Historical fiction seems to have become as much a staple of contemporary television as it has contemporary reading, and many of these shows try to correct the look of previous Hollywood-prettified versions of the past with grittier sets, costumes, and dialogue. Henry VIII certainly never looked like Jonathan Rhys Meyers (except for that one adolescent portrait), but The Tudors did try to represent the very real machinations and misbehavior in Renaissance England, even among the clergy. Vikings has so far given us authentically tattooed and made-up men going about their aggressive business, though the writers seem to have misunderstood the role that women played in Viking culture. Deadwood may have overdone it with the dialogue, but it broke ground for other shows by showing the American West through characters who are dirty, lustful, and regularly violent. Hell on Wheels also unflinchingly depicted the West, focusing on the greed and corruption of American industrialists as the country expanded. For the most part, I enjoyed these, and other series like them, primarily because they seemed more adult, more real, than what television often serves up.
More recently, shows like Turn have taken on specific historical events, and in a Wicked or Maleficent move, have tried to show viewers another side of the received story. Sadly, I couldn’t keep track of the turns on the show enough to stay engaged and so, though I applauded the effort, I turned off Turn after a few episodes. Then there’s Penny Dreadful, which has a certain ghoulish appeal. This one seems to pride itself on humanizing Frankenstein’s monster (though Mary Shelley did that, too) and demonizing its sexy Dorian Gray (but didn’t Oscar Wilde already do that, as well?). This show, however, becomes so allusively chaotic that it’s hard not to laugh, even when Vanessa Ives puts on her most low-browed scowl. I wonder sometimes if the writers are a bunch of English majors who get together for a party every week and throw any characters they can recall from their nineteenth-century surveys into the script.
What Penny Dreadful offers, in addition to its refresher course in Victorian monster lit, is the paranormal aspect that still draws viewers (and readers). Despite the controversy surrounding the YA author John Green, whose success has led some critics to say that the Harry Potter/Twilight phenomenon is passing in favor of a return to psychological realism, the paranormal still seems to sell. Game of Thrones has capitalized on this, and the imagined world it creates (which looks, still, quite a lot like medieval Europe) allows for dragon-taming waifs and big baddies with super-powers alongside its more pedestrian castles and monarchs.
And now along comes Salem. I looked forward to this show, because it seemed to feature strong female characters and a re-examination of a touchstone event in American history. The Salem witch trials, as many students of the past know, came at the tail end of a long period of debate about demonic powers in Europe, in which thousands of people were summarily tortured, hanged, or burned. Or all three. Even at the beginning of the witchcraft prosecutions in medieval Europe, scholars and skeptics expressed horror at the anti-intellectualism of belief in witches and at the use of Christianity to justify the gruesome murders that witchcraft judges ordered. The Salem trials, historically speaking, were a footnote to centuries of panic, hatred, fear—and revulsion at that very panic. But the women and men who died there would have been little comforted by that knowledge.
In the first episode, I saw, to my own horror, that the show actually promotes the notion that the witches were real, that women stalk and creep around Salem in their gothy costumes seeking out converts and colleagues in their demonic business. George Selby is a cretin, to be sure, but when Mary shoves a live—and rather large—toad down his throat to bewitch him, she’s become the villain. Or has she? The witches are attractive and seem to get away with wearing dresses that no woman in the historic Salem would have ever been allowed out of the house in. Mary Selby carries a torch for John Alden, who glowers handsomely and yearns from afar. Gorgeous Mary is, of course, the witch ring-leader, and when a truly abhorrent Increase Mather hits the scene, viewers will no doubt root for her.
What bothers me about this show is that, in this version, Mather is right. In this Salem, there are witches (along with open pits for dumping bodies to provide a nice gruesome spot for organ-munching), and these witches have real paranormal powers. George Selby is disgusting, but pity the poor nice man who marries a witch and angers her—he’ll probably get the toad-down-the-gullet treatment, too. And now we discover that being a witch might even be genetic, passed down from parent to child, like brown eyes or crooked teeth.
It’s not the super-powers per se that bother me, though I confess that I regard contemporary ghosts and spooky things and super-heroes as easy, light entertainment to pass a summer afternoon when it’s too hot to weed the garden. They’re what I watch when there’s no serious history or historical fiction on. And they’re fine, for what they are. What bothers me about Salem is the fact that real women and men were charged with the acts that the TV show presents as “normal,” and they were killed under those charges, either by starvation or illness in stinking, hellish jails or on the scaffold. And there was Giles Cory, who expired under a pile of stones.
The show purports to be an analysis of “otherness,” and that’s a laudable goal. But why use a very real, and literal, witch hunt in our history to do it? Even as metaphor, these characters are too convoluted in their aspirations and too gruesome in their means to achieve the rank of social commentators. For me, it has finally gotten to be too much. Witches are not oppressed minorities, and they are not marginalized subgroups. They’re not real. So I’m turning off Salem, in protest against this sort of exploitative, silly pseudo-history and out of respect for the very human women and men who were killed in that sad, isolated Massachusetts town.
Salem’s a blip at the tail end (sorry
to say) of the burning times, and now we
host pagans and pirate fans, devotees
of Hawthorne. But these days we’re exorcised—
the park’s stone benches are flanked with flowers
and visitors can sit at their leisure
right on top of the victims’ last words. You’d
never know from the black hats, capes, and brooms
displayed in the sidewalk sales that thousands
were flogged or burned or hanged across Europe.
Some say fifty thousand, a hundred. Some say
twice or three times that. You have surely heard
the beliefs, the crazy scholarship: all
those thick demonologies prescribing
suspicion or torture of anyone
who questioned authority. The sure signs?—
there’s nocturnal flight, of course, on sticks
or dogs or goats, there’s attendance at feasts
and unsanctioned dances (i.e. “sabbats”).
There’s always disagreement with a church
or king or court. So the world went, and so
it goes: racking, stripping, beating, terror-
izing. Have you seen the reproduction
relics? Take this little gem, for instance—
this is Joan of Arc’s immaculate heart,
left whole beneath the smoldering remains
of her famous fire! Did you guess? You know
the story, you might call her an early
political prisoner (the English
soldiers didn’t really think she conjured
the devil, she just seemed a little weird,
a little touched, you know, disposable).
Let’s see: there’s the Witch of Berkeley, Witches
of Stedlingerland, of Lombardy, of
North Berwick, of Chelmsford, of Lancashire
(1612), of Lancashire one more time
(1633), of Brescia . . . oh, I
can’t keep track. *sigh* Does anyone here still
smoke? Those New England jurors recanted,
but the dead are still dead and now families,
maps and ice-creams in hand, gaze, enchanted,
at the shiny windows of the judge’s
house, making scary faces at themselves.
During the “Enlightenment,” the witch turned
into a ghost. The poltergeist “Bell Witch”
of Tennessee chatted by the family fire
with Andrew Jackson, the “Blair Witch”
is mostly a jiggly camera. Wiccans
own many of the souvenir shops here
in Salem, you’ll know them by their flowing
robes. I’m sure you’ll want a look. The children