Review: WGN America’s Salem

Heather Greene —  April 24, 2014 — 17 Comments

On Sunday WGN America debuted its first originally-scripted TV series: Salem. Crafted in the horror genre, the show follows in the footsteps of the popular American Horror Story: Coven.  WGN uses the tag line: “The Witch Hunt Has Begun – In Salem, witches are real, but they are not what they seem.”

On opening night Variety reported that the show earned “1.5 million viewers” which is “seven times the network’s season-to-date average in the 10 p.m. timeslot.” WGN is capitalizing on the recent popularity of witches in order to launch its new original production offerings. In July the network will premiere its second series, Manhattan, and then in 2015, Ten Commandments.

WGN America's Salem Promotional Poster

WGN America’s Salem Promotional Poster

WGN’s Salem is the latest in a very long-line of television and film productions using the city as its setting. Hollywood began its love-affair with the trials in 1909 with the release of Edison’s In the Days of Witchcraft. Perhaps the most famous rendering of the Salem story is Arthur Miller’s play “The Crucible” which transforms the city’s history into an allegory for McCarthy-era politics. Kate Fox, executive director of Destination Salem said, “The Salem Witch Trials are a rich and compelling subject for novelists and screenwriters…”

In this latest adaption, the witches are rendered as actual creatures. WGN’s Salem presents a historically-derived Puritan world complete with “witch” panics alongside the genuine existence of Satanic-based witchcraft. In doing so, it attempts to offer a far more complex ethical structure than past Salem or witch stories.

When production was initially announced, a group of Salem citizens and business owners discussed the potential for damage caused by yet another Hollywood show conflating history and horror. Should they protest? Elizabeth Peterson, director of Salem’s Witch House, said:

The Witch House is the only historic site left that was an absolute witness to the conversations and phenomena [of that time].  It is our responsibility to dignify and intellectualize that history. 

After multiple conversations, the group opted for a different approach. Fox said, “I will welcome the opportunity [the show] will afford to talk about the destination Salem with viewers who may find a new interest in our town.”

Salem Witch House [Photo Credit: Scott Lanes]

Salem Witch House [Photo Credit: Scott Lanes]

After seeing the show Peterson said, “I’m not worried that [Salem] could be mistaken as historical because it is so fantastical.” She points out that show contains many inaccuracies but it’s presented in such a way that there is no danger in mistaking it for fact. In other words, WGN’s Salem is not even pretending to be real. It is pure horror entertainment.

Due to the continued fascination with the trials, Salem and New England in general have ascended historicity to become a modality within American popular myth. Salem as a backdrop is strongly rooted within Hollywood’s own narrative symbolism. Even Samantha makes a trip to Salem for a Witches Convention in 1970. If you make a witch movie or show, it should be set in a small town in New England.

Just as it capitalizes on historical lore, WGN’s Salem also makes use of the archetypal Hollywood Satanic witch. Narratively speaking these witches are villagers who have sold their souls to the Devil for personal gain. They perform magic with oils, frogs, lizards, hogs, blood and fire. They hold sabbats in the dark woods wearing beastly masks. They have familiars and understand the nuances in “life, love, war and death.”

Visually speaking the witches are monstrous, zombie-like creatures that only appear in quick cuts or extreme close-up. Such shots are often flanked by tilted visions, screams and flashes of light. These are all very typical elements of the modern horror montage. To counter that extreme, these same witches appear as their respectable former selves during the day and are shot in a non-dynamic simple composition.

At first it might seem WGN’s Salem is yet another horror show fostering the negative representations of witches. It is after all presenting a typical Satanic witch story. However it does do something a bit different. It offers an atypical dynamic morality that embraces the complexity of contemporary social issues. This complexity is best demonstrated though three characters: John Alden, Cotton Mather and Mary Sibley.

John Alden is defined as the imperfect but good secular American. He fights for “his country,” befriends Native Americans and stands against the Puritan moral panic. At one point he tells Mather, “She needs a doctor not your prayers.” John is the open-minded, modern cowboy who believes in love and even Paganism. When Anne Hale explains that Mather calls drawing “idolatry” or nature worship, Alden responds, “There are worse things to worship.”

Cotton Mather is the polar opposite. He represents the religious zealot who publicly defines life through absolutes found in the testimony of his books. Giles Corey describes Mather as the “most dangerous type of fool…The kind that thinks he knows everything.” Mather is further demonized through his apparent hypocrisy. While inspecting the wounds on an hysterical young girl, Mather pushes her dress up to her thighs. At that point, the camera rhythmically cuts between his face, her face and his hands on her thighs. Then the show abruptly cuts to a salacious scene of Mather in a brothel. The viewer is left wondering if Mather abused the girl.

