POP CULTURE FROM THE GRAVE: MASS MURDER TO ENTERTAINMENT?
The Salem Witch trials may be one of the most popular events in American history, despite taking place before America was an independent country. It’s huge. The event is in our history, in world history, even, and has even left a handprint on pop culture. Countless movies, TV programs, and books have been produced with the infamous witch hunt as inspiration though realistically, there is not much known about the actual tragedy. Many women and few men were killed in the name of religion—how could something like this spawn a hit TV show?
People admire the unknown, the supernatural, and apparently, the tragic. It’s easy being able to take an idea of something and twist it into something more captivating, but how far is it twisted from the original? I took an account from the actual trials, A Brief and True Narrative, and compared it to two fictional accounts from pop culture. The first was The Crucible by Arthur Miller, a play that most people have read in high school, and the second was the episode “Bitchcraft” from the third season of American Horror Story, a TV program that premiered to 5.5 million viewers in 2013.
Of course, following the time line, there is a huge variation of witches mentioned in everyday life. Before the twentieth century it could have meant possible death. If the word was even mentioned or hinted, bad things were bound to come. This primarily due to religion. Christianity ruled so much of the world it left people no choice but to follow in God’s path—more so the path those in charge forged in God’s name—or face punishment. (A fair warning: this study focuses on the Anglo-Saxon and American idea of witches so all talk of religion will revolve around Christianity.) As time went on, religion became less and less of an influencing factor, at least as far as the law was concerned. Soon, witches became a funny costume and cartoon character idea.
So, when looking at these three texts, there was a watch for good terms, and bad terms. Good terms, speaking in the sense of 1692, involved religious words and holy words. Anything that would have been in favor of Christianity is seen as a good word. Bad words would have been anything turning away from God. The intention was to see how much everything was actually mentioned. Which side was winning? Which side held the most fear? Lastly, because pop culture and society tends to incorporate many of these words, I created another category: swears. While this easily could have fit in the bad list, these words were actually directed towards others and held power.
This is possibly the only text that gives actual insight to the Salem Witch Trials. The excerpt read was not very long at all, so the amount of words picked for categories were not much. For “good” words, there was only 25. Seems normal and well until looking at the “bad” category, where there are 58 words. This raises a question about fearmongering—were they actually concerned about the holiness of some settlers or were they trying to use the Devil to scare people? They could have used this as an excuse to gather people under their thumb and keep them in place with fear. Lastly, there was not a single curse word used.
Granted, this piece was longer, so there are many more words per category than any of the other pieces. For “good” there are 172 words, much more than the “bad” category’s 142. I find it interesting that there is so much more holy-talk and faith in this piece than the last since the entire point of life at this time in history was to serve and obey God. We know that this piece was more about the red scare, using a piece of history that also played into the fears of people. The idea is the same as the previous text; if these people did not live life with God in mind, then they would have succumbed to the Devil and everyone else would turn their backs on them.
The first episode of American Horror Story: Coven used 23 “good” words, 16 “bad” words, and 19 swears. It’s not as short as A Brief and True Narrative, so why are there less words in both category? Witches are no longer a religious issue. Instead of them suddenly focusing on a fight between God and the devil, witches have abandoned the religious battles all together. The biggest conflict in this time period and piece was keeping the coven alive and looking out for each other, because witches were still different and a special sort of human.
I propose this: witches started out as an idea meant to belittle women and keep them in line. Over time, they soon became a source of empowerment for women and gave them a leg up to put them as men’s equals—this meant men weren’t able to demean them or take advantage of them anymore.
Each piece comes with its own period-typical views, of course, that can alter the meaning of the text. In A Brief and True Narrative, it’s only the men that have first say and sexual freedom. Women were not granted many rights, if any at all, especially outside of motherhood and being a housewife. It was more of an under-compensated maid’s position. The mass hysteria gave men a reason to kill mostly women—with the exception of a handful of men that were also accused in some relation to a woman—without solid proof or giving the woman a chance to defend herself.
The Crucible was a turning point for these two cases, as both men and women had a first say as well as sexual freedom. Abigail Williams had the power to successfully accuse people of witchcraft as well as take control over her sexuality. She had relations with John Proctor, and when he decided to discontinue their meetings she had the power to get back at him. In the time period the play was set, if anyone had found out about their affair, it would end horribly for Abigail. She, however, emerged victorious in this situation. In both this piece and A Brief & True Narrative, men were the only authority figures. Despite Abigail’s fits in both texts and slight advantages in the current, men were still the only ones to dictate what could and would be done about the witches.
