental life isthe ordinary means of keeping the evil one at bay.
When he was a child, Stephen Adubato asked his parents for a Ouija board. Several of his relatives dabbled in magic, and he had become interested in experimenting with occult practices.
Adubato’s family bought him the Ouija board, and he began communicating with spirits who presented themselves as his relatives.
“They say very sentimental things, like ‘I miss you,’ and ‘I love you,’” he told the Register. “But when you start asking questions, they begin to say darker things — vulgar curse words or sexual things.”
Experiences like Adubato’s are becoming more common, as interest in occultism and related things like astrology are reportedly at a decades-long high.
Social media has become a significant medium for creating and sharing content that promotes occult practices and beliefs, especially among young people. With more than 1 billion monthly users, TikTok shares content by presenting users with videos that the algorithm predicts they might like, which means that users can see content without directly seeking it out.
While researching TikTok spiritualities for her undergraduate dissertation, British scholar and writer Esmé Partridge began documenting the phenomenon of “WitchTok,” a subculture on TikTok where self-described witches share occult content.
Some WitchTok users seek to bring about their wishes by “manifesting,” or willing an intention into existence through techniques like changing one’s mindset, visualizing an ideal reality, or performing ritual practices.
“Some of it’s just light-hearted, for sure,” Partridge told the Register. “But there are people who — perhaps by way of trying to make their whole identity about this and really trying to find some meaning in it — clearly do take it very seriously.”
In her research, Partridge found TikTok videos in which some content creators claimed to have encountered demons or other forces of evil. Some had sought these forces out, but others had unknowingly stumbled into the encounter. Partridge reports that some content creators have allegedly spoken with Satan (who apparently used “they/them” pronouns and claimed that he was “not inherently bad”), felt constant ringing in their ears, and experienced “uninvited paranormal guests,” among other phenomena.
Social-media influencers like those on WitchTok contribute to the normalization of occultism, but celebrities, too, have brought the occult center stage in culture. Satanic images have been part of the entertainment industry for decades, explained Adubato, who is now a Catholic convert.
At the 2023 Grammys, Sam Smith and Kim Petras, the first transgender artist to win a Grammy award, performed the song Unholy with costumes and props inspired by demons and images of hell. The Church of Satan was reportedly underwhelmed by this performance, with one prominent member calling it “all right” and “nothing particularly special,” but the performance received massive backlash from many viewers for its promotion of Satanism and scornful mockery of evil.
Father Leo Patalinghug, host of EWTN’s Savoring Our Faith and distinguished fellow at The Catholic University of America, offered a “Catholic response” to the performance by Smith and Petras on his TikTok account. He explained that “we need to be careful of what we listen to and what we see as entertainment because it can affect our soul.”
Adubato acknowledges that the level of malintent behind Satanic imagery in pop culture can be debated, but he sees an “undeniable pattern” of occultism in pop music, high-fashion advertising, movies and popular TV shows.
“I think there’s reason to believe that people in power in our society want to turn people away from God — and not just through hedonism and consumerism,” he told the Register. “They want there to be a metaphysical break from God.”
In addition to the increased presence of occult content on social media and in pop culture, bookstores like Barnes and Noble carry materials about astrology, divination, New Age and “alternative” beliefs. Many of these books are practical guides for engaging with the occult.
Father Vincent Lampert, the exorcist for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis since 2005 and author of Exorcism: The Battle Against Satan and His Demons, explained that these materials for sale in popular bookstores are meant to create an interest in the world of the occult. “When bookstores are selling things like tarot cards, someone is really trying to get people interested in or fascinated with those practices so that people can be lured into something of a more hardcore nature that is truly diabolical,” he told the Register.
After his own frightening experiences, Adubato began to read about the danger of the occult and stopped dabbling in magic. Years later, when Adubato was discerning entrance into the Catholic Church, he began experiencing spiritual warfare in the form of sleep paralysis.
“I felt a dark spirit over me, and it kept happening every time I was making growth spiritually,” he recounted. After speaking with a friend, Adubato realized that he was experiencing the consequences of his earlier exploration into the occult.
“People who dabble in dark magic open the door to this spiritual oppression,” said Adubato, who studied moral theology at Seton Hall University and currently teaches religion and philosophy in New Jersey. “The Holy Spirit gives you the tools to be free of it, but [...] there are consequences. The occult leaves damage on our soul that takes time to heal.”
“If you’re channeling any spirit other than the Holy Spirit, you’re putting yourself at risk because it is not of God,” he said.
What Catholics Believe About the Occult
In the Catholic understanding, contact with the occult includes any attempt to “perform actions beyond the power of man with the aid of powers other than the Divine.” Because individuals are seeking power that does not come from God or from man, the occult can open individuals up to the interference of demons.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that “all forms of divination are to be rejected.” Practices like astrology, horoscopes, palm reading, and the use of spiritual mediums “all conceal a desire for power over time, history, and, in the last analysis, other human beings,” the Catechism explains (2116). “They contradict the honor, respect, and loving fear that we owe to God alone.”
