The Travel Channel’s Witches of Salem
Suggesting that there is a “witch hunt” is a common enough — if not obnoxiously over-utilized — expression in the modern age. It has been claimed in cases from everyday castigation for which someone takes umbrage, to the absurd on a grand scale during which someone is accused of crimes, malfeasance, corruption — or some other charge to which the subject inherently objects (often a bit too much, such as in the case of certain among today’s dangerous and hyperbolic political figures). This often comes with the cloying pleading of his or her innocence — at first deflecting the charge, and then projecting the crime unto someone else — often an innocent party.
But in going back to whence the original term came, this was not the subject of some flip punchline. This, instead, was a very real, very political, inherently religious, and malevolent socio-cultural charge with often deadly consequences. From the burning of heretics following inquisition in Europe to the new frontiers of the “New Jerusalem” in North America in which innocent members of Puritan society were castigated and murdered in the name of the kind of hysteria and paranoia that can come from the stress of surviving amidst intense isolation, to be the subject of a true witch hunt was the ultimate accusation that carried with it the weight of what was thought to be both temporal and otherworldly damnation. The hangman’s noose or a veritable inferno at the stake was the only recourse to “purify” the community from such perceived dangers. To be accused meant a presumption of guilt, often followed by subsequent and often horrific death.
Long the subject of drama, such as Arthur Miller’s The Crucible — tracking the parallels of the Salem witch trials in the Massachusetts colony with the McCarthy Hearings in the 1950's — the play later turned into a film with Daniel Day-Lewis and Winona Ryder — to such TV series (Salem), and more recent film offerings turning the paranoia of the time on its head in The Witch (see below), the witch trials of Salem have been a cautionary tale of subversion, malevolence in the ease with which someone can successfully accuse the innocent to assuage the tension and underlying darkness within a closed community. It instantly evokes an existential reaction among those who know its history, often because such cautions have rarely been heeded in a societal desire to cleanse the shadow within its environs by often abhorrent means.
Tapping into this difficult part of our continent’s history is the new Travel Channel series, Witches of Salem, a new documentary miniseries that enlists experts in the trials’ histories, offering insight into why such an abomination was allowed to happen. Offering reenactments along with the recounting of such history, the documentary miniseries gives a very gritty, visceral, and sociological perspective; this was a perfect storm of events amidst a context of survival in which the Puritans of what was then a frontier port and its associated village lived in what one historian in the series called a cult-like environment of religious indoctrination, judgment, and an almost existential fear not just of death, but the notion of the “other” — anyone and anything that could threaten the death-grip of socio-religious control of the prevailing authority. Ramping up accusations offered release for the guilty party. Pointing a finger gave instant authority to anyone with guilt or something to hide. To turn on another — especially the innocent — offered instant catharsis for one’s own darkness. Give any occurrence an otherworldly and demonic bent, and one has a supposed providence-sanctioned means of getting rid of anyone, regardless of what sin(s) he or she was thought to have committed. For any such supposed sin was proof of the influence of an otherworldly evil.
The series is, like many others currently being commissioned within the last years for both streaming services and broadcast, captivating; it seeks answers for why such events occur, and it demonstrates the kinds of pathos of which humanity is capable when under pressure — and such pressure acts to ignite tensions within society to the point of implosion. While only the first episode is currently available, this first glimpse into the events leading up to the actual trials is inordinately important; it shows that the real evil wasn’t found in the crimes for which any of the supposed witches were accused, rather it was the ease with which others could be condemned with no evidence but an accusation, knowing that accusations were ultimately enough to splinter relationships between and among neighbors and tear a society apart. Fear was a weapon; in Salem it metastasized like a raging cancer that wrought torture and death with a legacy that lingers to the present.
It is, at heart, indeed a cautionary tale that proves that humanity’s darkness can infect both individuals and entire communities, and given the right circumstances, both the microcosm and macrocosm can unite to create the very hell from which it claims the desire to escape.
K.J. Wetherholt is the Publisher/Executive Editor of MIPJ, Humanitas Media Publishing, and Humanitas. She currently also writes about war and humanity, a book about war correspondents on the Western Front during WWI, The Illumination: A Novel of the Great War, re-released Memorial Day, May 27, 2019. An upcoming monograph on the ELN in the Colombian civil war will be published later this year.