American Horror Story changes the game completely. Women are still the witches in this case but they completely have the upper hand. As well as having the powers and first say, they take control over their sexuality without repercussions. When one of the witches is drugged and raped, she uses her powers to flip the vehicle, killing every young man that took part in her assault. Women here are also the authority figures. Fiona Goode, the head witch or the supreme, as the show calls her, is in charge of her coven and makes all the decisions of what will happen to them. The position is passed on throughout generations, but never is a man in charge of the women.
Witches had gone from something feared and revolting to people with fun abilities that were no longer defenseless. Their ideas changed. Rather than condemning women, it empowers them. It has turned away completely from religious ideals and instead is mostly for fun. The one thing ignored, unfortunately, are the lives lost.
In the beginning, there were no television programs or plays to spark this idea. It was literally just murder. Women died for going against religion, and now, there is entertainment about it. Much cannot be said about this through my project, unfortunately; my research was on the changes of the witch-reputation. However, it would be rather interesting to further research this study of the liberation of witches.
HOW? WHEN? WHY? LOOK HERE!
Everyone is interested in Salem. It’s arguably the only interesting part of US history, so naturally, I was drawn towards it. The fact that it is interesting made me ask myself: why is it so interesting? So many people died!
I looked at A Brief & True Narrative, which is one of the only pieces from the time of the witch trials that we have today. For such a huge event, we only have one document by one person, which doesn’t tell us much. However, there are thousands of documents, shows, plays, books, et c., about witches and mentions of Salem written outside of that period. That seems a bit stupid, doesn’t it? One event could spark so many forms of entertainment when the whole story isn’t even known. Maybe that’s just where the interest lies.
Along with that piece, I chose two others, which would be Arthur Miller’s The Crucible and hit TV series American Horror Story, which produced a season all about witches. My idea was that as religion had slowly begun to dwindle in power over a society, the more relaxed the views of the unknown became. Witch hunts were such a drastic event that they weren’t ever truly over. They slowly were outlawed and then, when hysteria died out, people began to profit off it.
I looked at the differences in women’s rights. When were they no longer persecuted carelessly? I used the time jumps to look at how women were treated during the publication and/or premier of the texts and events. Witches were more creative as women gained more rights, and their powers were greater as well.
The challenges faced here were time and Salem itself. Time, for one, was not always on my side. I think I did fairly well but there could have been so much more explored if I had more time. The three works I picked could have been expanded to so much more. The time line I made was full of wonderful works, especially Wicked the Musical. I would have loved to delve into the full history of witches, not just Salem. Witches were also said to be green and have warts, the pointed hats were mentioned at some point, and in today’s age it’s just accepted. Oh, yeah, that’s what a witch is supposed to look like. But why? Obviously there had to be a reason, and with illnesses going unexplained, it would have been easy to blame everything on the devil and his witches. This would have probably been a project to do for another class, as there are so much more to witches than just the American aspect of it, but I’m content with what I learned about the American aspect of witches and the entertainment of the tragedy.
The second problem: Salem. It wasn’t the only place in the colonies where witch hunts happened, and it certainly wasn’t the first. Everything was based off Salem or had funny ties to it. It was mentioned in American Horror Story despite it taking place in New Orleans, the cat from Sabrina the Teenage Witch was named Salem, so on and so forth. Connecticut had a lot of witch trials as well, and it was even home to the first. There’s not much written about these places, either, so why couldn’t they be mentioned? Why couldn’t the witch trials of New Jersey inspire a hit TV show? This, again, would have to be part of a longer project in which I have a lot more time, but until then, I suppose I’ll just have to wonder about it.
I’m happy with the work I made. It feels a bit open ended, but I think that’s just because Salem is such a mystery there should be a lot more research to go along with it. It wasn’t one day, or even a week. Salem’s witch trials were a few years or hysteria and murder. I think calling it a trial is counterproductive, because they didn’t exactly do trials. They couldn’t prove they were witches, because witches weren’t real. Instead, they were pointing the finger, passing the blame, and killing those that wouldn’t give the answers they were looking for. It’s strange to think about, or even to write about, because what’s the point of clearly labeling something that happened hundreds of years ago?
Anyone looking to expand this work should focus on the other witch trials. Do not focus on literature itself, but instead, look at America itself. How did the trials start? Why Salem? Why other places? How long after Europe’s witch hunts did this happen? My ideas are possibly too broad, so a narrow search—maybe a series of narrow searches—would be best. I hope I am given another opportunity to research the history of witches and literally every single aspect about it.