Television teaches us that good witches are a great asset to any neighborhood. As for bad witches, hell hath no fury like Jessica Lange when she’s out for blood. From “Bewitched“ to “Charmed” to “American Horror Story: Coven”, numerous interpretations of witches and witchcraft have been brewed up for the small screen over the years.
Would we ever want to go back? As in, all the way back to the Puritans? As WGN America’s new series “Salem” proves, absolutely.
Premiering at 10pm Sunday, “Salem” is WGN America’s first original, and the channel is not gingerly stepping into basic cable’s scripted arena. Sinister, sexed-up and at times downright freaky, this is a show that turns any dry ideas of the Puritan era on its head and shows us a Salem that may be wound up tightly by oppressive laws and practices but, behind closed doors, really does house an occult threat that affords its participants a measure of power and pleasure, at a price.
At the center of the story are Mary Sibley (Janet Montgomery) and John Alden (Shane West), lovers torn apart by Alden’s duties as a soldier and the disapproval of Salem’s leaders. Alden heads off to fight in the French and Indian War, and returns to a greatly changed Salem, and a very different Mary.
Co-starring with West and Montgomery are Seth Gabel, Xander Berkeley and Ashley Madekwe, who plays Tituba, one of several names anyone with a passing familiarity with Salem’s real history will recognize.
That said, a historical drama this is not. Making viewers jump with fright is the main goal here, and creators Adam Simon and Brannon Braga kick off the action with the tragic case of poor Mercy Lewis (Elise Eberle), a possessed girl who becomes a pawn in Salem’s hunt to ferret out witches – and the witches’ quest to turn the townsfolk upon one another.
We recently spoke with Braga about what inspired “Salem”, and whether TV’s current spate of witch-related series is a blessing or a curse.
IMDbTV: One of the major observations that Adam made at press to tour is that the history at work in the series is fantasy, but the magic portrayed is real… How much historical fact did you use to develop this story?
Brannon Braga: We drew upon history quite liberally, both in terms of characters and events and even the magic we depict, because this time and place and these events are virtually uncharted territory dramatically. Countless books have been written about Salem, but when it comes to movies and television, there’s basically just ’The Crucible’.
These witch trials were transcribed in meticulous detail, all of them. They’re fascinating to read, what people thought was happening. A lot of the characters are based on people who really lived. We’ve altered those characters. We’ve taken the attributes historically that we wanted to use and then we change them in other ways. In certain incidents, like in the pilot, a man really was pressed to death. In fact, that is where the phrase “pressed for an answer” comes from. The Fifth Amendment… that case was pointed to by the founding fathers as the reason why we should have the right to remain silent.
…So there’s stuff in the show, even the magic – like the suckling of a toad on [a woman’s] thigh, and using it to put her husband into a coma, that’s stuff that was described in detail in the actual witch trial journals. There’s just an abundance of material that’s weirder than any of the stuff you might see in a modern-day horror movie.
IMDbTV: Those were the details that I saw that seemed incredibly period specific, but I had to wonder where you got the idea for them. You say there were so many transcripts available, but our culture’s idea of what a witch is seems to be descended from something between modern Wicca and “Bewitched”.
Braga: Yeah. …Puritans were at two with nature – famous Woody Allen line. They did not like it. They did not like the woods. They were ashamed of their bodies. They were terrified of the Indians that were slaughtering them on a daily basis. And this fear, and this oppression, manifests itself in some horrific imagery… So it’s really tantalizing, these images. Some of them we make up, but a lot of them we’re getting from the transcripts.
IMDbTV: One imagines you were developing these scripts at the same time that “American Horror Story’s” latest season was on. Did you ever check it out and see its presentation of witches?
Braga: No, I consciously avoided it. I didn’t want to – I’m a big Ryan Murphy fan. I love “American Horror Story,” and I just wanted to be careful that nothing was subconsciously absorbed. I wanted to stick to my hermetically sealed, imagined reality. But I actually did watch the show once I was deep enough into [this project]. They’re very different tonally. I was relieved to see that.
IMDbTV: Yes, they are quite different.
Braga: And I loved it, I thought it was awesome. But it’s a very different tone, I think, and I hope there won’t be too many comparisons. I think they each stand on their own.
IMDbTV: It does make me wonder, though… there’s always a time that writers and pop culture consumers look at different waves of popularity in horror and genre. People have said, “Vampires are over, now it’s all about zombies.” Now we’re seeing lots of witches – we just talked about “Coven,” and witches play a significant role on “The Originals”…Is there any concern as to whether this trend could saturate the TV landscape?
