I was forewarned that renowned witch Lori Bruno would be late for our reading. First, by dozens of Yelp reviews concluding that despite her delay, she gave the “best reading of their lives.” Then, by Bruno herself, when I called to make the appointment. “My husband just died, god rest his soul,” she told me over the phone, which I took as a sign. Late she most certainly was. One hour, if I don’t count the time that passed as she arranged the space wherein my reading would take place—a small café table in the front window of Magika, her Salem, Massachusetts, shop—just so. I didn’t mind. “I love you,” she’d told me before hanging up. “OK, love you too,” I’d heard myself answering.
When I eventually take my seat and fix my eyes on Bruno, who’s dressed head-to-toe in black and toting an inky bouffant, it’s difficult not to draw comparisons to Stockard Channing’s character in Practical Magic. Each move she makes is cataloged by the distinctly metallic clamor of pendants, bracelets, and rings. Before we start, she reaches for a Costco-sized box of Lindt’s dark chocolate truffles at her feet and, much to my confusion, proceeds to shake them out, right there on the table. “I’m Italian, I like to feed people,” she rasps.
“Here, take notes,” she then instructs, sliding a pen and notepad across to me. And before I even have the pen in hand, her striking features rearrange themselves into a gravely serious stare that pierces me but hopefully also the veil to some other dimension with more optimism on offer than this one. “Who’s Michael?” she asks. I don’t know, but I sit up a little straighter.
In October 2021, Kathryn Miles of Boston magazine posed a question essential to people like Bruno—a witch from a generation that saw success as synonymous with brick-and-mortar businesses purporting to provide people with answers—and by extension, individuals like me, who are willing and able to travel to Salem in search of them. “Has Witch City lost its way?” Miles wondered. With the aid of candid interviews with local witches (Bruno, included), she interrogated whether the visitors of today’s Salem—a place once known for putting midwives, healers, and even animals to death with little to no evidence of actual witchcraft—are invested in the preservation of the historic city’s legacy, or if it’s become a tourist trap devoted to the almighty dollar and the “decidedly witchy.” Should one wonder what the latter looks like, Miles characterized it as “lots of black midriff t-shirts and crystal necklaces; harem pants bedecked with metallic suns and moons; and Chuck Taylor high-tops in spider-web prints.” Perhaps it was unintentional, but the description read as derogatory.
Ultimately, Miles reached a diplomatic conclusion—even if Salem’s magic is diluted, everyone deserves a share of it all the same—but her question conjured another: When witchcraft has gone mainstream enough to surpass any one city’s limits, earning its own genre on every social media platform, why does a practitioner I traveled to see in Witch City seem more legitimate to me than one I can reach with a few clicks in the nonphysical realm?
A quick perusal of #WitchTok, and one can learn whether or not their hands have the marks of a healer, how to tell if their spell jars are effective, and why there’s convincing speculation that Gisele Bündchen is a practicing witch. In the last two years, some of the more viral-prone creators have wracked up millions of views getting chatty with the Other Side, and are building online businesses selling products like ceramic cauldrons, spell boxes, and punny t-shirts on Etsy. This, while offering virtual readings in tarot, astrology, and the like. And because many of us have an undeniable curiosity in the occult but lack the resources to get ourselves to Salem, business is booming. Practical magic, indeed.
Still, it all feels hokey, a gimmick on par with wine mom merch and Zoom therapy. Frankly, I’ve spoken to enough practitioners to know that readings are dependent on the transference of a recipient’s energy. There’s a reason a tarot reader asks you to shuffle your own deck before they lay down the cards, and even those who’ve only ever had a palm reading for shits and giggles understand the significance of their hand being held. In short: Intimacy—a warmth that lets you believe this witch is the real deal. As old-fashioned as it might read, online practitioners have to work ten times harder to establish such by default. As someone who’s now paid for both a virtual and in-person reading, I can confirm there is a difference.
Two weeks after I spoke to Bruno, I purchased a one-hour virtual reading from a popular TikTok witch, who was as diametrically opposed to Bruno as I could find. With the exception of a defunct Instagram account and a Facebook page, Bruno doesn’t seem to use social media. The TikTok witch, on the other hand, has 50 thousand followers. It doesn’t hurt that she also appears far closer to my age and more likely to empathize with any discussion of dating qualms than, say, a recently widowed 82-year-old. In the first of her many attempts to manufacture closeness, she instructed me to send photographs of my palm via email before the reading. The notion of taking snaps of my hand so a stranger could scrutinize its erratic etches gave me pause; I’ve spent less time taking a photograph of a different part of my anatomy for a partner. A lover might notice a blemish, a weird mole, that my right is bigger than my left, but this woman’s inspection could conclude how long I’ll be alive. I sent two shots and she offered to send “witchy homework” to me after we speak.
Unfortunately, when we do (via phone call, not FaceTime), one hour seems like three and her interpretation of the current goings on in my life sounded clumsy enough at times that I felt obliged to stumble along with her and fill in the blanks. In fairness, I took the reading in a convention center during a respite from BravoCon. And, to be clear, I wasn’t entirely unsatisfied. She was right about most things. I am currently annoyed with a friend, but I am not losing sleep over it. I do have feelings for a different friend, but I am not planning to act on them anytime soon. I am very focused on money—specifically, having more of it—but who isn’t?
