FEATURE

Craft Brewing

The Witches: Salem, 1692 BY Stacy Schiff. Little, Brown and Company. Hardcover, 512 pages. $32.
Witches of America BY Alex Mar. Sarah Crichton Books. Hardcover, 288 pages. $26.

Salem gets a bad rap. For centuries, the tidy seaside suburb twenty miles north of Boston has served as shorthand for both colonial spookiness and the potentially fatal effects of small-town gossip. But it was not, in fact, the witchcraft capital of early America.

According to the latest scholarship on necromantic allegations made at the height of the ten months of madness later known as the Salem witch trials, that distinction actually belongs to nearby Andover. In a recent data-driven visualization created by the University of Virginia’s Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, expanding red circles on a green topograph of New England grow with every charge of diabolical behavior made in the region in 1692. Like nuclear impacts on a war-games map, the circles quickly overlap, seeming to trigger others. Salem erupts with an early strike, but it’s Andover that appears obliterated by occult accusations.

Nevertheless, one quaint Massachusetts village is now best known for its prep school, while the other is infamous for evils both real and imagined. Not that the current residents of the latter seem to mind. Today, Salem has gone further than any other community in the United States in turning tragic history into marketable kitsch. Tourists are encouraged to “visit for a spell” while buying pointed black hats and love potions at local shops including Witch Way Gifts, the Magic Parlor, and Salemdipity. Salem High School’s sports teams are called the Witches; its student newspaper is, of course, Witches Brew.

Yet as cartoonish as the figure of the witch has become in popular culture, it periodically manages to regain its potency. Such was the case more than sixty years ago, when Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible plucked a hoary tale from the nation’s prehistory and used it to critique the witch-hunt tactics of his day, and the same seems true of the digital age, in which the Internet’s mob mentality sometimes makes McCarthyism look tame.

It’s against this backdrop that two very different books on witchcraft in America land almost simultaneously this fall. Taking advantage of late October’s spike in eerie interests, Alex Mar’s Witches of America and Stacy Schiff’s The Witches explore the myths and the magic that have secured witchy women (and occasionally men) a permanent place in our collective imagination. While the former provides a view of contemporary witches and the mostly Mugglish lives they lead, and the latter digs deep into the dark arts of our frequently haunted past, together they suggest that the common caricatures of witches are much less interesting than the reality.

Almost immediately after murdering a score of people for witchcraft 323 years ago (most by the rope; one by crushing with stones), residents of the Massachusetts Bay Colony wished to forget that such a frenzy had ever overtaken them. However, as Schiff notes, their spiritual descendants “have been conjuring with Salem . . . ever since.” To the best-selling and Pulitzer Prize–winning author of the 2011 biography Cleopatra, that season of mania remains at once “our national nightmare,” an “undercooked, overripe tabloid episode,” and a “dystopian chapter” in the story of what made us who we are. At a time when English colonists numbered only in the thousands, nearly two hundred were named as participants in various kinds of intercourse with demonic forces. Spread across twenty-five villages and towns, the crisis was closer in its geographic reach to the era’s frequent smallpox epidemics than to the kind of claustrophobic psychological strain associated with cramped colonial homes and churches.

“How did the Bay Colony arrive—only three generations after its founding—in such a dark place?” Schiff asks. “Our first true-crime story has been attributed to generational, sexual, economic, ecclesiastical, and class tensions; regional hostilities imported from England; food poisoning; a hothouse religion in a cold climate; teenage hysteria; fraud, taxes, conspiracy; political instability; trauma induced by Indian attacks; and to witchcraft itself.”

The Witches suggests that a better explanation might be all of the above. Schiff’s approach to the complexity of the crisis in Salem and surrounding villages at the end of the seventeenth century is the opposite of reductive. Instead of shilling for any single cause, she reconstructs the time and place in remarkable detail, offering portraits of the protagonists in all their poignant, if often infuriating, humanity.

Through an immersive narrative involving a cast of dozens pulled from the historical record (villagers and authorities; accusers and accused; ministers and skeptics), Schiff skillfully re-creates the visceral tensions at the heart of everyday life in the Massachusetts Bay settlement. Disputes over such routine matters as ministers’ salaries bitterly divided Salem and set rival factions on edge; this was even more true in and around Andover, which may explain the crisis’s dramatic advance into neighboring towns.

