Salem is having a moment. This past July, Massachusetts passed a lot that officially exonerated Elizabeth Johnson, Jr., the last person accused of being a witch. On Oct. 7, an exhibit opened at the New-York Historical Society—offering details on the real history of the Salem witch trials.
And then, of course, there’s Hocus Pocus 2. The sequel to the 1993 cult classic was Disney+’s biggest film premiere yet when it came out on Sep. 30. For the uninitiated, it features Bette Midler, Kathy Najimy, and Sarah Jessica Parker reprising their roles as 17th-century witches who find themselves in modern-day Salem.
All of this speaks to a broader public fascination with the Salem witch trials. According to Emerson Baker, author of A Storm of Witchcraft: The Salem Trials and the American Experience, 156 people were formally charged with witchcraft—mostly women. Between June and September 1692, 19 people were hanged to death for the crime, and one was pressed to death by a rock. Five more died in prison between May 1692 and May 1693. Additionally, at least 120 were imprisoned for a year or more.
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But this history is often misunderstood, much like the women who were accused of being witches were misunderstood. While people are not being put on trial for being witches in 2022, Baker sees the shadows of witch hunts in some of our modern-day paranoia—“Salem moments,” as he calls them. “Extremism, scapegoating, racism, hatred, bigotry—as long as we have that, we’re going to have some version of witch hunts,” he says.
Below, Baker outlines three of the biggest myths about the Salem witch trials.
Myth: Convicted witches were burned at the stake in the U.S.
“It was certainly true in parts of Europe,” says Baker. Joan of Arc is perhaps the most famous example of someone burned at the stake for witchcraft. But witchcraft in the U.S. colonies was treated like a felony and tried before the courts.
The people on trial tended to be people who were unconventional and stood out in the crowd in some way. “Witchcraft is really all about scapegoating,” Baker says. “It took this perfect storm of factors to create the largest witchcraft outbreak in American history.” These victims included people who spoke a little bit differently—like with an accent—were confrontational, or suffered from mental or physical challenges. All of these victims got blamed for what was perceived as a decline in religiosity in Puritan New England society.
Myth: Only women were accused of witchcraft.
While about 75% of the people accused of witchcraft were women, at least a quarter were men, according to Baker. Male friends and family of a woman accused of witchcraft would also be accused of witchcraft, and witchcraft was believed to be passed down in families, to grandchildren for instance. On top of that, any man who defended a woman accused of witchcraft could be accused of witchcraft.
Myth: The witch hunt took place in Salem.
The trials and executions took place in Salem, but the people who were accused of being witches were mostly from the surrounding area. Seventeenth-century Salem incorporated the area of about six or seven different towns and cities today, including the rural farming community of Danvers. “People are accused as far away as Boston, and there were actually more people accused in the neighboring town of Andover than anywhere else,” says Baker.
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