Column: WGN America’s Salem Series Bring A Variety of Community Responses

Crystal Blanton —  May 17, 2014 — 13 Comments

WGN America’s Salem Promotional Poster

The WGN America network released the new show Salem last month, once again bringing the character of the “Witch” to the television screen. There continues to be an influx of witch-related shows in the last several years, and this has not gone unnoticed by the general Pagan community.

American Horror Story: Coven (2013), Witches of East End (2013) and Sleepy Hollow (2013) are all new shows that feature witchcraft as a prominent theme in the storyline. The new show Salem has reignited a firestorm of concern around shows that feature witchy characters, bringing even more fear of greater society response than other shows before it. Salem appears to have gathered Pagan community attention because it is based on a Puritan perspective of witches in a time when it was thought that witches were evil and aligned with Satan. The inclusion of Marilyn Manson’s song “Cupid Carries a Gun” adds a creepy layer to the already demonic storyline as do the creative moving camera angles.

Much like with the American Horror Story franchise, Salem is a fantasy horror show that capitalizes on the fears of its audience. These fears are that witchcraft is about pacts with the devil, animal sacrifice and being decorated with blood in the woods. They are based on old-fashioned bigotry and rekindle a lot of misconceptions of those on the Pagan path. Concerns of modern-day witch hunts and fears around the identification of practitioners continues to expand among modern day Witches.

This brings us to question whether these fears are warranted in this day and age, or whether the total of our community identifies with a trauma-based history that is not ours? A loaded question indeed, and one that is very complex in nature. Do modern Pagans over-identify with the profile of persecution from our past further perpetuating fears of persecution in our present?

Today we know that those who were executed for witchcraft in the Salem witch trials, or in the burning times, were not actually Witches by modern-day definitions. While theories of ergot poisoning and church conspiracy are used to help explain away the happenings in the Salem Witch trials of 1692, today we have an understanding that they were not practitioners of the Craft and were common citizens of their time that became victims. So why is our community so concerned with a fictional television show that we know to be a warped reflection of history and no real reflection of Paganism? The responses to fears of shows like Salem within the community have been vastly different. Posts on social media sites and on the previous Wild Hunt review have not shown across-the-board similar concerns.

The range of responses vacillate from viewing the show as pure entertainment to views that are encouraging a call-to-arms from practitioners of the Craft. Lady Pythia, elder and Priestess with Covenant of the Goddess, posted on her Facebook page a retelling of her experience of a Witch hunt in the late 70’s:

Please know that naiveté will not make all of our work up to this point enough. Another tide is coming, and I ask you all to prepare now, so that there isn’t a last-minute scramble, as we’ve had to do 3 times now, all since March! I share the following in solidarity with all who have survived real-world oppression as Pagans, Witches and/or Wiccans, in a far more objective mode than at that time, and not from mere self-indulgence or any need for personal ego-reinforcement. Our struggle has been going on for decades.

Communications Coordinator at Circle Sanctuary Florence Edwards-Miller posted on the Wild Hunt article about the release of Salem. She took a different angle in examining concerns with the new show:

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.

In approaching several others who are currently watching the show, I got yet again more inconsistencies in response to this issue.

“I feel the same way about Salem that I have felt about most of the other “Witch” shows made for TV. I appreciate that there is enough interest to warrant shows about witches and witchcraft while always keeping in mind the need for Hollywood to twist it into what it wants in order to provoke the reaction from mainstream viewers that it’s targeting. Salem is a straightforward horror show made as dark and disgusting as possible. There is little historically accurate information being portrayed regarding the characters and plot. The horrors are created from the old witch hunters “lore” and atrocities. The period costumes and settings are nicely done.” – Cynthia Jurkovic

Taylor Ellwood, Managing Non-Fiction Editor of Immanion Press, took a totally different approach to the idea of shows like Salem bringing attention to magic in helpful ways:

