Following the success of horror dramas like Supernatural, True Blood, The Walking Dead, and American Horror Story, it’s no surprise that networks continue to produce shows that cater to fans of witches, vampires, werewolves, and zombies. Fascination with the paranormal has a long history, and its modern reach boomerangs from books to movies to television. WGN American recently launched its first original scripted program called Salem, a drama series loosely based on the infamous Salem witch trials. The show ignores the opportunity to shed light on the mass hysteria that affected parts of New England and instead picks up the mantle of puritanical 17th century America. Expressions of sexuality are proof of evil and deviance. The show should be subtitled Nothing Good Comes From Sex. (Spoilers ahead.)
The series opens with town leader George Sibley (Michael Mulheren) branding Isaac Walton (Iddo Goldberg) with the letter F, for fornication, on his forehead because he committed the crime of “self-pollution.” The threat of public humiliation and ostracism propels Mary (Janet Montgomery) to turn to companion Tituba (Ashley Madekwe) after discovering she’s pregnant by John Alden (Shane West), who has gone off to war. In the forest for a literal backwoods abortion via magic, Mary tries to change her mind, but Tituba coerces her, and the scene takes on a menacing, sexual tone. Tituba rubs oil over Mary’s lips and exposed chest and extended belly. The camera hovers over Mary’s glistening, gasping mouth in case the audience isn’t fully titillated yet. When Mary again protests, Tituba demands repeatedly that Mary say this is what she wants. Tituba forces Mary to go through with the abortion-cum-satanic-sacrifice and promises that Mary will have all that she ever wanted as a result. The termination of her pregnancy here is an evil thing, something done to benefit Satan and Mary’s ambitions.
The ritual indicates a trust and familiarity between Mary and Tituba that goes beyond mere friendship. Following the sacrifice, a time jump of seven years shows that Mary has married Sibley and become not only the most powerful person in town but also a powerful witch. Whenever Tituba and Mary are alone and conspiring, they share a physical intimacy that strongly suggests the two are lovers. At one point, in order to push Mary into an ecstatic state for a powerful ritual, Tituba stimulates her with the blunted end of a broomstick that has been repurposed into a personal intimacy tool. Any physical connection between Mary and Tituba is in connection with the devil and dark magic.
Out of jealousy, Mary begins to work a spell against Anne Hale (Tamzin Merchant), who has developed a crush on John after his return from war. One of the signs that the spell is working is a sexually charged dream about John that soon becomes a nightmare as Mary and town preacher Cotton Mather (Seth Gabel) join the two in bed. This nightmare is another example of deviant sexuality—that is, any sexual activity that doesn’t take place between a man and woman—as indicator of evil works at play. Anne’s sexual dream about John could’ve been triggered by normal, healthy desire, but it was quickly tainted and used as a gateway for Mary’s dark spell. A response to natural desire was punished as something unnatural and frightening.
Salem builds on its “sex is something bad” premise by falling back on the trope of hypocritical faith leader. Cotton Mather leads the town’s anti-witch campaign. He attempts to cure a young possessed woman through public displays of abuse and neglect but yields to fleshly temptation with his nightly visits to a house of ill-repute. Mather even has a favorite prostitute, Gloriana (Azure Parsons), who he promises to protect when the witch hunts escalate. Because of his weakness for Gloriana and sex, Mary is able to manipulate Mather. She goads him into action, making sure he eliminates her enemies for her, under the guise of purifying the town of witches. His natural impulses for sex lead him to being an unknowing pawn for Satan and his minion Mary.
From the beginning, it’s clear the show “Salem” only cared about the barest of facts surrounding the notorious witch trials, basing a few characters on real life participants. “Salem” may be easing its way into highlighting the tragedies that occur on behalf of religious paranoia, but it’s taking its time, being careful to construct a foundation on the evils of sex and sexuality. The show doesn’t have to be historically accurate, but to avoid the dangerous consequences of religious fanaticism is a disservice to the audience. It ignores the more compelling story of prominent leaders who seek to control people through religious persecution and the way young women possibly latched on to the freedom of mass hysteria to escape.
Establishing the beliefs about sex during the 17th century is important to the structure of the show. However, there is no counterpart. Every sexual or romantic encounter becomes a tool of whatever Satan’s evil, dark plan is for Salem and its inhabitants. Sex that happens outside of marriage between a man and a woman serves as a symbol of dark machinations.
There’s also a faint anti-abortion sentiment moored to that foundation. Mary Sibley’s abortion was a part of a contract with the devil for power and wealth. Instead of being satisfied with her choice not to have a child, she uses her magic against the townspeople to punish them for forcing her to feel as if she’d be unsafe as an unwed mother. Here is a woman who has risen to power via, in part, an abortion, but she is evil and must be stopped. Even after she chose to have an abortion, she tried to change her mind but her witchy companion/possible lover Tituba coerced her to complete the deed. If she hadn’t gone through with the abortion, perhaps she would not have succumbed to the power of dark magic. Now that the show has been renewed for a second season, it will be interesting to see how Mary’s evil ambitions are treated.
Nichole Perkins is a freelance writer, based in her hometown of Nashville, Tennessee.
Photo via WGN America.