The Film Legacy of Salem

In the Google Talk above, from 2016, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Stacy Schiff talks about her new book, “The Witches: Salem, 1692, A History”, which I recently finished. As she says in the clip, this is her attempt to “grapple” with what happened in Salem and Boston in 1692. This was when the most infamous witch trials in history took place, resulting in mass hysteria and the executions of 20 innocent women and men; an additional five died in prison.

The book takes us to that time and place in meticulous fashion. Schiff makes us understand how people lived in those times, what their dark, forbidding surroundings looked like and what they believed in. The question of whether witches even existed never came up; no one had any reason to dispute that. She explains the power structure and the isolation of Massachusetts and the other British colonies in their relationship with London. As a Swede, I found it particularly interesting that one of the leading Boston authorities at the time, Cotton Mather, was inspired by tales of witchcraft from Sweden, even if Satan worked in different ways.

The book is a very interesting read, especially when it deals with the real people and historical facts of the time. It gets less fascinating however when Schiff vividly throws herself into the fantastical visions and testimonies of the girls and women who caused the outbreak of hysteria. Since these are all lies, one loses interest after a while, but Schiff loves going through these testimonies in great detail. Still, it’s an amazing story and relevant far beyond the 17th century, which has been illustrated in books, plays and movies through the years.

The most famous fictionalized version of the Salem witch trials is Arthur Miller’s play “The Crucible” (1952). As this is primarily a TV and movie blog, I was curious to see how the actual trials have been covered in those fields. The simple answer is that there has yet to be made a prominent film on the events. Most Salem-themed movies have borrowed inspiration in one way or another; a horror movie like Rob Zombie’s The Lords of Salem (2013) imagines a coven of witches still existing in modern-day Salem. Another type of Salem-inspired film is the comedy-fantasy I Married a Witch (1942), starring Veronica Lake as a witch who was burned (in real life, no one was burned in Salem, they were hanged) and comes back from the dead in modern times; watch the trailer above. The romantic drama Maid of Salem (1937), starring Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray, took place during the trials, with several characters based on real-life Salem inhabitants.

No masterpieces there. To sum it up, the 1692 trials never were about “real” witches, but the best movies that deal with Salem in one way or another are usually straight-forward horror movies about witches or allegorical tales about witch-hunting or misogyny, in the vein of “The Crucible”. 

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