Essay on Salem Witch Trials Theories

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The figure of the witch comes from a long history that precedes the United States by many millennia. The witch can be traced back to the mythology of Ancient Greece in which female association with magic is almost always portrayed as destructive or threatening. Examples of this include Circe, Medea, and, most famously, Medusa. The classicist, Mary Beard, states that Medusa's severed head remains 'one of the most potent ancient symbols of male mastery over the destructive dangers that the very possibility of female power represented' (Beard, pp71). The concept of witchcraft originates from the Old Testament such as in Leviticus 17–26 also known as the Holiness Laws, which prescribes the death penalty as punishment for witchcraft. This can also be seen in Exodus 22:18, which states 'thou shalt not suffer a witch to live'. However, belief in witchcraft did not enter mainstream society until the mid-15th century when witch hysteria truly took hold in Europe. This hysteria has been attributed to the publication of the 'Malleus Maleficarum' in 1487. This treatise advocated that the crime of witchcraft should be elevated to the criminal status of heresy for which the punishment was execution, typically by being burned at the stake. As the Age of Enlightenment spread across Europe the belief in witchcraft was replaced by a staunch belief in rationality and empiricism. However, as quickly as this hysteria declined in Europe, it grew in the Puritan colonies of America. The most infamous case of the witch hysteria in the New World is the Salem witch trials that took place in the 1690s in Salem, Massachusetts. The vulnerability felt by the Puritan colonies as a result of the unfamiliar territory, the fear of attack from Natives, and the threat of disease such as the Massachusetts smallpox epidemic of 1633 contributed to the tension that was instrumental in creating an environment in which scapegoating could flourish. Puritanism is based on a specific set of theological and philosophical beliefs. One of these strands of Puritanism is the belief that the wilderness is a godless place and that God only resides within a human settlement. The wilderness was also seen as a place where whiteness had yet to arrive and it was God's will for the Puritans to settle the New World and thus bring god to a godless place. In this way, the genocide of the Native Americans becomes theological rather than political. Puritans also had a strong belief in the concept of predestination as described by the theologian John Calvin. The Puritan belief was that due to the Original Sin of Adam and Eve, all people were born as sinners and therefore were deserving of damnation but through Christ's sacrifice on the cross the elect may receive salvation. Therefore, one must live a Christian life of extreme piety and hope to be one of the chosen. These ideas, however, breed contradiction at a societal level as it becomes increasingly hard to reconcile certain ideas, for example, that of law and order with extreme theological beliefs. Furthermore, a contradiction was created in the social inferiority of women within the public sphere whilst there was a supposed spiritual equality of man and woman in marriage. Therefore, the figure of the witch emerges as an externalization of these tensions and contradictions within society. The Puritans inherit the Christian and European figure of the witch and use it in an American context in an attempt to resolve power struggles and reinforce a natural sense of power. This natural sense of power is the patriarchal hierarchy which uses the figure of the witch to control female power and sexuality.

Stories have always been used as a method of policing the ideologies of society and the story of the witch is no different. Critics such as Silvia Federici believe that the figure of the witch was a method of ostracising women who did not follow the burgeoning capitalist system. The politics of populism and fear were used to create a theological debate in which women who did not surrender to the prescribed conditions of early capitalism were accused of being in league with the devil. As well as the clear misogyny in witchcraft accusations, the class also played an important role in the accusations. The first three women to be accused of witchcraft (Tituba, Sarah Goode, and Sarah Osborne) were all social undesirables. Tituba was the first woman to be accused by Betty Parris and Abigail Williams, most likely due to her ethnic differences from the rest of the villagers as she was a West Indian slave. Tituba was the slave of Reverend Samuel Parris, who was the father and uncle of the afflicted girls. Federici describes the Salem witch trials as the 'unleashing of a campaign of terror against women, unmatched by any other persecution' (Federici, pp165). Federici argues that in the transition from feudalism to early capitalism women needed to become free domestic workers and a means of reproduction. In this way, for Federici 'the body has been for women in capitalist society what the factory has been for male waged workers: the primary ground of their exploitation and resistance' (Federici, p. 16). The fear of female sexuality and male impotence is shown in the 'Malleus Maleficarum' which states that 'when a woman thinks alone, she thinks evil.' Furthermore, 'The 'Malleus Maleficarum' alleged that witches would engage in orgies with the devil and that, in the absence of the devil, she may use her broomstick as a metaphorical or even literal dildo. Therefore, witches are socially useless in the capitalist system as they are neither partaking in reproductive intercourse nor domestic chores. This could also be another reason for the disgust at the depiction of the witch as an old crone as it brings up the concept of menopause which is another state of futility for women as they can no longer reproduce.

