Salem: How Not to Handle History (Or Race, Gender, etc…)

Look out, American History! Stand aside, Puritans! The television network machine has turned its roving eye for historical drama in your direction. Television execs apparently saw how fans have embraced Sleepy Hollow and decided that they could cash in on the Assassin’s Creed 3 / Ichabod Crane love going on in fandom right now to bring one of the best known crises of the early colonies to life. The WGN Network has launched their horror-drama Salem, and it is exactly as problematic as you might imagine.

For anyone who didn’t learn the story in grade school, the Salem Witch trials occurred in Salem, Massachusetts between February, 1692 and May, 1693. Young girls in the town began to accuse their fellow townsfolk of afflicting them with supernatural ailments, physically harming them by supernatural means, and generally being witches. The towns elders didn’t wait too long before they brought together a court and started listening as the girls told tall tales about their neighbors besetting the children with spectral demons or making them sign pacts with the devil. Before long, folks were being convicted, tossed into prison, losing their livelihoods and even their lives. These events are considered the first major case of mass hysteria in the colonies and set off a firestorm of similar events in nearby towns and villages up the New England coast. It generally petered out after the adults of the town got tired of listening to the young girls screaming and wailing and started thinking that maybe there wasn’t much going on after all.

You’d think a story like that—full of religious upheaval, hysteria, and neighbor-against-neighbor drama—would be enough for a great television series. But no, the creators of the television Salem decided to throw a healthy dose of “real” devil-worshipping witchcraft into the narrative mix, along with all the sex, creepy supernatural imagery, and violence against women that they could manage. The television show might be set in Salem village, some of the names of characters might match historical records, but that’s where the resemblance in the pilot comes to a screeching, politically incorrect halt.

In Salem, we follow handsome upstart John Alden (Shane West) as he defies his Puritan roots by standing against all their religious punishment and tomfoolery before going off to the French and Indian War. He leaves behind his girlfriend, Mary, getting her pregnant on his way out of town. Mary is in a real bind, clearly, as the Puritans weren’t known for being okay with that kind of thing. So she turns to her slave Tituba, who it turns out can help her out with the problem. Just one trip into the forest and a handy abortion/child sacrifice to the devil later, and Mary is inducted into the power-seeking cult of devil-worshipping witches of Salem. By the time John Alden comes back seven years later, Mary and her compatriots are out to rule Salem with their demonic rites. Allied with a poor guy branded a ‘fornicator’ and the lascivious Reverend Cotton Mather (modeled after the historical witch-hunting minister who, on the show, keeps an afflicted girl on a leash), Alden must save Salem from the dangerous witches in their midst.

Now you might be thinking that this doesn’t sound too different from other historically-based dramas that have made a splash, from The Tudors and Vikings to the supernatural smash Sleepy Hollow. Yet Salem makes a few blunders that catapult it from the realm of acceptable TV flashiness into the grossly problematic. I won’t even talk about the Game of Thrones-level sex in the pilot, or how everything witchy is sexualized in the extreme. I won’t even go into the fact that the Reverend Cotton Mather literally runs around town with the aforementioned ‘afflicted’ girl in a headcage on a leash, seeking out witches. No, instead I want to focus on the handling of one of the pivotal figures of the Salem Witch Trials: Tituba.

The SUPER racist portrayal of Tituba in 19th Century art.Historically, Tituba was a slave owned by Samuel Parris of Danvers, Massachusetts, who was accused of having taught the ‘afflicted girls’ of Salem her African witchcraft. She was the first person accused of witchcraft in 1692, but amazingly managed to survive in prison throughout the trials and was eventually released safely in 1693. She’s appeared as a character in multiple novels and stories about that time period, including the opening scene of the Arthur Miller play The Crucible. Though Tituba did confess to witchcraft in the court rather than be put to death, and did name other people as witches as well, she is generally seen as a victim of the hysteria rather than any kind of menacing figure. As an outsider, a West African slave, she was an easy target, and largely powerless to defend herself against her accusers.

