In a previous post titled The Hardest Thing, I wrote about witchcraft in the Renaissance and early modern period, and my experience of researching it. This research turned out to be one of the hardest parts of writing my historical novel, not because of access or boredom, but because I found the material so disturbing. Though grateful that the information is there to be read, I was glad to leave it to others once I’d done my minimum of delving.
Some weeks ago however, this distressing topic surfaced once more, and in a surprising guise. One of my clients described a trip to the U.S., during which she had participated in a witch trial re-enactment. I make it a point of honour to be unflappable as a massage therapist, and never break my rhythm no matter how triggered I am by something a client says, but this was a genuine struggle. I know I’m kind of naive and sheltered, and I don’t travel much, but this really shocked me. When I questioned her, she reassured me that it’s not done lightly or flippantly, still, I was aghast.
Online research didn’t soothe me. While many people said the experience had been educational, and the re-creations did a good job at seeming authentic, others categorized them as “entertaining,” and I came across several sites that described tawdry, tourist-focused Halloween goings-on in Salem MA. I tried to take heart from evidence of modern witches making themselves visible and accessible. Possibly tourists get the chance to learn a bit about Wicca and neo-paganism, and to take the definition of witch a little deeper. Frankly though, this was a serious stretch for my credulity muscles, and my ability to turn lemons into lemonade.
Now I’ve been told more than once that I’m too serious, especially when it comes to certain topics, but am I the only one who is bothered by this? When I try to imagine myself at the re-enactment of a witch trial, the scene ends with me tottering away in tears, or exploding with righteous fury.
It has often seemed to me that cruelty and injustice are taken with less gravity when women are the victims. I first became intensely aware of this in the 90’s when I learned about the conditions for women in Afghanistan. If a racial minority had been targeted in those ways, there would have been an international outcry and maybe some action, but the fate of women is somehow categorized as a domestic matter, if only subconsciously. In thinking about witch trial re-enactments, I tried to imagine arriving at a holocaust museum at a former concentration camp, and being confronted with a re-enactment in which visitors are herded into two lines, one for slaves, and one for death: never happen, nor should it. This is an analogy not a direct comparison, and of course there are significant reasons why these situations are not the same, but I think there are enough parallels to make it worth thinking about.
I tried conscientiously to view some re-enactments on YouTube and it was easily as nightmarish as I’d imagined. I’m relieved in a way that the subject is kept in the public consciousness. It’s dangerous for us as a society to forget or sweep under the carpet how fragile are the freedoms women have won in the past century. It’s easy to look up the stats about witch hunts and discover the depth of the atrocities. Of course the scale between Europe and North America was vastly different, but I feel offended, or maybe it’s just frightened by the very idea of re-enactments, and especially of re-enactments as part of a larger tourist experience slanted towards entertainment.
I can’t imagine what it’s like for the women acting in these productions. I’d love the chance to talk to one. Thin skinned as I undoubtedly am, just watching a few minutes of a YouTube video is enough to give me bad dreams. I can’t fathom the level of professionalism, or detachment that must be required to act in one.
I’m far too chicken to ever risk attending one. However, I’ve tried to picture it. I understand the audience is encouraged to participate. I’ve imagined myself standing up and declaring forcefully that the trial was an outrage based on superstition, misogyny and hysteria. Would there have been a woman in that time who stood up to say these things? Would I have the courage, even though all I would be risking is social censure rather than persecution as a witch myself? I wonder if attendees ever choose to speak out in this way. It’s hard to stand up to a crowd and to authority figures, as Stanley Milgram demonstrated. The only temptation I feel to be an attendee is the chance to test myself by standing up against a crowd to speak for reason and civilization.