“Terror rumbled close to the surface, erupting regularly,” Schiff writes of the basic condition of existence in a colony that had barely emerged out of the wilderness. “A full catalog of dangers beckoned close to home.” Fear was not merely a matter of the devils they imagined to be everywhere (witches, she notes, were “as real to them as had been the February floods”); it was embedded in the most mundane facts of life. Mothers and fathers could expect to lose two or three of their offspring before adulthood. “Children swallowed pins; they fell down wells, through ice, beneath barrels, under horses, upon knives, into fires, ponds, washtubs,” Schiff writes. “For good reason, parents had nightmares about their children.”

The witchcraft hysteria began as just that. In January 1692, several girls in Salem began to complain that they were being afflicted by “invisible agents” and to behave as if possessed. “They barked and yelped,” Schiff writes. “They fell dumb. Their bodies shuddered and spun. They went limp or spasmodically rigid. . . . The paralyzed postures alternated with frantic, indecipherable gestures. . . . They crept into holes or under chairs and stools from which they were extracted with difficulty.” One girl “disappeared halfway down a well,” while another “attempted to launch herself into the air, flinging her arms out and making flying noises.”

After exhausting both prayer and the meager medical interventions available at a time when “the fat of a roasted hedgehog dripped into the ear constituted ‘an excellent remedy for deafness,’” adults close to the tormented girls took up other means to find the cause. To determine if a spell had been cast on the children, an enslaved West Indian, John, was instructed to prepare a putrid pastry known as a “witch cake” (urine mixed with rye flour, “baked amid the embers on the hearth”), which was then fed to a dog. Doing so, it was believed, would identify the origins of any sorcery that had been employed in the vicinity. Sure enough, when the girls regained the ability to speak, they began to name names.

Contrary to accounts insisting that all that followed was a big misunderstanding or an adolescent prank gone awry, Schiff notes that, in the beginning at least, there was indeed something like witchcraft going on. Rather than the African conjuring or Caribbean voodoo of which the colonists later accused the slave woman Tituba, however, the magic attempted on the girls’ behalf was an “old English recipe.” That this lurch into the occult was “countermagic”—Salem’s minister called it “going to the devil for help against the devil”—does not alter the key dynamic here. Before the outlandish accusations of devilry began to fly, one trigger for the mayhem was the presence of beliefs and practices that challenge the notion that Puritans were as theologically homogeneous as we generally suppose.

Seen this way, Salem serves as an alternative creation myth for a nation that has witch-crushing stones as part of its foundation. Within living memory of the events of 1692, John Winthrop, the first governor of Massachusetts Bay, borrowed a line from the Gospels to call on his colonists to consider themselves a “city upon a hill.” The image has often been used as evidence of America’s devout Christian origins, but this “city” teemed with beliefs few would recognize as orthodox today.

“Witches had troubled New England since its founding,” Schiff writes in a passage evocative of the unexpected animism of the colonial worldview. “They drowned oxen, caused cattle to leap four feet from the ground, tossed skillets into the fire, tipped hay from wagons, enchanted beer, sent pails crashing and kettles dancing. They launched apples, chairs, embers, candlesticks, dung through the air.” Witchcraft, which all assumed “existed as plainly as heat or light,” was one indication among many that the New World would be full of what Joseph Glanvill had called “strange things, beyond the known power of art and ordinary nature.”

Tempting as it might be to explain away such beliefs as the hobgoblins of a chronically frightened people, the witch-addled mind-set of America’s colonial founders invites an obvious question: What, if anything, has changed since then?

Alex Mar’s Witches of America provides a surprising answer. By exploring a similarly uncanny landscape from the perspective of the present rather than the past, the journalist and filmmaker offers a bookend to Schiff’s history. Like a colonial witch-hunter convinced of diabolical doings, Mar insists witches are everywhere—provided you know where to look.

“The world is full of strange and inexplicable business,” she writes. “There are many Americans—not just out-there Americans, but high-functioning people with mainstream jobs and houses with backyards—who have . . . stories of mysticism, of communications from the other side, whether handed down, hearsay, or their own. All you need to do is press a little harder, and out they come: from supermarket cashiers, retired cops, psychologists, high-school jocks—it doesn’t matter where they live or what they look like.”

Though occupations and the definition of “high-functioning” may change, when it comes to the stories Americans believe and live by, we inhabit a world that would seem quite familiar to our superstitious ancestors. The only difference might be that circa 1692, the notion of receiving “communications from the other side” was a deadly serious matter, whereas today it is more often met with a smirk or a shrug.

