Tuesday, October 31, 2017

The Witching Hour at the Movies

Halloween, of course, is a good time to talk about witches. Little girls today may trend toward Disney princesses for their Halloween costumes, but their moms and big sisters who want to put va-va-voom into their holiday attire often choose leggy Sexy Witch outfits. The movies are full of witches: cute witches (Bewitched), sultry witches (The Witches of Eastwick), scary witches (who can forget Margaret Hamilton in The Wizard of Oz?), even a maybe-not-there-at-all witch (The Blair Witch Project). In any case, movies that deal with witchcraft are generally going for fun, whether of the benign or the exciting variety.

But there was a time when to be named a witch was akin to a death sentence. Throughout European history outspoken women (and some men) have been accused of witchcraft, and few of them survived to refute the accusation. And that tradition unfortunately persisted in the New World, most famously in Puritan Massachusetts, where in 1692 dozens of local citizens were condemned to the gallows by tribunals determined to purge all witches from their midst. 

Years ago, I was featured in several productions of The Crucible, Arthur Miller’s hit 1953 play that draws from the Salem witch trials an indirect parallel to the witch-hunting being done by Senator Joseph McCarthy and the members of the House UnAmerican Activities Committee in his own day. The experience made me want to know more about the reality of the historical event, in which almost twenty locals (14 of them women) were sent to the gallows. Some of the victims were town renegades and cranks, but others were solid citizens known for their piety and good works. How did they come to be accused?

The answer lies in bestselling author Stacy Schiff’s fascinating narrative, The Witches: Salem 1692. Schiff, author of biographies of everyone from Véra Nabokov to Cleopatra, digs deep into the historical record to reconstruct the deadly doings in that small New England town. Much of her focus is on the pre-pubescent girls whose testimony before the witchcraft tribunal brought down so many members of their community. Today we diagnose their writhing and screaming as mass hysteria, but Schiff goes further, seeing in the strict rules of Puritanism the seeds of a covert rebellion that evolved into an impulse to undo others. Conditions in Salem were harsh: not only was daily life an ongoing challenge but a rigid religious system allowed for few emotional outlets. Schiff notes how many of the accusing girls had previously suffered the loss of a parent. She also grasps how easy it was for bereaved children to accuse their father’s new wife of witchcraft. 

As an historian, Schiff makes a shrewd observation: “History is not rich in unruly young women; with the exception of Joan of Arc and a few underage sovereigns, it would be difficult to name another historical moment so dominated by teenage virgins, traditionally a vulnerable, mute, and disenfranchised cohort.” Noting that these young accusers’ testimony  is often rich in details of  brightly colored clothing supposedly worn by the witches on their revels, she wonders: were the accusers themselves so desperate for color in their lives that they turned their forbidden longings into accusations of others?

The first filmed version of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible was made in France in 1957. It featured French-speaking actors like Yves Montand and his wife, Simon Signoret. Hollywood didn’t dare film Miller’s play until the Daniel Day-Lewis version, based on Miller’s own screenplay, appeared in 1996. It contains the very sexy love triangle that Schiff doesn’t find anywhere in the chronicles of Salem Town.

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