Salem Then and Now: How Real-Life Horrors Inspired ‘The Witch’

     February 22, 2016


The superb Colonial horror flick The Witch just completed its run of special screenings stamped with official support from the Satanic Temple and its first week at the box office, where—on a per-screen basis—it defeated the newest Christian wide release film, Risen. Not bad for a critically acclaimed Sundance 2015 favorite that was originally going to go straight to VOD, if executive producer Chris Columbus hadn’t gone “on a crusade that this was a mainstream movie that deserved a wide release,” according to the film’s director, Robert Eggers. (Columbus, the director of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, and his wife and producing partner, Eleanor Columbus, rescued The Witch in post-production when funds were drying up.)

In addition to partnering with the Satanic Temple for ritualistic screenings across the urban United States (which highlighted both the Temple and the film’s “Free-thinking individuals, outspoken women, nontraditional sexuality [and] all things that have been deemed ‘satanic’ by members of our legislatures and communities”) distributor A24 (a favorite ’round these parts) also took the hype machine to the historically witchy hamlet of Salem, Massachusetts.

While Collider skipped the devilish ceremonies, I did venture to the famed town where 20 innocent individuals were killed by local government in 1692 for the crime of not confessing to being a witch. In the only house with direct ties to the Salem Witch Trails that’s still standing—which belonged to Jonathan Corwin, one of the nine judges who sentenced the 19 deaths by hanging and one death by stone-pressing (Corwin’s house is now called The Witch House)—I interviewed director Robert Eggers, lead actress Anya Taylor-Joy, and Salem witch historians Tad Baker and Brunonia Barry. In addition to these interviews that took place in a setting that made Taylor-Joy tremble with sadness, I also attended a screening that was moderated by historians and attended by practicing witches and people of the region who had ancestors that were killed in both American and European witch trials.


Image via A24

Before we deep dive into Salem’s witchy history and resounding praise from historians for the film, let’s get one thing out of the way: Does the Satanic Temple endorsement make Eggers nervous about what people—who are unfamiliar with the counterculture group’s actual creed of non-conformity—might expect from his film? “It’s nice to have fans,” Eggers answered succinctly and with a nod and a laugh.

“Satan doesn’t need witches, but witches need Satan,” said Baker, a professor of history at Salem State University who also recently confirmed the exact location of Gallows Hill, where 19 of the 20 individuals were hung in 1692 (currently, it’s located behind a Walgreen’s drugstore and is private property). “Historically, in the 18th century, Satan exists, but he greets you in hell. In the 17th century, it’s believed that Satan is here, walking the Earth.”

“According to my research via the foremost historians on the topic, the idea of the evil witch was very real in the early modern period of America. The real world and the fairytale world were the same thing in the 17th century,” Eggers said. “An evil witch was just as real as a tree or a rock or a piece of shit, and if someone called you a witch then you are thought to be capable of doing all the things a witch can do in my film.”


Image via A24

Eggers’ film is set 50-years prior to the Salem Witch Trials and it’s set in a slightly different region, but it still has immense ties to Massachusetts and the overall fear that the Puritans (Calvinists) had succumbed to. In the film, a family is banished from the Plymouth, Massachusetts plantation because the father, William (Ralph Ineson) will not submit to one principal of Calvinism. In the early 17th century, people who’d broken off from European churches and ventured to America were extremely hung up on their defining doctrine. “For Calvinists, minor doctrinal differences would make all the difference… They came for religious freedom, but if it’s not their religion exactly, they forced people to go,” Baker said. “It’s laughable to think that Quakers and Baptists were major threats to the social order of the Puritans, but it was common to be banished or strongly encouraged to find a new place.”

In The Witch, the family are banished and they load up their wagon and travel south to modern day New Hampshire. Their oldest child (Taylor-Joy) loses her youngest sibling during a game of peek-a-boo near the woods; the infant vanishes seemingly into thin air, but is actually taken deep into the forest by a witch. The family’s crops fail, the father’s pride keeps him from returning to the plantation, and accusations of witchcraft within the family follow.


