Hocus Pocus

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Hocus Pocus – 1993
30% rotten tomatoes
Set in Salem, Massachusetts

History of Salem Witch Trials

Salem is very likely most famous for the witch trials at the end of the 17th century. Salem, like all US cities, was stolen from native inhabitants. Rather than appropriating the native name, in a twist ironic racism, the settlers decided to name it after the Hebrew word for peace.

The witch panic began in 1692. Ultimately 19 people were hanged, and one person, A 71-YEAR-OLD MAN, was crushed to death, and a handful died in prison, because 17th century prisons sucked. Many more were incarcerated, but ultimately released the next year. All told, about 200 people total were accused. The Salem Witch Trials were, thankfully, the last time US citizens were hanged for witchcraft, according to this article. I feel that wording is significant – they do not state that no one else was put to death for witchcraft, only that they weren’t hanged.

The hysteria (a word I vehemently object to) began with a gaggle of teenaged girls. They claimed they were possessed by the devil and accused other women of witchcraft. I believe this was a deflection tactic of some sort. Anyhoo, the first woman to be hanged was named Bridget Bishop. The trials at first were the talk of the town, but as it always does with the public, over-exposure turned the tide of sentiment. The government, in addition to releasing the imprisoned citizens, annulled the guilty verdicts and provided restitution to the families of the victims. Yes, victims.

Salem is now a popular tourist spot. Part of this appeals to my macabre love of grisly horror, but another part of me feels immense guilt at the capitalization off of such human suffering and miscarriage of justice. We complain a lot of the failure of the justice system today (and much of that is absolutely warranted – people of color, women, the poor, are routinely shat on in the courts), but clearly this is not a new phenomenon. This is how sensationalism creates a fever pitch and blood lust for entertainment can supersede reason and rational consideration of actual facts.


SO, witchcraft was a big thing for a long time. Religion has long been used a form of social control. Oh wait… did I think that out loud…

Moving on… In my experience as having grown up in the bosom of the church, I was constantly bombarded with such impossible conundrums as “if you love Jesus enough, you’ll keep temptation at bay” and also “the devil sometimes tries to trick you by sounding like what Jesus would want you to do” and so when you ask questions like “well if you’re pure of heart you should just know the difference.” Now not only is this an intensely frustrating unsolvable logical problem, but it also establishes the person being at fault for any wrong doing regardless of intention or naivete. Because even if you were trying to do the right thing but a wrong thing happened, you’ll be blamed because a true Christian would never have been led astray. Which means that you’re not a true Christian. You’ve either willingly or unwittingly allowed the devil to take root in a corner of your heart. And this is how you can argue against rational explanations for coincidental occurrences. It’s impossible to disprove the existence of something that’s unprovable. You can’t disprove the existence of Jedi anymore than you can prove it, though you can come up with a multitude of arguments for or against, in the same way you can’t prove or disprove the idea that Goody Putnam sent her familiar to the neighbor’s house to ruin their best milking cow. Just as a side note, there actually physically exists in Vermont a round church. It’s round so that there are no corners in which the devil can hide (according to one legend. Other possible explanations include having no exterior corners around which vagabond can sneak up from and attack). I’ve been there. It’s charming and beautiful, but creepy and sad.

Back to the witches. The witch anxiety was most active in Europe from the 14th through the 17th century. Most of this anti-witch sentiment was focused towards women, but also some men, and also came across the Atlantic with the settlers. In America, the Salem Witch Trials represent the last blast of this type of irrational mass paranoia, which may have been exacerbated by displaced angst over some immediately prior battles in the area between French and English forces. There was also a lack of resources, and a lot of infighting amongst local families and authority figures. Naturally, rather than dealing with their problems like sane adults, they decided the devil was at work dividing their community and creating these problems.

So when a couple girls, who were up to no good, started makin trouble in the neighborhood, they threw one little fit, and the town got scared, they said, you’re in league with the devil and his unholy horde down in hell.

But in all seriousness, these gals were younnng. 9 and 11. They exhibited bizarre behavior – contortions, screaming tantrums, and speaking in tongues, sort of. A doctor, the local voice of reason, said it was supernatural. Big, scary, intimidating male town officials leaned on the girls to disclose the cause of their distress. So, naturally, they selected three disenfranchised women for whom much love was not likely lost. Two of these women denied all claims, but one woman clearly saw where this was headed and just played along. This catalyzed a proper witch hunt and people just lost their shit. I think the whole town was in court as a person of interest or a person with interest for months. People had lost their shit. A four year old girl was questioned! A tiny kid! What clearly happened is that people that held grudges against others decided this was a great time to get some pure, uncut comeuppance. There was one fella who rose to the top of the illiterate masses (I’m sorry, that was uncharitable), the ignorant masses, was the minister Cotton Mather, who lobbied to have unsubstantiatable evidence, such as dreams. His son, named Increase (never mind about him rising to the top – I take it back) uttered what we now consider the golden rule of the justice system: “It were better that ten suspected witches should escape than one innocent person be condemned.” This kinda sounds like innocent until proven guilty. BONGBONG. So what would happen next if this were a reality show? That’s right! Mather’s wife was accused of witchcraft. The governor steps in at this point, releases the witches…. I mean innocent citizens… and also gets rid of the special court that was created to deal specifically with the witch infestation. I mean mismanagement of tweenage hysterics. Was this the end? No. The governor substituted a different, albeit saner, court. They didn’t allow the rapture evidence, and so only three more people were condemned. The governor came back, because apparently if you want something undone right, you have to undo it yourself. He pardoned everyone accused who hadn’t already been murdered by the governing body. After a time, some folks involved in sentencing came to their senses and admitted THEY WERE THE HYSTERICAL ONES. Jokes. But they did apologize and admit that it was ridiculous, and the general court came and shamed them and put the town in time out. But those dead folks were still dead.

I think most of us are probably most familiar with Arthur Miller’s play about the Salem Witch Trials, The Crucible. For some reason, it remains a high school drama club favorite. The play was written in 1953, and Miller was canny enough to see the similarities between the Salem Witch Trials and the McCarthy Hearings. Just substitute communism for witchcraft, but no one was hanged, just blacklisted, ruining their careers and lives.

One theory about a potential medical cause for the girls’ behavior is fungus ergot, which can contaminate crops, can cause symptoms exhibited by the girls.

Favorite Quote: “Oh look, another glorious morning. Makes me sick!” – Winifred

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