“The overriding culture trains us to dismiss these stories as New Age babble, signs of wayward fanaticism, rather than greet them with a healthy dose of curiosity,” Mar notes, “but Americans are compelled by the mysterious more often than we feel permitted to admit.”

Much as Schiff acknowledges that folk magic seems to have played a role in the Salem witch scare, Mar proposes to take contemporary witchcraft seriously as a sincere religious pursuit—albeit a highly decentralized one that is often difficult to define.

“Today when people talk about witches—living, practicing witches—they’re usually talking about Pagans,” she writes. “Paganism evolved here over the last fifty years as an exotic, counterculture religious movement imported from England, where a new witchcraft religion called Wicca had been introduced to the public in the early fifties.”

To be a witch in the twenty-first century is to be something of a nostalgist. Just as Salem’s “witch cake” was made with an “old English recipe,” modern witch culture is concocted from a borrowed (and usually invented) past. As Mar explains, any given pagan tradition, known as a “trad,” can give birth to a number of “lines,” which in turn are further broken down into “covens.” All of these might claim to be part of an ancient lineage, but more than likely they are at most decades old.

Despite being “an overeducated liberal, a feminist, a skeptic long suspicious of organized religion,” and “not what you would call witchy,” Mar became interested in the frequently woo-woo world of modern paganism while filming a documentary on mysticism. Watching a gathering of California witches perform a ritual within a circle of stones, she was surprised to discover that she longed to move out from behind her camera and become an active participant in the ceremony. She soon set off, “when no one [was] filming,” to piece together an episodic investigation that might have been called (with apologies to William James) The Varieties of Pagan Experience.

With good humor about the silliness of some of the rituals Mar encounters, and prose that can take on the quality of an incantation, Witches of America is an empathetic but clear-eyed group portrait of people many might find easy to dismiss.

Mar’s depictions of the pagans she meets throughout the United States are as vivid as the characters Schiff revives from history. Some of the figures she profiles are professional witches of a type who might offer spiritual training out of a magic shop in Salem (one charges a monthly fee “the cost of the average smartphone bill”). But others just go about their lives as ordinary people who happen to cast the occasional spell. Many witches work short-term jobs (some, Mar notes, “pay their bills through jobs in construction, carpentry, or waiting tables”), performing rituals as time permits with like-minded men and women in covens that often seem to have more in common with book clubs or company softball teams than satanic cabals.

If witchcraft is a team sport, Mar wants nothing more than to get off the bench. In early chapters, she takes the reader on a tour of various trads, from Dianic Wicca, also known as “goddess worship,” to the impressively named Ordo Templi Orientis (“Order of the Oriental Templars”), founded by Freemasons in 1906 and popularized by the eccentric British millionaire Aleister Crowley after World War I.

Midway through her odyssey, however, she announces her intention to “train in Feri,” a “Craft” tradition that, according to its twentieth-century founder, “was first practiced tens of thousands of years ago, by a small-bodied, dark-skinned people out of Africa, the first ‘Fairy folk’—not to be confused with the winged nature spirits of the same name.”

Perhaps inevitably, her magical education begins in the form of e-mailed video clips. Sent by a prospective teacher (the one with the smartphone-size fees), they arrive in Mar’s in-box along with instructions that all six hours of “oath-bound lessons in witchcraft” be watched “without repeat and without interruption.”

Though she ultimately aligns herself with another pagan tradition, Mar carries out her Feri duties diligently. “At night, I take baths in beer and salt. Most mornings, I rub the base of my skull and lower back with an egg and hurl it whole into the toilet,” she writes. “Somehow this is going to provide my body and my home . . . with a ‘clean slate.’” Through it all, her patience is tested by “trying to strike a balance between the exotic and the super-banal.”

That same balance, it turns out, is the key to understanding the place of witchcraft in both American history and today’s world. From Massachusetts to California, 1692 to 2015, the power of witches—whether as martyrs, cosplay characters, or personifications of disruptive ideas—has always resided in the fact that they are not merely outsiders but also the outsiders within. The recent uptick in witchy cultural productions—a hot-and-heavy Salem drama on WGN; the Harry Potter juggernaut; Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, coming soon to SyFy—suggests the social niche they occupy is more attractive than ever. No matter the darkness or uncertainty of its origins, the future of witchcraft looks bright.

Peter Manseau is the author, most recently, of One Nation, Under Gods: A New American History (Little, Brown, 2015).