Feminism, Radicalization, and Injustice: The Enduring Power of the Witch Narrative

Witches are back in a big way in popular culture — but why? And what does this mean?

“[W]ould some power good or bad/Instruct me which way I might be reveng’d…’Tis all one, To be a Witch, as to be counted one.” — The Witch of Edmonton, by William Rowley, Thomas Dekker and John Ford

Note: Heavy spoilers for The Witch within this article.

In The Witches: Salem, 1692, Stacy Schiff’s comprehensive 2015 nonfiction account of the 1692 Salem Witch Trials, the author emphasizes that “we tend to revisit our national crack-up after miscarriages of justice.” Her book is something of an attempted historical corrective to the tidying of the Trials into metaphor. But we just so happen — with the contribution of Schiff’s own book — to be seeing a resurgence of depictions of this definitive moment of puritanical horror. And so it actually seems a better time than ever to consider what “miscarriages of justice” our current predilection for the narrative reflects.

Recently, The Crucible, the most canonical fictional work about the trials, opened on Broadway with a major new production. There’s also Robert Eggers’ work of stark puritanical horror, The Witch, which just got re-released on April 1 across a devilishly gimmicky number of screens across the U.S., the TV series Salem, and also an upcoming series about the very same time and place by Weeds/Orange Is the New Black creator Jenji Kohan. (The latter is titled, at least for now, The Devil You Know, and was last reported to be in production in September 2015). It’s particularly noteworthy that in all three of theses examples that’ve been released, there is a supernatural element applied to the history. It’s something of a revision to the way more straightforward visions of The Crucible — the most taught work of American theatre — made us consider the Salem Witch Trials, and it’s a revision that speaks particularly to a contemporary predicament.

In the two months following its wide release in American theaters, many people have interpreted Eggers’ The Witch (set 60 years before the trials) as an unquestionably feminist narrative — both because of the gender of The Witch’s oppressed protagonist and the historically gendered implications of witchcraft (and the witch’s reappropriation as a feminist symbol), and because the narrative involves 80 minutes of patriarchal dysfunction followed by an ecstatic post-patriarchal conclusion. However, in a recent interview with Flavorwire, Eggers emphasized that he looked first and foremost to actual period lore as his source — it’s just that past narratives about female shame and culpability now read, at least among non-misogynist pricks, as exactly the opposite. “I wouldn’t choose to be a hardcore Calvinist,” Eggers said, “but I can see how somehow that was a hopeful way of living for those people. But regardless of me trying to come into this without any intentions or messages, feminism is bursting out of all the primary source material, it burst out of the script and it bursts off the screen.”

But beyond the most straightforward feminist implications of the narrative, there are also other meanings waiting to be explored. The wickedly victorious sensation you or I may have felt at the end of The Witch, for example — when the main character signs her soul away to a devil in the form of a black goat, and then traipses naked into the woods to meet the clan of dancing witches who gruesomely destroyed her family (or helped them self-destruct) — also carries with it some far less assuringly affirmative parallels. Just as Arthur Miller pulled McCarthyism from Early Modern American witch obsessions, the applications of witchcraft narratives to the current day are manifold. These stories speak not only to mass injustices, but also to the ways the social climates that breed them also can breed reactionary, violent and equally stifling radicalisms. Is that not what Puritanism, itself, was? Schiff writes:

The irony that they had come to the New World to escape an interfering civil authority was lost on the colonists, who unleashed on one another the kind of abuse they had deplored in royal officials.

So what’s the most globally pervasive contemporary witch hunt you can think of? What forms of radicalism has it helped catalyze? During McCarthyism, America’s ultimate enemy was the threat of a Communist imposition in pedestrian American lives from Russia, but it was the domestic political climate created by that threat that proved far more harmful than the threat itself. Today’s fear of terrorism — the abstract threat of which a current presidential candidate has expressed wishes to blockade with bans against any Muslim entering the country — seems an apt parallel.

* * *

During my interview, Eggers brings up a play called The Witch of Edmonton — written, oddly, by not one, but three playwrights, and published in 1621. The ending of Eggers’ film — seeing his protagonist, Thomasin, radicalizing following the realization that her society was uninhabitable — is similar to the entire premise of the old play.