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In the 2015 film 'The Witch', Robert Eggers aims to create an archetypal New England Puritanical nightmare: 'If I could upload a Puritan's nightmare directly into the audience's mind's eye that would be the goal' (Vice). Eggers grew up in the region of New England in which the film is set and therefore is intimately familiar with the dilapidated farmhouses and ominously thick forests that are typical of the area. The film opens with a family being excommunicated from the Puritan commonwealth due to an unknown disagreement with its leaders and are forced to find a new home in a small farmstead surrounded by forests. The ex-communication of the family from the commonwealth offers a clear parallel with the exile of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden as they too have been exiled from the land of plenty to a life of trials and tribulations. The eldest daughter, Thomasin, is immediately set apart from the rest of the family as she is the last to leave the commonwealth and she looks back. In the film, William states 'We will conquer this wilderness. It will not consume us' but in saying this it is as though it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as the harsh elements destroy their crops and the eerie forest surrounding them seems to creep ever nearer. The wilderness also represents a specific threat to the Puritans as it was deemed a godless and uncivilized place. The environment that surrounds the family in their new home becomes almost a character in and of itself. Most notably, the forest becomes aligned with Thomasin's feminine power and the 'cavernous anatomical female body' (Russo, pp1). The exile of the family to the wilderness allows Thomasin to fulfill the role of the feminine grotesque as described by Mary Russo. Russo states that the 'grotesque body is connected to the rest of the world' (pp63) and the female is specifically associated with 'the earthly, the material' (Russo, pp1). In her ground-breaking text 'The Monstrous-Feminine', Barbara Creed states that, rather than the typical portrayal of the feminine as victims in the horror genre, all that is monstrous is a prototype of the feminine reproductive body. Creed depicts the witch as a familiar female monster; she is invariably represented as an old, ugly crone' (Creed, pp2). This offers a parallel of Bakhtin's depiction of 'the senile pregnant hag ... decaying, deformed, laughing' which he deems the epitome of the feminine grotesque. In this way, after the film when Thomasin joins the coven of witches and floats while laughing ecstatically, it suggests that she is now embodying the feminine grotesque. Furthermore, 'the grotesque becomes associated with all that is exiled to the margins of propriety and acceptability' (Routledge, pp215). The family is excommunicated from the safety of the Puritan settlement but Thomasin becomes further exiled until she is pushed to the periphery of the family. It is while she is at this periphery that Thomasin finds autonomy as when she journeys back into the woods there is now a clearing. This suggests that there is now no reason for her to fear the forest and by extension her female power. Thus, the acceptance of her place within the feminine grotesque is what finally frees Thomasin from the overbearing control of her family and patriarchal society.

The figure of the witch can be seen as a representative of the dark side of the feminine principles. One might call her the anti-mother. In Eggers' 'The Witch', the locus of the anxieties of the family is Thomasin's nascent sexuality. 'The Witch' shows the threat of coming of age and the moment the girl becomes a woman. Thomasin's uncontrolled sexuality is as much of a threat to the family unit as the witch who lurks in the forest as seen through Caleb's incestual leering at Thomasin's breast as she sleeps. The film uses several disturbing images of sexuality and motherhood such as the splattering of bloody milk which has a clear reference to menstruation, the broken egg with a dead chicken fetus, and the crow suckling at the breast of the mother. The threatening forest that is home to the witches also is reminiscent of vagina dentata. The idea of vagina dentata plays into Freudian castration anxiety which is shown both literally and symbolically in the film. When Samuel is kidnapped by the witch it is implied that she castrates him. Thus, the witch acts as a castrator as she castrates the youngest male child in the family and kills the eldest male child through sexual intercourse. Caleb encounters the witch, in the guise of a young and beautiful woman, in the forest and returns days later, naked and suffering from an unknown ailment. Caleb's seizure-like illness descends into an orgasmic moment of mock religious ecstasy in which the words of a prayer by John Winthrop are seemingly perverted due to Caleb's bewitched state: 'O my Lord, my love, how wholly delectable thou art! Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth. Thomasin acts as a metaphorical castrator of her father as she mocks him for his failures saying 'All you can do is chop wood!' William's masculinity is called into question throughout the film as he seems to be dominated by his wife, who at one point even slaps him across the face. Furthermore, it also seems as though he is being usurped by Caleb as he cannot provide for the family and the traps they set seem to only work for Caleb. The motif of chopping wood acts as proof of William's masculinity and a symbol of his masculine responsibility as the supposed provider for the family. In the end, William is gored by Black Phillip and the pile of wood he has been chopping throughout the film collapses on top of him. Thus, he is symbolically killed by his masculine pride. The film systematically removes all symbols of male dominance and threats to Thomasin's sexuality until the film's climax in which Thomasin kills her mother to finally sever all ties from her family. Thomasin is the last woman standing and is now her authority. Thomasin chooses to take ownership of her body and sell herself to the devil rather than allowing her family to sell her as her mother attempts earlier in the film. Thomasin accepts the kinship of equally liberated women and is now free from all forms of male oppression. The coven offers Thomasin the safety in numbers that was present in the commonwealth but this time with a matriarchal hierarchy that will not attempt to limit or control her feminine power. In an echoing of Adam and Eve's nakedness, Thomasin sheds her clothes as she sheds her old life. Her nakedness also highlights her acceptance and excitement at her sexuality. The last shot of the film shows Thomasin as she floats among the trees and laughs in an orgasmic state of pure liberation.

