Estimated reading time: 4 minutes
On images of the Salem Witch Trials in historical romance, horror, and collective memory. Nathaniel Hawthorne famously complained, in the Preface to his novel The Marble Faun (1859), about “the difficulty of writing a romance about a country where there is no shadow, no antiquity, no mystery, no picturesque and gloomy wrong.” It’s easy, and certainly salient, to note the irony of an author making such a complaint just moments before the onset of the Civil War, the conflict that represented the culmination of one of nation’s most prominent (if not at all mysterious or picturesque) gloomy wrongs. But even if we limit our analyses to Hawthorne’s own works—which did not engage much at all with the shadow of slavery, nor of parallel dark histories such as Native American genocides—we would seem to find a clear rebuttal to his argument: the Salem Witch Trials, with the long, mysterious shadow of which Hawthorne’s novel The House of the Seven Gables (1851) is centrally concerned.
So Hawthorne did write an American historical romance that originates (quite literally, in the opening pages of its first chapter; also biographically, in Hawthorne’s guilt about his ancestor John Hathorne’s role in the trials) with the gloomy wrong of the Salem Witch Trials. But on the other hand, more or less the entire plot and drama of House depend on a complex irony: that while Colonel Pyncheon was wrong to use the façade of the Witch Trials to condemn Matthew Maule to death and thus steal his valuable tract of land, Matthew Maule was, in fact, a witch! That is, even if we do not read the Pyncheon family’s multiple mysterious deaths as caused by Maule’s pre-execution curse (a reading that the novel invites us to take seriously, to say the least), the novel presents the Maule family’s hereditary ability to “mesmerize” other people—to put them under a bewitching spell of control and domination—as unquestionably legitimate.
In one of the novel’s turning points the young dageurrotypist Holgrave (later revealed to be a Maule descendent) narrates a horror story of past Maule mesmerism and then chooses not to exercise this mesmerizing power over Phoebe Pyncheon in the present—an inspiring break from history that at the same time validates, as does the novel in which it is situated, the Witch Trials’ central claims and stated purpose.
In Hawthorne’s portrayal of the legacies of Salem, then, the horrors of witchcraft do not just represent paranoia or oppression but in fact comprise a significant part of the moment’s gloomy wrongs and dark histories. Interestingly, a trio of recent pop culture texts has used Witch Trials imagery for similarly horrifying purposes. In Rob Zombie’s film Lords of Salem (2013), a 21st century resident of the town finds herself in a series of increasingly terrifying encounters with a coven of witches. In James Wan’s film The Conjuring (2013), a young family discovers that their Rhode Island farmhouse is possessed by the spirit of an accused (and very authentic) 19th century witch. And in the third season of American Horror Story, subtitled Coven, the descendants of the witches who survived Salem’s Trials find themselves once again under threat, this time in contemporary New Orleans. Despite the many differences between these texts, all rely for their plots and scares on a basic but extremely fraught historical narrative: that accused witches such as those in Salem were, like Matthew Maule in Hawthorne’s novel, indeed guilty of possessing and practicing witchcraft.
If we remember Hawthorne’s complaint, it’s perhaps easier to understand why these cultural texts would feel the need to use Salem for these horrific purposes: there aren’t a lot of such mysterious gloomy wrongs in American history; and the Witch Trials only become genuinely mysterious if we grant the possibility that the accused were guilty of their crimes. It’s also worth noting that Salem itself has in many ways built a tourism industry on similarly ambiguous images—ones that gesture at the Trials’ social realities but also depict stereotypical witches at every turn. I don’t want to be the kind of public scholar who gets grumpy at any imaginative or even silly re-creation of our past, and it’s fair to say that there’s room in our collective memories for both the realities and the creepy stories of witchcraft. But on the other hand, I would argue that the most horrifying images of Salem I’ve ever encountered can be found in the quiet stones and fading words of the unique and compelling Witch Trials Memorial. Which is to say, Salem was indeed one of the original American horror stories—and that horror’s got nothing to do with mesmerism or covens.