“[The play’s protagonist] is this old woman,” he explains, “and … she gets so sick of being called a witch all the time that she calls up Satan and says, ‘Hey, let me just be a fucking witch and curse all of these bastards.'” Within the surge of plays in the 17th century about witches (The Witch of Edmonton, Thomas Middleton’s 1616 play The Witch, and of course Macbeth, first performed in 1611) mirroring the surge in early Modern witch paranoia across Europe and then displaced onto America, The Witch of Edmonton is, according to Stages of Evil: Occultism in Western Theater and Drama the most in keeping with the lore of the time. As opposed to Shakespeare’s and Middleton’s more classical Hecate-following witches, Edmonton’s Elizabeth Sawyer — the character based on a real woman accused of witchcraft — signs a deal with the devil (in the form of a dog named Tom) only after people have already accused her of so doing.

One thing that has become clearer and clearer in recent years is that violent extremisms are not created in a vacuum, but rather by human beings whose moral thresholds have been altered, often by resistance to societies that are failing them. In this context, reconsidered witch narratives like The Witch, van Hove’s production of The Crucible, and even the silly, sensationalistic Salem seem like cautionary tales for ignorance toward this phenomenon. The supernaturalism becomes real in the midst of accusation.

The Marilyn Manson-cameo-ing Salem, WGN’s series first released in 2014 (and getting its third season soon), begins in 1685, seven years before the Salem Witch Trials. Immediately after seeing two people brutally punished by city officials for fornication, Mary Sibley (a real-life figure, completely distorted) seeks the help of West Indian slave Tituba (also a real-life figure, and a key character in The Crucible) and immerses herself in witchcraft in order to get an abortion before she shows and can be similarly tried.

The Crucible, as Arthur Miller imagined it, may be an atheistic play, but it doesn’t entirely deny the fact that teenagers in Salem may have, as a matter of escapist fantasy from the smothering escapist fantasy of the Puritanical New World, been toying with the idea of witchcraft and testing the seductive myths about powerful, extra-societal female figures society envisioned as the loci of evil. Abigail Williams’ foundational litany of accusations, after all, comes following her own tryst with other teenage girls into the woods.

Beyond that, though, Miller’s play makes it especially clear that actual magic was a fabrication used to conveniently destroy people against whom others harbored minor grudges. (John and Elizabeth Proctor, the martyred protagonists, were already both disliked and envied for being too cool for church). Especially as it works as a proxy for McCarthyism, though, it wouldn’t have damaged the play’s allegory to intimate that some people would have actually harbored some Communist — and thus through the play’s allegoric logic magical — proclivities — and that that likewise wouldn’t have been deserving of the type of suspicion and persecution that both alleged witches and alleged Soviet loyalists received.

However, reflective of current pervasive ideas about the West’s greatest contemporary fear — terrorism in the form of radicalized Islam — being self-fulfilling-ly prophetic, Ivo van Hove’s new (imperfect in its execution) production bears suggestions of the reification of the vilified Puritanic equivalent — witchcraft — into reality. In van Hove’s rendering of Miller’s play about an orphan servant schoolgirl (Abigail Williams, played by Saoirse Ronan) who devises an elaborate plot of witch-blame to usurp the home of the woman (Elizabeth Proctor, played by Sophie Okenedo) married to the man (John Proctor, played by Ben Whishaw) with whom she had an affair, the director suddenly makes the false magic her scheme entails visible through vague symbolism.

Tavi Gevinson and Ben Whishaw in Ivo Van Hove's production of 'The Crucible'
Tavi Gevinson and Ben Whishaw in Ivo van Hove’s production of ‘The Crucible’

The Crucible, with its tragic story of much ado about nothing, in written form seems an antithesis to the supernatural The Witch. But in this production’s confluence of what’s symbolic and what’s diegetic, projections of dancing trees and somewhat silly, ominously glistening birdies come alight as the first sign of, at least, a supernatural aesthetic. Then, between scenes, a scrim lifts and we see a girl hovering above the ground. Towards the end of the play, in the famous courthouse scene where the group of girls enact a mass possession, the whole set quakes, a light plummets towards the ground, the windows shatter and papers fly rambunctiously — as though somewhere, Matilda were really pissed off. “With The Crucible, I want to make you believe,” van Hove told the New Yorker.

