Film and TV

How Pop Culture Witches Fail Real Witch Hunt Victims

Also, Salem is kind of becoming a theme park, which is pretty gross when you think about it.
Also, Salem is kind of becoming a theme park, which is pretty gross when you think about it. Photo by Christine Zenino/Flickr
I’ve been consuming a lot of books and TV shows about witches lately, and one thing always sticks in my craw. These stories love to portray the victims of witch hunts in America and Europe as actual magical beings who were persecuted. This is insulting to the real world victims and a dangerous obfuscation of how witch hunts operate.

The idea that persecuted people have superpowers has always been irresponsibly wrong-minded. Take the X-Men, comic fandom’s most famous persecuted superheroes and villains. Modern witch media borrows a lot from the X-Men, usually substituting genetics for magic but hanging onto the idea that characters develop a singular power around puberty. As someone who grew up on X-Men: The Animated Series, there’s no doubt that Storm and Jubilee helped me get a grip on the concept of institutional bigotry.

However, the idea that marginalized people have extrahuman abilities is very, very common among hate groups. Almost all anti-Semitic literature makes Jews sound like supervillains. LGBT people, BIPOC, and other minority religious groups get the same treatment. Ascribing power to these groups is one way that fascists justify violence as a pre-emptive strike.

Pretending that accused witches were powerful beings feeds back into a century of Illuminati bullshit. Recasting the witch hunts as a superhero origin story, in a way, makes the people who committed the atrocities of the hunts look more reasonable. That is a bloody terrifying idea.

Especially because witches were not hunted. The idea that people killed in the witch hunts were magical healers or Earth Mother adherents is modern neo-pagan nonsense. It’s the sort of thing lots of the occult religions birthed in the 20th Century lied about to make themselves look cooler. There’s a reason you catch some many of them borrowing gods from Greek and Egyptian mythology. It’s fan art as religion.

Even the idea that midwives were targeted is not supported by historical data. The infamous Malleus Maleficarum, where the idea arose, was basically a shitpost by a medieval incel who accused women who aroused him of being in league with the devil. It was not endorsed by the Church and was actively suppressed by the Inquisition for being blasphemous.

In practice, it was a meme for misogynistic grifters to extort money from communities by turning them on women no one liked. There are a few famous historical cases of midwives being persecuted as witches, but there were so many other aspects to the accusations that merely being a midwife clearly wasn’t the driving factor.

Yes, there were pagan beliefs all over Europe and America during the hunts, but that didn’t make the people persecuted part of an ancient witch tradition. At a time when medicine was leeches and knives, most people would try herbs and not-quite-orthodox prayers to help a loved one. It’s not like communities would sit around with a thumb up their butt while someone was pooping themselves to death until the cunning woman from the woods came in with magic bark tea. Medicine was a shared knowledge. It would have to be at a time when the vast majority of the population was illiterate.

The people who were generally targeted were those the community had a problem with. Lots of beggars, disabled people, argumentative women, women that had property some man wanted, and we have to assume a lot of LGBT people. Witch scares almost always started with community squabbles and petty bickering. These were flamed by witch hunters and propagandists, who often made considerable money charging the accused for their own torture.

Almost to a person, those targeted would invoke Christ under torture or on their way to be executed. People who happily claimed to be actual witches were rare. In most cases, their stories were ridiculous. We’re not talking naked dances around the Beltane fires. More often it was getting sodomized by a giant black man-goat after flying through the air because you smeared magic grease on yourself. That’s not witchcraft; it’s mental illness.

Real people died in the witch hunts, thousands of them. If we include those persecuted as werewolves, it’s well over 100,000. None of the people were hunted because they had supernatural abilities or even a minority pagan religion the Church wanted stamped out.

Instead, they were tortured and murdered for a variety of banal reasons and because they were vulnerable. By constantly portraying them as actual magicians, we spit on the real victims' graves and forget what we can learn from history. I’m all for witches in fiction, but we need to stop grafting them onto Salem and the like. It’s an insult to those who died there, and it edges far too close to bigoted conspiracy theories that are still prevalent today.
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Jef Rouner (not cis, he/him) is a contributing writer who covers politics, pop culture, social justice, video games, and online behavior. He is often a professional annoyance to the ignorant and hurtful.
Contact: Jef Rouner