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.
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
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.