Because of the memorable, straightforward portrait of injustice The Crucible originally entailed (that this new production complicates — in an era where we seem to be reorganizing the symbolism of the Witch trials — with supernatural frills), what ultimately surprised people about The Witch was, on the flipside, how straightforwardly supernatural it is. Our historical associations with witches and Puritanism are (sensibly) almost always with injustice against the innocent in a nonmagical world, rather than the coexistence of injustice and fantastical radicalization. But now our cultural/artistic affiliations with it are leaning towards the latter.

While history and Arthur Miller (before this new revamped production) look at the period from without, Eggers’ film looks from within. His film is the manifestation of 400-year-old fears — fears that bore myths so infectious that, 60 years following the fictional events of the film, they’d lead to the execution of 19 accused witches in and around Salem, Massachusetts. The people perpetrating those killings were living solely within the stifling belief system that they had created, to the point where fiction may as well have been reality.

“There’s [a] contemporary misconception that’s [been noted by] historians that have tremendous amount of clout — like Ronald Hutton and Diane Purkiss,” says Eggers. “[There’s] this idea that the patriarchy was saying, ‘You’re a woman who’s powerful, you won’t shut up, I’m threatened by you, I’m going to call you a witch, it’s a conspiracy so I can kill you and be rid of you.’ [But] actually, their fear of feminine power was so fucking intense they actually believed that a powerful woman was an evil fairy tale witch.”

People were prosecuted and died on fictional bases, and the methods of determining witchcraft made seeing reality in the fiction a near inevitability. One of the key ways of judicially determining witchery was “dunking” — someone who sank in water when thrown in while bound was innocent (but often drowned), while anyone who managed to live and float was a witch. (It makes the Monty Python and the Holy Grail sketch with the witch-burning-based-on-carrot-nose seem rather accurate). The other method, applied to Giles Corey during the Salem Witch trial, involved placing heavy stones atop a plank atop a person, until the unfortunate victim either confessed or died. Through these superstitious torture methods, witchery became literally synonymous with resisting the pressures of society.

Anya Taylor Joy in 'The Witch'
Anya Taylor Joy in ‘The Witch’

But the feeling of radical ecstasy you get at the end of The Witch — in conjunction with the protagonist’s ecstasy as she casts the injustices of her stifling heritage aside and floats into the trees with the witches who recruited hercomplicates itself by what we’ve seen across the rest of the film. When you look at the activities in which The Witch’s protagonist Thomasin will soon partake, they’re not exactly the kinds of things the likes of the Witches of Bushwick — or other contemporary, witch-happy-groups-who-are-actually-really-cool-and-who-won’t-kill-your-baby-because-they’re-not-1600s-misogynist-fantasies — might embrace. “The fact that the witch is evil — I’m not saying ‘that’s great,'” Eggers tells me. “And certainly contemporary witches and Wiccans and Pagans would have a lot to say about that that’d be very negative. But even if you only believe that the evil witch exists in the mind of the ignorant, in the early Modern period, the evil witch was a very real thing.”

The witch that antagonized her family actually carried out all of the morally bad-by-today’s-standards witchy tasks envisioned by puritanical witch-based lore: she’s blighted crops (okay, not so bad), she’s killed an unbaptized baby, and she’s catalyzed a more generalized madness among the family she’s chosen to antagonize (ultimately killing them all, barring the one she seems intent on recruiting). When The Witch’s protagonist Thomasin ultimately joins the clan, it’s revelatory and cathartic, and the response to her desire to “live deliciously” — as the goat-devil puts it to her— feels almost righteously delicious after all of the insufferable accusations she’s put up with from her now-completely-destroyed family. But joining this unabashedly cruel coven is essentially an indoctrination into yet another extremist cult, another resignation of freedom, despite the fact that it feels ecstatic and freeing, even to the audience. Which is what an actual cult would want you to feel — all the while subjecting you to a new form of servitude to extremist mores.