“I think the show Salem is hilarious because of how over the top it is. It’s clearly a horror show, which draws on some rather quaint stereotypes about witchcraft. Precisely because it is so over the top I don’t feel concerned that it’ll reflect poorly on the modern day practitioner, especially because there are so many other shows on magic available as well which show various depictions, none of which are all that accurate. Salem is one presentation, but it is one that is primarily done for entertainment purposes and we need to remember that. Additionally, its important to remember that any depiction of magic and the supernatural only makes such topics more and more acceptable to mainstream culture. While such shows draws on stereotypes, they nonetheless fascinate people and highlight the necessity of magic. At one time there were similar concerns with the Harry Potter movies, Charmed, etc., and nonetheless our community has actually benefited from such media because of how they’ve piqued the interests of the mainstream” – Taylor Ellwood.

I like it for a fantasy show. My only concern is the sexual nature of the two main witches, and sensationalizing of a couple of women, one being a woman of color with power that is linked to evil.

I think that we as a community do a great job of showing people we are not devil worshipers or evil hags. Why do you think there is a fear of shows like this in the Pagan community? I think that we don’t think a person can separate reality from fiction. This is a fictional show that is for entertainment purposes…it is no different than AHS Coven or Bewitched.” – Melissa Murry

WGN America's Salem Promotional Poster

WGN America’s Salem Promotional Poster

Several posts and opinions on the internet have been aligning shows like this with active or past oppression of Pagans – expressing concerns that shows like this warp the minds of the general public who are unaware of what Paganism is. There are many different ways that oppression is categorized in society, and the Pagan community does not seem to be in accord about this classification. Is this an issue of the active oppression of Pagans that is exacerbated by the perpetual image of evil that is associated with Hollywood depictions of the Witch? Or are we looking at the reality that minority religious experiences are going to be vastly different than the mainstream religious over-culture? This type of marginalization of a minority group is not necessarily the same as oppression of a group. In reality the fear of oppression can be just as damaging as oppression itself. Should we be afraid?

“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.” – Wild Hunt commenter Boo-Boo.

“I think the Pagan community fears such shows because of the stereotypes drawn upon and the fear that fundamentalist Christians will take that and use it as an excuse to attack Pagans, with an additional fear that people in the mainstream will believe that’s what Paganism is about. However, I think the community greatly overestimates the power of such shows to do that. While there are stereotypes drawn upon, the manner in which they are depicted is so theatrical and over the top that it actually shoots holes in the stereotypes, while also making people curious about what magic is really like.” – Taylor Ellwood.

Every time a movie or tv show about Witches is made, we are confronted with the reality of the past, and the fear that the atrocities of that past could potentially happen again. I have participated publicly in spiritual activism in  working to educate the mainstream about what Witches really are and what we do.“ – Cynthia Jurkovic.

We do know of many different stories of individuals that have had some horrific experiences of discrimination due to their Pagan beliefs. Various forms of discrimination happen in many facets of society, and Pagans are not exempt from this societal concern. Language and cultural nuances within the Pagan community refer to “coming out of the broom closet” and other references that imply a culture of minority discrimination.

Whether the individual accounts of problems related to a person’s Pagan beliefs are enough to say we are an oppressed religious group is not something easily answered. Yet I personally feel that attempts to categorize Pagans with historically-persecuted and oppressed groups of people, like African Americans, the Natives or Jews, are a big stretch. But I do recognize that prejudice does happen to those who follow a Pagan path, contributing to a fear of persecution and concern. Shows like Salem might have the potential of confirming concerns for those who already question the modern concept of a spiritual Witch, but those people are the ones that are the hardest to reach regardless. The people who are critical thinkers, and not romanticized by fictionalized Hollywood versions of super powers and evil pacts with Satan, will be the ones to remember that television is rarely true, and is meant purely for entertainment.