“Witchcraft tries to harness spiritual power for the sake of conforming reality to the individual’s will,” Adubato explained. He contrasted this dynamic of self-assertion with prayer, which seeks to conform the individual will to the will of God. But, like prayer, occult practices have real consequences.
By engaging with the occult, individuals can open themselves to demonic activity both intentionally and inadvertently, explained Father Lampert. A person can invite demons without realizing it “because they believe something is fun and entertaining, but they don’t fully understand the consequences of their actions,” he told the Register.
Post-Christian Age of Anxiety
British scholar Partridge believes that some of the rising interest in the occult can be credited to its perceived trendiness. “I think they clearly like the aesthetics of it,” she told the Register.
Internet culture reporter Katherine Dee, who also documents trends in social-media spirituality, argues that practices like manifestation emerge “as a coping mechanism,” appealing particularly to people facing the disconnect between the digital world and real life.
“It is clear that few who’ve newly discovered this dressed-up prosperity gospel have even a passing thought about a Higher Power,” Dee writes.
Indeed, the occult is increasingly seen as a therapeutic endeavor. Astrologers saw growing demand for their services in 2020; and by the beginning of 2021, the industry was worth $2.2 billion.
Writer Julie Beck suggests that astrology becomes appealing in times of stress, which accounts for the increased interest among young people in the past several years.
Prior to the pandemic, Father Lampert received approximately 2,000 inquiries each year from people seeking the aid of an exorcist. Since 2020, he has received approximately 3,500 inquiries per year.
New York Times columnist Ross Douthat recently reported a similar trend, writing that the Catholic Church continues to “field an increasing number of exorcism inquiries even as its cultural influence otherwise declines.”
“I always tell people that [this increase] is not because I believe that the devil has upped his game. I think it is because more people today are more likely to play the devil’s game,” Father Lampert told the Register.
“Faith is in decline in the United States. Faith in God will lead us in one direction, and the lack of faith will lead us in another,” Father Lampert explained. “So because faith in God is in decline, people still want to fill this void, this need in their life for the supernatural. Unfortunately, sometimes people will turn to the world of the occult.”
Partridge gave a similar explanation. “I think the main reason that it has risen so rapidly is because occultism offers a [...] feeling that you’re engaging with something beyond the material world, something transcendent, that doesn’t demand sacrifice,” she told the Register. “It’s the ideal liberal spirituality, in the sense that it doesn’t demand that you suppress any of your desires — in fact, quite the opposite.”
Most people think of the occult as a revival of pre-Christian paganism, but Partridge disagrees, citing the simultaneous emergence of the roots of contemporary occultism and Enlightenment rationalism and secularism.
“It’s all perfectly encompassed in the idea, ‘Do what thou wilt,’” she explained. “That is literally the credo of liberalism and also modern forms of the occult. They are coming from a very similar place.”
Father Lampert also noted the correlation between the modern secular paradigm and the principles of the occult: “When people remove God from the equation [...] we live by three guiding principles: You may do whatever you wish, nobody has the right to command you, and you are the god of yourself. That’s exactly how the devil wants us to live — to live independently from God.”
From Occultism to Catholicism
Despite the grave dangers of occultism and increasing interest in its practices, Adubato believes that history gives our culture reason to hope. In the 1890s, he explained, French and English decadent writers felt a spiritual hunger for something more than secularism and materialism, which was spreading in Europe at the time and remains in Western culture today. To feed this spiritual hunger, some of these writers began dabbling in Satanism and occult practices.
“Through Satanism, they realized that there are spiritual forces in our midst and that they could either follow the ones that are diabolical or the ones that are of God,” Adubato told the Register.
He explained how such a massive conversion could occur. “Both Satanism and Catholicism have this sense that the metaphysical penetrates the material,” he said. “If people are tired of materialism, they want a type of spirituality that brings the spiritual into the physical. [...] You see why someone who’s playing with crystals or tarot cards could then turn around and start recognizing the value of relics or the rosary or statues.”
Adubato noted that the conversion away from occultism requires that people relinquish the desire to conform the world to their will. But Partridge suggested that this kind of transformation might be difficult to achieve, especially because the paradigm of self-assertion is ubiquitous in today’s culture.
“It takes quite a lot of real intellectual transformation for people to make the step away from these modern liberal assumptions that say that organized religion is bad, that anything that makes me sacrifice my desires is bad,” she told the Register.
“That said, I think it is really interesting that some people who have dabbled in this stuff to some extent — myself included — end up realizing that it actually doesn’t bring much goodness into one’s life,” Partridge said. The initial interest in the aesthetic or esoteric power of the occult may wane as a person realizes that the occult does not bring any moral goods or make the practitioner a better person, she explained.
Father Lampert reminds Catholics that they “don’t have to do anything extraordinary to defeat the devil,” explaining that an active sacramental life will “put the devil on the run.”
“We’re in the midst of the National Eucharistic Revival in our country, so this is a great opportunity to rediscover what’s at the very core of our Catholic identity,” he told the Register, “namely, Eucharistic devotion.”