* * *

As part of a book-long attempt to actually clarify the history of the Salem Witch Trials through the muck of intriguing metaphoric revisions artists and even historians may have made with it, Stacy Schiff explains that Arthur Miller found his source material in a text written by Marion Starkey. Starkey, a historian, was, it turns out, driven to examine the Salem Witch Trials as a means of understanding the Holocaust. Schiff makes sure to note how the narratives have emerged through a game of metaphoric telephone, with different accounts trying to understand contemporary injustices through this seemingly tidy (but actually, per her book, not tidy at all) small-town contained paradigm of mass hysteria leading to a government enacted mass murder. And indeed, since art about the trials seems to be borne of — and if it’s not, at least to beg — parallels to the time that art is made, the resurgence in interest of Salem as a metaphor today certainly speaks to our largest national and global witch-hunt: the discourse of Islamophobia and society under the NSA. It’s a discourse that involves the real evils of ISIS and the sprawling, stifling accusations against the larger global Muslim population. This bigotry helps ISIS continue to metastasize, as seen in part in how attackers in the San Bernardino and Paris shootings and in the Belgian bombings included citizens of those countries.

We’re seeing more and more how Western countries are having to deal with the threat of radicalized fundamentalist Islam’s ire — an ire that has swollen in part from the immensely insidious fundamentalist group taking advantage of people’s responses to the also-insidious natures of white and Christian supremacist societies. ISIS relies in part on the emotional effects of drone “kill lists,” (which self-alleged target Malik Jalal recently described as “radicalizing the very people we are trying to calm down”) the wreckage left by a war started by the West, and Islamophobia in Western countries to further its own horrific message.

A recurring notion is how Islamophobia — the type that calls for the closure of borders for refugees running from ISIS — plays directly into jihadist recruitment schemes. Radicalization expert and former jihadist turned government agent Mubin Shaihk spoke to VICE back in December, following the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino and predating the attack in Brussels. During the discussion, the interviewer noted the very obvious but salient point that “every time there’s a terror attack, whether it’s 9/11 or the Paris killings, life becomes harder for Muslims in the West” (attacks against Muslims spiked 300% in England, for example, following the Paris shootings/bombings), and asked whether fracturing global relations as such might in fact be part of ISIS’s strategy. Shaihk’s response was “definitely… They wrote it in a manifesto called the Black Flags from Rome where they said, we’ll eliminate ‘the grey zone of coexistence’ and create life so difficult for Muslims, have retaliation by militia groups on the Muslims to further isolate, marginalize, anger them so that they do turn to violence. This is their stated objective. The sad reality is, you have people on the right who might as well directly take the marching orders from ISIS because they’re doing the work for them.”

It may sound silly, but the plot of The Witch ends up reflecting — simply by being a fascinating filmic embodiment of historical fears — this cycle with startling precision. Robert Eggers makes a whole microsociety out of the story’s central family; there are hardly any other characters in the film. “A famous Puritan rhetorical phrase is ‘a family is a little church — a little commonwealth,'” he says, “and I could explore society as a whole in this microcosm.” Here, one harmful extremist culture tries to turn someone away from another by systematically isolating that person from every aspect of the former.

The Crucible — especially a Crucible in which fears may be manifested as realities — likewise seems applicable. Donald Trump not long ago — through muddled reporting — did not exactly express but, when asked many times, never clearly rejected, the implementation of a database of Muslims living in America; this hypothetical transmogrification of people’s names into illusory markers of culpability would be reflective of both McCarthyism and the Salem Witch Trials.

Notably, what The Crucible boils down to is the protagonist’s refusal to submit his name to such a thing — and the acceptance of death over it. But another reaction could, as we’ve seen, be to radicalize — and radical groups can of course be either progressive or horrifyingly regressive. Perhaps the way The Witch reinterprets Puritanical witch accusations seems more applicable — or at least more usefully applicable — to extreme, violent radicalisms than feminism because unlike the desire for women’s equality, the character in The Witch signs a pact with the devil and presumably will engage in a series of objectively cruel activities. In this film, and in life, “evil” may be a silly and reductive notion, but the more people translate personal pain and loss into accusing others of it, the more that silly, reductive notion is reified into something that matches the horrific contents of hysterical collective imaginaries.