Crystal Blanton


Crystal Blanton writes the monthly TWH column "Culture and Community." She is an activist, writer, priestess, mother, wife and social worker in the Bay Area. She has published two books "Bridging the Gap" and "Pain and Faith in a Wiccan World," and was the editor of the anthology "Shades of Faith; Minority Voices in Paganism." She is a writer for the magazine Sage Woman and Patheos' Daughters of Eve blog. She is passionate about the integration of community, spirituality, and healing from our ancestral past, and is an advocate for true diversity and multiculturalism within the Pagan community.
  • Baruch Dreamstalke

    My $0.02 worth: I don’t think shows like this one add to the number of anti-Pagan individuals in society, but I do believe they reinforce existing prejudices in those already disposed in that direction, even if only glimpsed out of the corner of the eye, as it were.Yes, we are an oppressed religion — spotty, inconsistent oppression with strong geographical variation, but oppressed nonetheless. My wife has a sensitive, clientele-dependent job in a rural part of a northern state and cannot come out of the broom closet for fear of clients drying up. That’s low-grade oppression, but it’s still oppression.

    • Marybeth Pythia Witt

      You’ve hit the mark pointedly, Baruch. When the individual is targeted as your wife would be, the Pagan or Witch is often separate from any larger, perhaps more well-informed metropolitan area. Nowadays, our existence and accurate beliefs and practices are touched on in news programs, or even as minor human interest stories around the Equinox or Solstices.

      But the reality is ignored by small-town mentality where majorities get their opinions informed by the most vocal pulpits.

      The subtle oppression of one of our own is usually done in underhanded ways, in the same manner by which patrons of a small store might have gone elsewhere, fearing the Muslim shopkeeper who was at the far extreme from a radical Islamist.

      Those who live where attitudes are more provincial usually have the most to lose.

      My situation developed from the fact that I was doing down to earth Craft info in my personal life, with naïveté about the fact that the public wouldn’t have more open mind sets as they might have, say, 15 years later – mixed with the fact that I was a teacher. Of adults, at a university, and the ones who mounted their attacks did not even have offspring in any of my classes.

      That didn’t matter, because it was around the “Satanic Panic” years…both in the late 70’s and in a completely separate type of incident elsewhere around 1990. Each situation, tho’, bore resemblance in the stubbornly uninformed religious mindset of the harassers, who often refuse to believe that anything which is “Other” is by pure ignorance an extreme threat.

      A main reasons why I shall continue to be an individual member of The Covenant of the Goddess are important. First is that we are a non-hierarchical confederation of individual Elders and Covens who are completely autonomous in handling local situations when the need arises. We may later sum up our responses for the national members, but at the same time, we do not speak for the organization at-large, ever.

      However, if a public information situation becomes overwhelming, we can request media assistance from national, to allay harm to self, property and others.

      The first situation occurred when CoG was still in its infancy, and we had no more experienced resources, were isolated from even knowing about it.

      That kind of targeting now usually appears in the most provincial areas, and often rather than flame into full-scale”Witchhunts”, will manifest through whisper campaigns that affect the person’s livelihood – such as your wife’s. And at least for now those in such sensitive work areas oft must remain closeted, or extremely discreet. Sad, but true, that people still want to destroy that about which they are truly ignorant, thereby fear.

      I wrote the post as a FB note when the only preview I’d seen used the quote “the only thing worse than a witchburning is a witch.” Been there, done that, have the shirt, and didn’t want any others to have to wear one. I’ve no clue what the upcoming hbo series will be like, but I don’t imagine it will be a Craft reality show. They’d lose viewers! As long as we’re treated with gory sensationalism, I’m not concerned. That’s hollyweird. But… I look forward to the day when anyone in even the most backwater area has nothing to fear, including harassment, losing social system clients…or one’s job.

  • TrippedB

    I haven’t seen Witches of East End nor Salem, been wanting to watch both. I did seen all of American Horror Story… all of the seasons including: Coven. I honestly enjoyed it for what it was most of the people I talked about it with did not come out with a negative view on pagans, a more Hollywood view on magic, but nothing too bad about the community over all. I agree with Baruch Dreamstalk with this. Most people who watch these shows have the intelligence and wisdom to take everything as entertainment value and nothing more. Though I do agree that people who are already in that mindset are more susceptible for a heavier dose of influence of negativity. To b honest I don’t know if anything can be done about those individuals to begin with.

