The show starts off on a bad note, calling the deaths of twenty accused Salem witches one of the deadliest witch-hunts in world history. It pales before, for example, the Würzburg witch trials of 1626-1631, which killed 157 people. Salem killed 20 people, but the Europeans (cough, cough, U.K. producers; cough, cough) killed somewhere around 40,000 imagined witches and kept doing so into the 1700s. The show repeats the claim that the Salem executions were a “huge” number, but it was only a faint echo of what the Europeans had done on an almost industrial scale.
The first part of the show follows a researcher who discovered himself related to a resident of Salem as he tours Salem, and the show rehearses the familiar story of the witch scare of 1692. To its credit, the show acknowledges that the accused were not possessed of magic powers and that the witch hunt was the result of “mass hysteria.” I admit to being a bit confounded by the show’s deep fascination with legal procedure, court processes, and the corruption of government power, emphasizing that the victims died in “judicial executions.” They return to the theme several times, emphasizing that the Salem judges “uniquely in American judicial history” ordered death by pressing. (Salem, of course, wasn’t American at the time but under English sovereignty.) There might have been a theme worth drawing out there to compare with modern efforts to bend government to the prejudices and panic of those in power, but the producers don’t quite build to that idea. They leave it at the idea that the courts didn’t have appropriate rules of evidence, which isn’t quite the dramatic takeaway they think it is.
Nevertheless, for the first half of the episode, the show sticks very close to conventional history and conventional interpretations of the witch trials, particularly the recognition that witchcraft accusations served as crude means exacting revenge. There is nothing terribly objectionable. Indeed, the discussion rarely strays beyond a plain day-by-day retelling of the events of the witch trials.
Halfway through, the show starts to run out of history to discuss, though it certainly does not run out of instances of saying “uniquely in American judicial history” as they repeat themselves over and again. So, they start to turn toward curses and ghosts. Giles Corey’s supposed “curse” allegedly hounded every Essex County sheriff from office by disease or death until 1991. His ghost allegedly haunts a graveyard. I’m not sure that these legends really make the case that the witches were innocent of witchcraft that the show thinks it does. The legends are hogwash, of course, but the idea that the accused were innocent but also had demonic power doesn’t compute.
The talking heads then try to analyze the degree to which the Salem theocracy’s excesses contributed to America’s freedom of religion. Unable to actually deal with that in a nuanced way, they instead talk about the rise of modern Wicca and its appropriation of Salem as fictive ancestors. We watch Halloween celebrations in Salem and I guess are supposed to feel happy that the people who were decidedly not witches are now being celebrated for their contribution to Wicca. Even the self-described modern witches understand that the Salem victims did not support witchcraft, but they believe that nevertheless the twenty 1692 dead are possessed of supernatural powers and exact unholy vengeance on Salem even today. No one really tries to draw out the contradictions and tensions in that grab-bag of random beliefs.
Andrew Gough—ironically, and in the worst way possible—actually hits upon the underlying theme when he gloats that witchcraft is wonderful because it is free from the “dogma” of “organized religion” and therefore is faith married to freedom. The many different beliefs we see thrown together there are more or less united in an anti-authoritarian, postmodern effort to find spiritual meaning independent of organizations or even other people. This emphasis on personal belief over all else is the ultimate but ironic endpoint of Martin Luther’s Reformation, in which even Christianity itself has been overthrown as an oppressive imposition of the priestly class on the natural spirituality of the isolated individual.
Anyway, a long boring section features a witch trying to apologize to the “vengeful spirits” of the twenty executed victims by binding their ghosts into a circle on the ground and then reading a letter to them.
As the show moves toward its final segment, the narration again returns to its preoccupation with judicial process and the American constitution. The talking heads are near tears talking about the tragedy of Salem victims and condemning the “horror” of the witch trials, which might have been touching if they hadn’t been so joyous in discussing Nazis a few weeks ago. Contrasting the show’s deep outrage—from the talking heads to the narration—over the Salem witch trials with is blasé attitude toward the Nazis and their reign of terror and mass death is an object lesson in the prejudices of cable TV and its audience. Andrew Gough even calls the Salem trials the worst injustice in American history—a grave insult to all those who lived and died as slaves, to those who were lynched and murdered for the color of their skin or their ethnic origin or sexual orientation, and even to the 38 Dakota who were executed in 1862 in the largest mass execution in American history—after “trials” that lasted as little as five minutes. Two of those killed were hanged by mistake.
The show ends by claiming that witch boutiques in Salem and Halloween street partied are proof that “freedom of religion” won in Salem. I’m not quite sure what that is supposed to mean since freedom of religion had almost nothing to do with the witch trials, none of the people in Salem had any interest in overthrowing Christianity, and America’s freedom of religion now applies equally across the country, but only did so after the fourteenth amendment expanded the first amendment to the states—a situation that had nothing whatsoever to do with the Salem witch trials. But having decided that the Salem witch trials’ main themes were judicial execution and religious tolerance, the show absolves the Puritans of their worst traits, as though more rigorous constitutional norms would have saved society from a descent into madness. Donald Trump has been president for three years. We need no more proof that the show’s thesis is false.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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