Americans have a lousy sense of history. We barely remember the 1990s, much less the 1690s, but say, “Salem, Massachusetts,” and we perk up. The Salem witch trials were just a historical blip, so what fuels our fascination?
“It’s a witch story — the one great witch story in our history,” says Brannon Braga, co-creator of “Salem,” WGN America’s supernatural series inspired by real events, starring Shane West as witch hunter John Alden and Janet Montgomery as Alden’s old flame Mary Sibley, who’s, umm, a witch. The third season, which introduces a barber/surgeon/psycho played by Marilyn Manson, premiered Wednesday.
“It’s still a relevant story,” says Braga, who sees many Colonial fears playing out today. Like sexual repression.
“We can’t show a nipple on TV,” he notes, “but on ‘CSI’ a severed head can roll across the ground.”
Then there are the brutal French and Indian battles occurring near Salem at the time. While some townsfolk wanted to welcome refugees from those conflicts, Braga notes, others feared there might be witches among them. Sound familiar?
“Our country was born there, shaped there, and the events live in people’s minds today,” he says. Then he chuckles. “Or maybe people just like witches.”
Hollywood certainly does. Here are a few of our favorite Salem screen moments.
BEWITCHED (1970) — TV’s beloved Samantha Stephens, the sexy witch who just wants to be a homemaker (played by Elizabeth Montgomery), visits Salem for an eight-episode arc, and winds up zapped back to the messy 1690s.
SCOOBY-DOO, WHERE ARE YOU! (1978) — While visiting a friend in Salem on Halloween, Scoob and the gang stumble upon a witch risen from the grave. Ruh-roh.
SALEM’S LOT (1979, 2004) — Don’t be fooled. These films and Stephen King’s original 1975 novel are about vampires. The title is short for Jerusalem’s Lot, the fictional Maine town locale.
HOCUS POCUS (1993) — This Disney comedy focused on witchy sisters (Bette Midler, Kathy Najimy, Sarah Jessica Parker) from 1690s Salem resurrected 300 years later.
THE CRUCIBLE (1996) — Based on Arthur Miller’s 1953 play, this movie starred Daniel Day-Lewis and Winona Ryder, utilizing the same wide-eyed intensity she now employs in “Stranger Things.’
THE SIMPSONS (1997) — In a Halloween episode, Colonial-era Goody Simpson (aka Marge) is accused of witchcraft. Her mighty tall bonnet is as amusing as the plot twist.