  • Terence Clark

    Magnificent article. As always it touches on a lot of the things running through my mind. These shows do concern me, but I guess over the years I’ve grown less worried about their impact. If anything my bigger concern these days is dealing with accusations of using Hollywood to “recruit” via shows like this, as though we actually do any kind of recruiting. But it’s almost an administrative concern. And unlike the Craft or Charmed, which painted Witchcraft as cool and trendy, which gained us the undeserved reputation for being “gamers that got carried away”, these shows clearly don’t present that kind of image.

    Honestly, I’m bothered more by the trend inside of modern witchcraft that mythologizes the witch persecutions as somehow ours to claim, as though we bear anything more than a symbolic and superficial resemblance to the people who suffered during those events. But that trend seems to be losing ground to those who recognize, as you do in your introduction, that we are entirely something other than the people in those times and places.

    • Terence Clark

      I haven’t watched any of the shows, though. Not as a boycott, but because I’m just not a horror fan and most of the shows in question are in that genre.

  • Sabrina M Bowen

    Okay, so here’s my take. I am not a fan of the show. I love East End, I LOVED AHS:Coven! But Salem is just downright poorly done. I watched the first two episodes hoping it would get better, it didn’t. The acting is poor and the story line worse.

    Now, all that said, lets discuss how I feel it affects me as a Pagan… It doesn’t! It’s fiction, pure fiction. And anyone who would look at a program like that and feel it gives ANY real depiction of witches, Pagans or even Puritan society isn’t generally intelligent enough to make me feel threatened in any way. Those uber-conservative right-winged Christian Republican Fools who love to use crazy hollywood fueled accusations in their attempt to remove/deny equal rights to Pagans are generally not going to be watching this type of show in the first place. And those few that do aren’t going to get much support if their best argument it based on a poor quality fiction television show on a two bit network – especially when there are so many positive Witch programs out there to counter it.

    The people we need to be worrying about are the ones trying to hurt us on religious grounds, because it’s impossible to counter religious faith with common sense or even well researched arguments.

    • Baruch Dreamstalker

      What you seem to be saying here is that on the one hand there are silly people who get even sillier after seeing a show like this, and on the other hand people who want to harm us for religious reasons. Apparently you see little or no overlap between those cohorts. Could you share why?

  • Isabel

    I’ve seen the first two episodes, and I liked two things about it. One is that the witches are actually the ones in power, and they are the ones stirring up the witch hunt in order to obtain fresh innocent blood or somesuch. So thusfar, the show is in keeping with the fact that the victims of the witch hunt were innocent.

    Secondly, the kind of witchcraft depicted in the show is a kind not often seen in popular entertainment: the early-modern version, complete with suckling a toad familiar. This aspect of the show seems actually well-researched, and is beautifully executed. Plus, the fact that the witches are painted as rebels against oppressive Christianity also has a historical basis.

    However, I think that in a world were witch killings still go on, a show fantasizing about this is in poor taste to say the least. Also some of the costumes are unlikely: a Puritan married woman without a bonnet, outside of her house? Really? Together with the poor acting I’m not sure I’ll watch the rest of it.

  • I enjoyed witches of East End, although at times it was kinda silly.

    Salem, on the other hand, makes this claim that the witches started the witch hunt and trials to deflect attention away from the real witches? I can see where this is going: the real witches will, in the end, become the victims of their own machinations. The moral? Powerful women will end up receiving the punishment they deserve for being powerful. While that may fly with quasi-christian America, it is not what women need.

    Also, blaming witches for the Salem witch craze avoids the historical truth of how human paranoia can make a society self-destruct. The show “Salem” can go suck a toad.