Unfortunately, Tituba’s historical role as an African slave who was scapegoated and victimized by the white townsfolk is blatantly disrespected in this retelling of the witchcraft hysteria. In Salem, Tituba (played by Ashley Madekwe) is reinvented as a scheming temptress witch who aborts Mary’s child and leads the good Puritan woman astray, into the arms of the devil. The ‘cinnamon woman’ (as she’s called by Giles Corey) is coded as even more dangerous when she uses her beauty and charms to seduce Mary into a clearly sexual relationship. Have we checked off all the boxes? “Exotic devil woman leads pure white woman into devil worship through sex”—I think that’s literally all of the heinous stereotypes you can possibly attach to women, same sex relationships, and people of color at one time, conveniently grouped under the “witch” label. The portrayal stinks of every racist trope that was laid at Tituba’s door way back when those kind of portrayals weren’t considered grossly inappropriate in every way—it boggles the mind to think such a portrayal wouldn’t be considered offensive now.

And speaking of inappropriate, let’s talk about what the hysteria surrounding the Salem witch trials means to modern witches. Today, witchcraft is a recognized religion practiced by people across the world, yet those who practice witchcraft are still often treated with scorn, disdain, or outright religious intolerance. The roots of that intolerance goes back the historical association of witchcraft with the devil and Satan-worship. True fact: Wicca and modern witchcraft is not about Satan in the least. But the stereotypes still persist and practicing witches are often persecuted for their beliefs based on that wrongful association—a misunderstanding that Salem is NOT helping in the least. On the show, hero John Alden starts out calling for calm as he insists there are no such things as witches, but he’s quickly proven wrong. In this fictional Salem, the witches are not only real but they ARE harming people with devil-fueled magic, writhing around in the woods in orgiastic rites and feeding familiars from hidden teats on their bodies. This handily encapsulates pretty much every stereotype of the evil witch that the modern witchcraft communities have been trying to shake off for generations, and this show has decided to exploit every single one of them for the sake of sexy horror.

Historically, men and (predominantly) women were persecuted across Europe for being witches. Between the years 1480-1750, estimates put those executed for witchcraft across Europe and North America between 40,000-60,000 people. And in other parts of the world, people have been accused, tried, and found guilty of witchcraft into the modern day. To those who practice the modern religion of Wicca, the witch trials are an incredibly haunting historical moment in the colonial period, in which the hysterics of a small town were responsible for the deaths of twenty people and the imprisonment of dozens more before the Court of Oyer and Terminer were finally finished. And this television show means not only to trivialize this instance of religious persecution, but to inject the worst kind of poorly-written supernatural fiction into it.

It seems the writers noted Sleepy Hollow’s successful strategy of incorporating demonic elements into the modern day, and decided to do something similar. Yet the modernized Sleepy Hollow casts witches like Crane’s wife Katrina as forces for good, fighting against the demonic, rather than complicit temptresses. Even the controversial portrayal of witches in American Horror Story: Coven steps far away from the historical roots of the witches on that show (who are descended supposedly from some of the historical Salem figures) and does its best to show them as flawed people, rather than crazed devil worshippers.

As it is, the inescapable religious and racial insensitivity of the whole show makes it difficult to swallow. And the sad fact is, if this show had been set in a fictional location and made a few key changes, it would actually be engaging. For the most part, the pacing is tense, the actors do a decent job with the rather hackneyed supernatural tropes, and Shane West is a fairly intense leading man. The real power behind the cast, however, is Janet Montgomery as Mary Sibly, who transforms in the pilot from an innocent girl into a terrifying and complicated witch. But even with this decent production, it’s impossible to separate the awful treatment of the issues inherent in the show’s historical content from the potential fun it might have produced, had it been handled very, very differently. The show ignores all issues of taste and common sense in aiming for the gratuitous, when the actual historical facts surely would have been intriguing enough to draw in viewers.

In short, Salem is a cringe-worthy, distasteful historical disaster area, an example of a network trying to cash in on the witches-on-television craze and inexplicably crossing over from “vaguely problematic” into more troubling “What were they thinking?!” territory.


Shoshana Kessock is a comics fan, photographer, game developer, LARPer and all around geek girl. She’s the creator of Phoenix Outlaw Productions and ReImaginedReality.com.

47 Comments

Subscribe to this thread