‘The Witch’ Director Robert Eggers and Anya Taylor-Joy outside Salem’s “The Witch House”; image via A24

Historians and Eggers debunk the property thievery myth that many of us have been taught while reading Arthur Miller‘s Salem-set play The Crucible. “Today, when we think of evil witches, not white witches and wiccans, it’s as if it’s something that never existed,” Eggers said. “[We’ve been taught that there was] a conspiracy of sexist clergyman would say, ‘You’re a powerful woman, and so I’m going to call you a witch and kill you because I can’t deal with that’… But, in the 17th Century, if someone called you a witch, they really thought you were a supernatural being who’d cursed them.”

Previous to the Salem Witch Trials, what created a perfect storm of elements that allowed such swift public murdering of individuals to occur? “Witchcraft accusations started in an area where there were no houses beyond them. You venture beyond that and you’re in the woods. In both Europe and then in America, in the 17th century the woods were Satan’s lair. People were very afraid to venture into the woods. They would build forts and plantations to stop themselves from venturing further,” Baker said.

North of Massachusetts, in Maine, the French Catholics had funded and aided the Native Americans for raids and attacks. “The French Catholics had a distaste for the Puritans and wanted them gone. And the Natives are winning this war with the Puritan cities,” Baker said. “And even though this is happening in Maine, people in Massachusetts were terrified of being attacked next. One woman who lives 15-20 miles west of Salem was the first accused (of witchcraft) and they asked her what Satan promised her and she said, ‘he promised to keep me and my family safe.’ While she was in jail, her community was entirely wiped out in a raid and people believed that Satan spared her and punished everyone else.”


Image via A24

During the great migration to the colonies “everything is a sign of God’s pleasure or displeasure,” Baker said. “the weather is horrible, crops are failing, there’s a war up north, they do believe that Satan is on the loose. If you look at the Witch Trials the very first question that Judge Hawthorne asks is, ‘How long have you been in league with Satan?'”

Playing the young woman whose own family is suspicious that she might be a witch—after strange things keep occurring in the woods—Taylor-Joy felt a strong connection to her character that she couldn’t shake, especially while sitting in Judge Corwin’s Witch House. “This is going to sound so silly and actor-y sensitive, but I’m actually having a really hard time being here,” she said with a shiver. “I walked into this house and I burst into tears.”

Aside from the acute Colonial terror, the attention to Calvinism, banishment and wooded area paranoia, what Salem’s historians were most impressed by was how well Eggers and his crew were able to recreate the period setting. Eggers and the crew built their own forts and animal pins that were true to the time (without the aid of circular saws and lit with era-appropriate candles). So authentically was probably what made Taylor-Joy become emotional while sitting in the real deal. It’s also that attention to detail of the floorboards, garrets, roofs and candlesticks that created one of the nerdier historian Q+A’s I’d ever heard.


Image via Brian Formo

Richard Trask, a historian and author who has been involved in numerous witchcraft productions in the area and who has direct ancestral ties to John Proctor (an innocent man hung for witchcraft and played by Daniel Day-Lewis in the 1996 version of The Crucible), was “always disappointed” with the larger budgeted film’s presentation of the era. “I was absolutely blown away by the details of The Witch. I’ve never seen such wonderful production values. You look at something like The Crucible and the first scene has wood that you can tell was cut by a circular saw (which wasn’t invented until the 18th century). You look at this and every detail is so well research and presented, I was shocked to learn it was all built.”

The language in The Witch is also authentic. The characters speak similar Caroline English that was spoken while Charles I was on the British throne. “I was pulling from period sources to take sentences and phrases; I made my own book of greetings, chastisements, curses, etc. And I kept in tact things that children would say when they’re supposedly possessed,” Eggers said. But Eggers doesn’t mean for the language to be a barrier for audiences, and indeed tried to make it easier to digest (for instance, he chose not to have the family hail from Essex because “knife” would be pronounced “kuh-noife” so he chose a Yorkshire accent for the family to be more easily discernible). “It’s a way into the world,” Taylor-Joy said of the language. “And Robert did a great job making it approachable, because if it was too weird it would completely throw you out of this world that was so meticulously recreated.”