  • sabra

    I haven’t seen this show yet, although I did watch most of the show ‘Coven; and movies like ‘The Craft’, ‘Bell, Book and Candle’, and my favorite, ‘Practical Magic’. I think that any movie about witchcraft in general will just reinforce what people already believe — either they are interested in magick, Paganism, witchcraft or what have you and are hoping to learn more about it, or they are afraid of it, as people will fear anything that they really don’t understand. Someday, I would like to see a show that teaches people about modern witchcraft and Paganism….. a regular series with guest hosts who are Elders, Priestesses, Authors and Teachers, who are involved with these things in their lives — and can explain them intelligently. There are so many facets to today’s Paganism, current practices, goals, beliefs, pantheons, celebrations and so on, that this show could continue for a long time. Of course, it probably would have to be shown on the educational channels because once people realized it was not created to be sensational or horrifying, but actually had an aura of respectability to it, they would lose interest! Just FYI, a distant ancestor of mine, Margaret Scott, was one of the “witches” hanged in Salem in 1692. I don’t believe that she was a witch or that I have any sort of hereditary link to the Craft through her, because I know that she was an elderly widow who did not even live in Salem, and her grown children either lived too far away to help her or were too afraid. She owned land in Salem that was apparently coveted by someone. She was imprisoned on trumped-up charges, hanged September 22, 1692 (one of the last group of people murdered) and today lies somewhere in an unmarked grave as her family was afraid to claim her body. Her land was confiscated and sold.

  • kevin clarke

    I wonder how people would feel if there was a tv show or movie showing how people were treated for being a witch or how christians treated slaves and other minority groups? perhaps there should be a show called preist featuring the abuse children endured and first nations of canada and north america? the list could go on.

  • I got turned off from this show before it even started, based on the images they were posting on Twitter. “Salem” was posting images of actual torture devices and graphic trailers, stating “they were not for the faint of heart.” To this day, I still have a hard time getting that device out of my mind. I’m against this show not so much for what it says about Witches, but for their use of the sensationalism of torture, which I find abhorrent in any form. To me its the age old play again, that women are evil and we deserve to be tortured.

    The only thing I can do personally, is not watch the show. My family was a Nielsen family for a while, and I know changing the channel, means loss of revenue. I blocked whoever sent the pics my way on Twitter. And I wrote about it on my Facebook page, before the show ever aired.

    I feel the best we can do, is to continue to put forth a positive face in the community, lead by example, and be open and willing to discuss these things publicly. All it takes is one good seed to germinate a plant, that will continue to produce over and over again.

  • The show is not so bad that it’s good, it’s just boringly bad entertainment. It’s horror and unrelated to reality. That’s my opinion.

    For the person prone to drooling prejudice, however, it can touch off crap. Any excuse will do, especially lurid fantasy! People can be horrible to each other. Toxic people syndrome, so to speak, and hate can really suck. We did learn and change because of the historically recent Satanic Panic of the 70s to 90s though. Methods of questioning and interviewing were improved and the phenomenon got academic attention and a fierce examination. We now can discuss the anatomy of moral panics with great clarity, if we’re motivated. That means attempts to revive any type of Satanic panic will likely be less be less contagious and entrenched in nature. They wil have a very difficult time getting much momentum in the first place. For now.

    What happened in Salem was much worse than anything in this show because people really lived through Salem with its false accusations, sexism, infectious hysteria, it’s host of mind f***s, hideous lack of developed due process concepts, the use of spectral evidence, and all that was involved. People trembled, feared, suffered, endured, and some of them died horrible, unjust deaths. Families and whole areas were forever changed. Multiple generations were strongly affected. It impacts the psyche of our nation to this day. But some people would like to forget that. Yes, I feel the show detracts from the lessons learned from the Salem witch trials, and they are precious, paid for dearly. It’s not a good sign that this show ever got on the air, that people thought it was a good or fun idea and it got funding. That it did is a symptom of something. I think we are, as a society and nation, losing touch with our history and it’s lessons. Everything can be totally reinvented into something unrecognizable and reduced to packaged entertainment or political party memes? These are the real issues here.

    But a lot of us already knew that.