Braga: Well, when we started developing this show there weren’t a whole lot of witches around. Then all of a sudden, they flew in on their broomsticks like crazy. I can’t really say. It remind me of… I did this alien invasion show for CBS many years ago, and a whole bunch of alien invasion shows came on that year. They all didn’t do well.
IMDbTV: Are you talking about “Threshold”?
Braga: Yeah. …I think there’s much more room now on the TV landscape for multiple witch series, and I think there’s much more acceptance of genre. If you said to me, “Go pitch a period show about witches” ten years ago… No way! Most executives would have said, “People don’t like period.” So things have changed so much, and there just seems to be a hunger at the moment for these types of shows. Why, I don’t know. I’m not worried about it, because at the end of the day, like any show as you know … really it’s, do you like the characters? Do you enjoy watching it? It really shouldn’t matter, in a way, whether it’s a witch or a vampire.
IMDbTV: One of the things you also said in a previous presentation is that the central story is actually the romance. How do you maintain a balance between the romance and the supernatural in these episodes?
Braga: It seems to fit in with the time period. I think the key to it is just saying, how did people think back then? Keeping it true to the time, and knowing that we cast the roles with the right chemistry. A lot of things had to work for that romance to work. I’ve said before, it’s an old quote, that it’s Wuthering Heights meets The Exorcist.
…The balancing of horror and romance on this show is not an issue. The issue is sustaining the tension of these two characters who have no idea that they’re still in love, and they have no idea that they’re on a collision course – they’re either going to destroy each other or they’re going to run away together.
That kind of exquisite agony that these two characters are going through every week is the trickiest thing to sustain, because you kind of want to set that coin on its edge just so, and keep it from falling over the whole time, because that’s what works about it. And so far, so good.
IMDbTV: You’ve also said that the witches are not the only supernatural beings to be part of this world. How often are we going to see the other things in the woods that are threatening Salem? Are those going to be part of close-ended story each week or are we looking at arcs?
Braga: …There are close-ended aspects to each episode, for sure, and yet there are threads that will continue to run through all of them and culminate at the end of the season into hopefully something great.
You asked about other supernatural beings…you aren’t going to be seeing werewolves or anything like that. But there are terrors in the worlds that scared the citizens of Salem just as much as the witches. Like the Indians, and the French — the French and Indian War was going on. We’re going to get some tastes of that. People felt going into those woods was certain death. You were either going to be killed by an Indian, a French soldier, an animal or, in their minds, a demon. You’re going to be seeing all of that.
IMDbTV: You’ve also said that the witches are going to be the witch hunters. Can you explain that a little bit more?
Braga: Of course you’re going to find out a lot more as things go on…If you don’t say “witches are real and they’re running the trials,” that’s the hook. Saying “witches are real” isn’t quite enough. If we say that they’re running the trials, what does that mean? Why? That’s what you’ll learn as the series goes on.
IMDbTV: When you were developing this series, was there are particular piece of cinema, television or even literature that you drew upon — besides the transcripts — to inform the tone of this series?
Braga: You’re the only person who asked me that, and it’s an important question, because tone is everything, isn’t it? If there’s one style of filmmaking that I can point to, in talking with Richard Shepard , our director on the pilot, I’d say Roman Polanski, probably. Controversial figure, but still a brilliant filmmaker. I look to the directing in Rosemary’s Baby, it’s just utterly timeless and simple and really, really scary and psychological. I’d put The Exorcist up there, in terms of a raw, ominous tones. Hopefully people will be drawn to the romantic aspects of the show, but also that feeling of dread that the show can evoke. We want to scare people.
Those would be the two movies that we talked about. But a lot of stuff also is just coming from the time, because as I said, this is just so unexplored, this whole world. You read these transcripts of the witch trials and you’re just like, “Holy cow, we’ve got to use that.” I was reading one the other day – at one point, they put a pig on trial. They thought at one point that a pig was a witch and they had evidence as to why the pig was a witch!… It’s just insane, what was happening. And so a lot of this, I can’t really point to anything. It’s kind of its own weird thing.
IMDbTV: This makes me wonder, a) how did the pig testify on its own behalf? And b), did they eat the pig afterward? I’m guessing that was not part of the transcript.
Braga: (laughs) Yeah…I don’t know the answer to that.
“Salem” premieres at 10pm Sunday, April 20, on WGN America.