WGN America's Salem Poster

WGN America’s Salem

To complete the triad, there is Mary Sibley, the witch.  As a young unwed pregnant girl, Mary is led to witchcraft by Tituba in order to escape public shame and punishment. The show posits that Mary and ostensibly the others turn to the Devil in order to escape the horrors of Puritanism. However at the same time, Mary is also depicted as cruelly toying with John Alden, driving a young girl mad and killing Giles Corey. Her vengeance knows no boundaries.

These witches are morally complex representing a type of social defiance that is very contemporary. The show appears to oppose the tyrannical religious teachings of its conservative Christian environment.  At one point Giles Corey says, “Puritans know their sun is setting. Nothing like a new enemy … to get people behind ya.” This statement recalls recent discourse surrounding the religious climate in the Unites States.

Similarly Puritan leader George Sibley yells out, “We cannot expect God to be on our side if we tolerate abominations or those that commit them.”  While he is referring to “fornication,” his line resembles language used to counter the Marriage Equality movement.

WGN’s Salem explores the progressive ethics that are now appearing within contemporary American discourse. It is mediating the mythological Salem story through very current cultural politics. The witches themselves are the tipping point that places the viewer into the uncomfortable position of liking the goal but disliking the means. Through them we can ask, “success at what the cost?”

Are these witches representative of real Witches, Wiccans or Pagans?  No they aren’t.  As with the use of Salem, the witches are merely typical Hollywood archetypes representing social defiance. In fact the narrative makes a direct distinction between a “nature worshipper” and the Witch.

How the show proceeds over its run will be interesting. How will it negotiate the issues presented? How will it handle race and explain the origins of the young, beautiful Tituba as instigator of Salem’s witchcraft?  What is Nathan and Anne Hale’s story?

With all that said, was it a good entertainment? It was average, sensationalistic and at times campy. It falls into the category of recent shows pushing the limits of television horror by exploring the limits of our humanity. If the show continues on its current course, it may hold a season worth of interest beyond that, who knows.

 

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Heather Greene

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Heather is a freelance writer and Pagan spirit living in the Deep South. She is currently the National Public Information Officer for Covenant of the Goddess and has worked extensively with Lady Liberty League. Heather's work has been published in Circle Magazine and elsewhere. She has a masters degree in Film Theory, Criticism and History with a background in the performing and visual arts.
  • Vivienne Moss

    I loved the first episode and I’m looking forward to more. Yes, it was campy at times but what can you expect from holiwood.

  • H Kenneth Porter

    That ol’ Devil and Satan, again. *snark* By the way, maybe some research into Traditional Crafting would interest y’all. Maybe begin with Emma Wilby’s “Visions of Isobelle Gowdie,” or if there are time constraints, go to some of the traditional witchcraft sites on the web.

    • Adam Simon

      Thanks for the fascinating discussion. Just wanted to let you know that in fact Wilby’s books both the one on Isobelle Gowdie and even more the one on English witchcraft and fmailiars as a form of Shamanism are the main influences behind the show. Don’t blame her for the campiness or the crazy liberties — but the truth is reading her books is one of the two things which gave me the idea to take a different look at Salem and ask whether the english witches might have themselves immigrated to America — perhaps hidden on the same boats as the puritans. (the other being research on the Kenaima and realizing via a recent book that Tituba was not African but Arawak indian…
      Adam Simon

      • http://www.miraselena.com/ Heather Greene

        Thanks for the comment, Adam. There are definitely signs that the show is atypical. I was wondering if there was going to be an evolution in the idea of witchcraft or at least a more dynamic one. Certainly the show has set itself up to challenge the stereotypical “black and white” reading so long as it doesn’t get bogged down in horror cliches. Speaking with the Salem folks, I heard about the evidence of English Witchcraft “coming over” and some truths about Tituba. Great stuff!

