Set in Salem (sort of)

I have heard so many dreadful things about the new WGN series Salem that I was desperate to see it: our cable provider does not carry that station but I was able to watch it online and I also checked out the series website. It is indeed horrible, in more ways than one. Its central premise, that there were witches in Salem who themselves initiated the 1692 trials in a devilish divide-and-conquer strategy against the voiceless Puritans, sustains that mythology and ignores decades of research, but of course it is fiction, so I suppose all is well. Or is it? One of the series’ executive producers, Adam Simon, maintains that the history is fantasy but the magic is real and that Salem reflects all the knowledge we now have about the reality of European witchcraft. His reality is a strange mishmash of witchcraft folklore from the Continent, England, and the New World, with no cursing crones: a very sexy head witch, empowered by her very sexual pact with the Devil and aided by the very sexy Tituba, stores her familiar frog in her bewitched/incapacitated husband and prepares to face off against a very sexy Reverend Cotton Mather, whose father Increase burned scores of witches back in Essex (England, I presume, though to my knowledge Increase never visited there; he is better represented by his iconic assertion that”It were better that Ten Suspected Witches should escape, than that one innocent Person should be condemned”.) Geography–a sense of place–is not a strength of this show, which is odd because it is named after a place. I get the feeling that the producers and writers don’t even know where Salem is (was): the big city is New York, not Boston, and the costume designer comments that In Salem they had more [sartorial] rules than the rest of Europe. I could go on with my critique, but I think you get the picture.

Set in Salem WGN

The Streets of “Salem”, according to WGN America

This “Salem” got me thinking about other screen “Salems”, and there are many. Salem on film is a huge topic, impossible to capture in one post. If you differentiate between films that are supposed to be set in Salem (lots of Scarlet Letters, The Maid of Salem (1937), The House of the Seven Gables (1940) and several Crucibles, and films that were filmed in the actual Salem (the more recent Hocus PocusBride Wars, and American Hustle), it is more manageable. I’m more interested in the former, and it basically comes down to “Puritan films”  in the earlier part of the twentieth century and “witchcraft films” thereafter, with notable exceptions and overlap. I haven’t seen all the Scarlet Letters (the first one dates to 1911!) but I prefer the 1973 Wim Wenders version (in which Portugal stands in for 17th century Salem) to the 1995 Demi Moore film, and The House of the Seven Gables (starring Vincent Price) has nothing at all do with Hawthorne’s novel: we need a real/reel “remake”! There are also several versions of The Crucible: a 1957 French film adapted by Jean-Paul Sartre, entitled Les Sorcières de Salem, and Arthur Miller’s own 1996 adaptation, which was filmed for the most part up the coast on Hog Island in Ipswich Bay.

PicMonkey Collage

Set in Salem 1973

Set in Salem 1937


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Set in Salem 1957 Crucible

Posters for the 1926 and 1934 versions of the Scarlet Letter, and a screen shot of the 1973 Wim Wenders film; Posters for the Maid of Salem (1937) and The House of the Seven Gables (1940), and a photograph of the latter’s Salem opening at the Paramount Theater on Essex Street; Poster for Jean-Paul Sartre’s Les Sorcières de Salem (1957).



10 responses to “Set in Salem (sort of)

  • Athan Chilton

    My high school drama group put on ‘The Crucible’ many years ago & afterwards I read some history on the matter, including a story about the real Tituba. At least Miller seems to have considered what was the likely history of the tale, including the possibility that Betty Parrish, who kind of started the whole thing, was a pretty odd little girl, perhaps easily hypnotized, perhaps with some other unusual mental abilities – whereas a lot of the other girls in the story, teenagers, were probably in it for a lark, to mess with the elders’ minds, and because they were frustrated teenage girls!

    • daseger

      It’s amazing how influential the Crucible has been on the interpretation of Salem’s Witch Trial History–in both positive and negative ways, I think.

  • Brian Bixby

    Your opening comments about the casting reminded me of Ambrose Bierce — “WITCH, n. (1) Any ugly and repulsive old woman, in a wicked league with the devil. (2) A beautiful and attractive young woman, in wickedness a league beyond the devil.”

  • Brian Bixby

    Curious, based on your comments, I went and watched the first episode of “Salem” over the net. This isn’t my period, but even so, my anachronism detector went off so many times that I had to disable it by saying to myself, “this isn’t history.”

    • daseger

      It’s so off the charts you can ALMOST detach and dismiss it as pure fantasy, but it really isn’t very enjoyable from that perspective either (from my perspective).

      • Brian Bixby

        Yes, it’s that new category: semi-historical soft porn adventure. I was describing this to my cartoonist girlfriend (who just finished writing and drawing a story based on Thomas Morton of Merrymount), comparing it to “Rome” and “The Tudors,” and her response was that at least when “Rome” was violating the history, it got the clothing and customs right.

      • daseger

        I actually liked Rome, which proves that the less you know about the period being depicted, the greater your ability to watch “history” shows.

      • Brian Bixby

        That is probably true, amusing, and disturbing, all at once. We shall name that Seger’s Law.

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    […] mention this because, thanks to another blog’s post on the series, I tracked down and watched the first episode of the new series Salem the other night. Salem  is […]

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