I came away thinking there are more things to be said for holding physical space—hearing the crinkle of Lindor truffle wrappers as you fight to chronicle every last detail of a hypothetical future being delivered to you by a complete stranger; holding the gaze of the person who’s just informed you that you’ve exclusively dated liars for the last five years; or, better yet, having the option to delicately break it.
The following morning, my TikTok witch texts to remind me that I’ve forgotten to send payment ($50) for the reading. Should I not promptly do so, she advises, she’ll have no choice but to “call back her energy.” I Venmo her immediately.
The biography on Bruno’s website will tell you that she’s something called a Hereditary High Priestess; an Elder of the Sicilian Strega line of the Craft of the Wise; founder and Head Mother of Our Lord and Lady of the Trinacrian Rose Church; and known to all as “Strega Nona” or “Grandmother Witch.” Impressive, sure. Endearing, for me, certainly. Ultimately though, I picked Bruno because she represented the Salem antithetical to the spectacle that Miles described. One weekend this October garnered over 100,000 visitors, along with certain locals’ begrudging comparisons to Disney World. HausWitch, a popular store, as Boston magazine noted, is now referred to as the “West Elm for witches.” Another establishment sells a wand for $300. There would be no “Hex the Patriarchy” coffee mugs at Bruno’s Magika, I told myself, as if that somehow made her more authentic.
It is tempting to wonder, in making witchcraft into something that can be studied via a smartphone, whether it’s sacrilege to the practices that authorized the hysteria-driven persecution of thousands across the world. Technology certainly lends itself to the craft—it allows witches to build a broader coven, outfit more homes with a smudge stick from an online shop, and convince more non-believers to dabble. A path to entry that isn’t dependent on any one historic site or hereditary prestige is crucial. Would the 25 people put to death simply for being suspected of witchcraft in a more puritanical Salem really encourage the arbitration of something that’s offered practitioners profit, recipients peace, and both a community? I like to think not. And yet, here I was, giving one witch—the witch who held my hand in her decades-old Salem storefront—my confidence over another.
I can’t validate the TikTok witch’s credentials. It’s quite possible that she’s just one more person online making a livelihood by intuiting, contextualizing, and validating the feelings of strangers against a witchy backdrop. And yet, there is something to be admired about the fact that she’s made herself available to those who can’t do that on their own; that there’s someone willing to hold your hand when life gets weird. She’s not able to do so in the flesh, but when you really need it, isn’t a metaphorical hand better than none—metaphysically, and otherwise? Besides, I don’t actually know anything about Bruno, and for that matter, my therapist either. It’s okay to trust things we can’t quite touch or see at all. People, too.
Those engaging in witchcraft today remain othered, categorized by what they choose to wear, how and where they practice, and who benefits from their practice. Though Bruno and the TikTok witch might sound like the antipode of one another, their purpose, as noted on both of their websites, is identical. Both make a profit by helping people. “Many years ago, people paid for our services with a dozen eggs,” Bruno is quoted telling Miles. “We have to pay our bills. Yes, we need to profit. We also need to give back.”
Long gone are the days of paying for anything with eggs. Reaching as many people as possible—and in doing so, broadcasting one’s credibility—is arguably as integral to the craft as any one spell. In 2022, the preferred mode might be TikTok, but years earlier, Bruno nabbed headlines for participating in a coven to heal Charlie Sheen during his 2011 “juvenile meltdown.” Four years later, Bruno took Christian Day—the solitary warlock from said coven—to court after he allegedly began harassing her: “I am a woman. I am not somebody’s footstool,” the Guardian reported she proclaimed from the witness stand. That was advertisement enough for me.
I’ve yet to discover who Michael is, but by the time Lori and I finish a half hour later, I feel lighter. Giddy, somehow. Her craft turns out to be a little tarot, a little medium, and three-parts life coach. In the same breath that she offers advice, she asks who so-and-so is, and regardless of whether I confirm I know them—most I did—she never stops talking.
To paraphrase four pages of notes, I got a personal message from both of my deceased grandfathers, career advice, and the promise of a new relationship. I learned that, apparently, my body is capable of a solitary pregnancy, I must write the book I’ve been privately mulling over, and though I don’t need it, she offers the confirmation that I’ve hit my heartbreak quota and will soon be rewarded with marriage to a stable, wealthy attorney (“no more idiots!”). I could do a lot worse.
I’ve yet to receive my homework from the TikTok witch, but the day after my reading in Salem, I received a call from Bruno with witchy homework of her own. “You must write that book,” she tells me again. “Write the truth.” Then, with one final “I love you!” she’s gone.
Witchcraft didn’t become a cottage internet industry because people really like inane merchandise. Modern witches are offering hope, healing, and little chutzpah—a privilege their predecessors weren’t afforded—to more people than ever before. If you asked me, far stupider things have been sold.