A popular theory regarding 'The Witch' is that the witch is a physical manifestation of the absolute Puritan fear of feminine power. In this way, the ideological threat of the abject becomes a corporeal reality. The witch's body is that of the haggard crone of Bakhtin's feminine grotesque and is physically repulsive to the viewer. Thus, the audience feels a sense of the Puritan abjectness toward the witch. The most popular interpretation of the abject is Julia Kristeva's interpretation which states that the abject is that which 'disturbs identity, system, order' (Kristeva, pp4). Barbara Creed catalogs several typical elements of the abject, almost all of which feature in 'The Witch': 'sexual immorality and perversion; corporeal alteration, decay, and death; human sacrifice, murder, the corpse; bodily wastes; the feminine body and incest.' (Creed, pp69). In 'Horror and the Monstrous-Feminine', Creed posits that one way in which the genre of horror uses the abject is that in horror the maternal figure is often constructed as the abject. By constructing the mother as abject it suggests that maternity is in some ways monstrous: 'We must abject the maternal, the object which has created us, to construct an identity. This means that on a subconscious level, the maternal is horrifying' (Lyons, pp169). 'The Witch' depicts maternal horror through the disturbing scene in which the grief-stricken Katherine believes that she is breastfeeding Samuel but in reality, a crow pecks at her breast. Creed also states that for Kristeva 'the mother-child relation [is] one marked by conflict' (Creed, pp72). This conflicted mother-child relationship is clearly shown in 'The Witch'. Kristeva states that this conflict comes from the child attempting to abject the mother whilst the mother refuses to let go. Conversely, in 'The Witch' it is as though Katherine seeks to abject Thomasin, as she repeatedly discusses with her husband the prospect of selling Thomasin to another family. In Puritan society, it was typical for mothers and daughters to be separated once the daughter reached adolescence as it was believed it would allow them both to grow closer to God. Since this separation does not take place Thomasin grows closer to the devil instead. Kristeva calls into question the interaction between the discourse of Christianity and the discourse of maternity as she suggests it leads to misplaced abjection. In Kristeva's interpretation of abjection, she describes the need to abject the maternal container, which she defines as the mother's body about weaning. However, as the maternal function is not separate from representations of women in Western culture this leads to women being abjected within society. 'The Witch' perverts traditional views of motherhood by portraying a dysfunctional home. Due to the family's excommunication, Katherine is 'alone and burdened by maternity in isolation' and the 'conventional institutions that supposedly 'protect' women, such as the family, fail.' (maifeminism). In this way, the story of Katherine and Thomasin acts as a warning about the types of motherhood that 'exist outside of socially (and patriarchally) defined ideals' (maifeminism). The film can be viewed as a Puritan cautionary tale in which a family is rightly punished for not following Puritan conventions as a 'woman's abjection helps to found the patriarchal symbolic order.' (Creed, pp152). As the film is set sixty years before the Salem witch trials it can be seen as a scary story told to frighten women into submission and thus creates a foundation for the fear that justifies the murder of 'witches'.

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