Review: WGN America's Salem
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’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.”
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.
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.