        • Adam Simon

          Hi Heather. The short answer — for now — is YES! Obviously I’m working within the constraints of a very commercial TV genre — and yet I believe we will be going places no such program has ever gone. And the entire concept is based on a) the new vision of European witchcraft that scholars like Carlo Ginzberg and others who explore the ‘shamanic’ side of it and b) the idea that metaphorically at least the core of the American psyche is a perpetual battle between “witches” and “puritans”. The witches in the show are by no means black and white morally — any more than the Puritans or other characters are. And the more we as viewers come to understand their goals and point of view, the more we may even come to sympathize with their goals — if not always their means. One of my ruling metaphors for the series was to tink not of the 1690s but the 1960′s — Imagine these witches in a way as being like the Weather Underground… That said — it is a ‘horror’ show and I am by background and inclination a ‘horror’ writer. But I have always believed that this genre was the only one which actually allowed anything approaching an Imaginal reality in a popular narrative context…

  • http://www.cernowain.com/ cernowain greenman

    “They are not what they seem”. Such suspicion builds suspense in a story; it also breeds ignorance and prejudice in our culture.

  • BooBoo

    ‘and then in 2015, Ten Commandments’….
    that explains a lot. haven’t watched the first episode yet, but I’m planning on it. But I am also very aware of the new agenda of the ‘new’ Hollywood as droves of young christian scriptwriters are being lured there to get their messages across. this part of the reason that there are so many shows and movies with subject matter featuring demons and witches and other ‘satanic’ themes. these kind of shows/movies plant seeds. even though they are fictional, there is the resonation factor. People will have these messages mixed into their mental margarita, and drink it up.

  • Dana Corby

    “Peterson said, ‘m not worried that [Salem] could be mistaken as historical because it is so fantastical’.”

    Um, I think you *do* need to worry. Remember what happened with “Harry Potter?” Nobody (anyway, nobody sane) thought it could possibly be mistaken for anything real because it was a complete and obvious fantasy, yet people did, and the hullaballoo went on for years. In some corners it’s still going on. Certain segments of society have been trained to be totally gullible as long as the ‘right’ people tell them something, and they will jump on this with hob-nail boots.

    • Lacey Stewart

      I know what you mean. I got a message from some guy asking if I knew how to magically transform him into a woman. Forever. I was speechless.

      • Dana Corby

        Oh, that’s a good one!

  • Florence Edwards-Miller

    Good points! What bothers me here is the use of a real historical event that was plenty horrific even before you add in scary camera work.

    At base, a whole bunch of people were accused of crimes they didn’t commit, but couldn’t prove their innocence, and several of them were tortured and murdered. That’s terrifying, and it says something really disturbing about the human condition that it happened then and continues to happen in other contexts to this day.

    I think that, even in a fantastical way, retroactively going back and making some of them actually guilty of something like what they were killed for is very distasteful, even if the storytellers are trying to insert another social message in there.

    • AnantaAndroscoggin

      19 women hanged, 1 man pressed-to-death for refusing to plead, and 24 died in gaol while awaiting trial, including a newborn whom the gaoler refused to call a doctor for.

      Not that the doctors of the colony were any safer than barber-surgeons for that kind of stuff.

      • http://enondragonart.com/ Kelly NicDruegan

        While the majority of people hanged were women by no means were all of them women. Six men were convicted and hanged as well. It’s a shame that far too many people seem to forget about them:

        George Burroughs (August 19, 1692)
        George Jacobs, Sr. (August 19, 1692)
        John Proctor (August 19, 1692)
        John Willard (August 19, 1692)
        Wilmot Redd (September 22, 1692)
        Samuel Wardwell, Sr. (September 22, 1692)

  • Merlyn7

    I always enjoy your posts about witches of Film and Television. I will give any witch flick or show a chance because usually there is good fun to be had in them and one wants to feel “good n’ witchy” sometimes.

    I have noticed that a few recent offerings want to have it both ways with the morals of a witch hunt. Season of the Witch, Hansel & Gretel, etc want to show that Christians who persecute women are evil and repressed but also want demonic witches as powerful villains. It’s a bit like creating a film or series depicting the Nazi persecution of the Gypsies was their attempt to stamp out an evil society of werewolves.

    It sounds like this show is being more thorough in exploring that dynamic. Will give it a chance.

  • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren
  • Wytchfawn

    Flying ointments, familiars, initiations by spirits, fetches….these are all very real practices being revealed on television. And “the devil” is not who it seems. http://www.robinartisson.com/scarespite/nick.htm

  • Raksha38

    I really appreciated Fred Clark’s smackdown of the trailer for the show. This was written before the first episode aired, but he says some important things about the way they chose to promote the show.

    Read it here: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/slacktivist/2014/04/11/witch-hunts-are-dangerous-witches-are-not/