“I feel like it makes you lean into it a little more,” Eggers said of the period-specific language. “It helps create a little more tension because you’re trying to focus.”


Image via Brian Formo

As for the true breakout star of the film, the goat named Black Phillip (real goat name, Charlie), Eggers decided that the family would be a goat farmer because there was something pitiful and low class about it. “You were a real loser if you were a goat farmer in early New England,” Eggers said. “Early settlers brought over goats because they could eat anything and were smaller than cows.” But Charlie proved to be one of the most difficult parts of a difficult shoot; “a real nightmare,” said Eggers. “We were supposed to have three goats that looked identical, but instead we ended up with one goat that didn’t want to do anything we wanted to do.” The goat sent Ineson to the emergency room three times during the shoot. Taylor-Joy joked that they “locked horns” because they had the two biggest beards on set.

Needless to say, Charlie was not present at the Salem screening. However, there were more than historians, cast, and journalists invited to the Salem screening. A24 also invited a few practicing local witches. Modern witchcraft is recognized in Salem, but The Lace Reader author and local resident Brunonia Barry explained that it’s “multi-theistic, and does not believe in a devil of any kind.” Neo-Paganism reclaimed the word “witch” in the 1920s despite believing in neither God nor Satan in a fashion similar to how the Satanic Temple has reclaimed Satanism to align themselves with those who were deemed to be devils prior. Modern witches use the word to “intentionally harken back to the victims who were persecuted for their beliefs or their presentation to the community,” Baker said.


Anya Taylor-Joy at the Salem premiere of ‘The Witch’; image via Brian Formo

In a fashion, it’s now hip to say “I’m a witch.” Indeed that’s the title of Yoko Ono‘s new remix album (Yes, I’m a Witch) that debuted its first single on the same day The Witch was released in theaters. Baker remembers that Ono, herself, who is interested in Neo-Paganism, visited Salem in the 1970s. She arrived in a black limo, searching for Gallows Hill. Tourism and curiosity “keeps the town going,” Barry said. “It’s a safe haven for many people. People come from all over the world because they have a connection to an ancestor who was tried and hanged.” Because there’s been struggle with the executions of the past, Barry and Baker agree that the town universally lacks judgement on what resident’s want to practice or what travelers hope to experience in their town.

“I was invited here and I stayed,” said Lori Bruno at The Witch‘s Salem screening. Bruno is one such person who found Salem to be a safe haven. She is a Hereditary High Priestess and Elder of the Sicilian Strega line of the Craft of the Wise, founder and Head Mother of Our Lord and Lady of the Trinacrian Rose Church in Salem. Bruno is a direct descendent of Giordano Bruno, a friar philosopher and astrologer, who was burned at the stake in Italy in 1600 for claiming that the Earth went around the sun and that Earth was not the center of the universe (among many other scholastic discoveries we now know to be true). Lori Bruno once worked at NASA, saw a man walk on the moon, and the Russians name an impact crater on the dark side after him. Famously, the good witch once placed herbs in a puppet to help Tom Brady put an end to Tim Tebow‘s miraculous season on Friday the 13th, 2012 (it wasn’t a hex, but Tebow’s season did end and the Christian QB icon never re-replicated his early NFL success after).

With a cane topped by a skull that brandished glowing red eyes, Bruno told the crowd that her famed ancestor “paid with his life yesterday, in the year 1600. And I’m here sitting with you today. Very apropos… I am his living testimony. His blood runs through my veins… I enjoyed your acting and your movie,” the High Priestess continued. “Go forward, do the good thing.” To which Eggers responded, “For obvious reasons, it means a lot to hear that.”

Indeed, it is nice to have fans. And after this unique tour, Robert Eggers has made many more.


The Witch is currently in theaters nationwide.


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