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The Past Comes Back to Haunt Us in The Witches

5 minute read

Even today, haunted hordes descend on Salem. The Massachusetts city draws a quarter-million tourists each October with its Devil’s Chase fun run, magic shows, booze cruises, séances, parades and the Official Salem Witches’ Halloween Ball. All that fun, of course, comes at a somewhat forgotten cost: the lives that ended during the 1692 witch trials. And as Stacy Schiff demonstrates in her new work of history, The Witches: Salem, 1692, we still know frighteningly little about that strange, terrifying year.

The hallmark of a great scary story is that it gets scarier the longer you sit with it. Come home from the bonfire, climb into your warm bed, remind yourself that the hitchhiker with the hook isn’t real–but suddenly the branch scraping on the windowpane becomes something altogether more sinister.

Salem, in Schiff’s telling, has that power. In the Massachusetts woods, a Puritan village is afflicted by the devil. His guilty consorts–mostly women–live among the innocent, as their neighbors and relatives. The village, with the help of the most learned men of the colony, sets out to find them. The witches are fearsome, but the witch trials become more so. Those who profess innocence are sent to death, unable to prove that they are not guilty of a crime that was itself beyond proof. “Witchcraft inscribed a vicious circle,” Schiff writes, “its allegation generating witchlike behavior.” The year passes, 19 people are executed, and the mist clears as suddenly as it settled.

The Witches is a closely researched tick-tock of the trials. It’s no Crucible, privileging metaphor over truth, but it won’t substantially change your idea of what happened. What it adds is detail–like the sheriff who seizes estates of the accused even before their convictions–and depth.

Schiff, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2000 for Vera, her biography of Vladimir Nabokov’s wife, and made the best-seller list in 2010 with Cleopatra: A Life, is skilled at turning centuries-old documents into a visceral universe. Salem was surrounded by a frightening wilderness, and where the wilderness stopped, the familiar wasn’t much better. The village was a hotbed of property disputes, religious differences and family feuds. Life veered between drudgery, prayer and terror. The Puritan belief system also left Salemites unlikely to chalk anything up to chance, which made them seek a guilty party for every happening, which is a scary thought in itself. The residents of Salem were wrong about a lot–and by the end of 1692, many of them knew it–but they weren’t faking their fear of what lurked in the dark.

The obvious question here is Why? Why did the accusers start down this path, and so quickly, and why did anyone believe them? That’s what readers want to hear, and the possible answers Schiff uncovers are intriguing: political upheaval, social imbalances, psychological disorders, even fairy tales. But while she occasionally leans on the crutch of suggesting that a revelation is forthcoming, she also knows that she can’t fully resolve the question. Though Massachusetts Puritans were usually reliable record keepers, many chose to omit or expunge this saga.

Schiff introduces the text with several pages of dramatis personae and a quote from Chekhov, and the trials present a beginning-middle-end arc, but the drama here doesn’t take a traditional narrative structure. There’s no real climax or denouement. Unlike Cleopatra, this work must also struggle with the formidable hurdle of having several compelling characters–bewitched tweenagers, stubborn justices, the omnipresent Cotton Mather–but no protagonist. As a result, the experience can become less like a scary movie than a haunted house: one fright follows another, and they can easily blur together.

It’s when you abandon the Why? that other questions begin to bubble. What do their contracts with the devil tell us about 17th century girls who’d sell their souls for help with chores? What do the trials say about the path and wake of rumor? And, while Schiff leaves it mostly unsaid, how could we stop a version of this hysteria from happening again?

By the time the last witch hanged, Salem’s upheaval was more than spectral. Fortunes were squandered. Children were orphaned. Even the church was hit, as many residents were forced to re-examine the beliefs that had led them so far astray. The village was dazed and preferred to forget, and centuries passed without the true causes of the episode revealing themselves. Centuries more will likely pass the same way; if Schiff can’t nail down a final answer, it seems unlikely anyone will. Maybe that’s because there isn’t one.

That’s why the witch hunt has endured as a scary story. If we can’t say how it started, it can’t teach us how to prevent its modern incarnations–and that’s enough to make anyone shiver.

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Write to Lily Rothman at lily.rothman@time.com