Of all the animals of prey, man is the only sociable one.
Every one of us preys upon his neighbour, and yet we herd together.
The Beggar's Opera: John Gay

Saturday 23 September 2023

‘All of Them Witches’

It’s probably a good thing I never went into business on a grand scale as, yet again, I appear to have been overestimating the intelligence of the American public.

A K Hart’s recent thought-provoking post on the resurgence of myths in modern society touches on a theme which has made several appearances here in the past few weeks: 

Myths facilitate mass assimilation where technical explanations do not. Myths provide simpler and more widely accessible ways to guard against surprises, just as belief in witchcraft did. Burn the witch and if that doesn’t work there must be another one lurking somewhere.
The parallels between today’s Western society and the witch hunts of the past are increasingly inescapable; a preoccupation with conformity to a set of puritanical standards and a willingness to condemn and punish those who violate the norms imposed by fanatical believers are, sadly, with us again, this time with social media pouring oil on the flames, not least by encouraging the resurgence of the idea that, whatever goes wrong, someone, somewhere must be to blame.

Some weeks ago, I mentioned a competitor on ‘Masterchef’ who produced a witch-themed dish, inspired by an American movie, to ‘take the judges back to seventeenth-century Salem’. At the time, it baffled me since it was surely common knowledge that there were no witches there; just a group of unfortunate townsfolk (including a four-year-old child) who, for a number of reasons, found themselves falsely accused by a group of young girls supported by fervent religious fanatics.

As anyone who has experience in dealing with teenage girls en masse could tell you, it is highly plausible that a mixture of mass hysteria, religious indoctrination and groupthink led to this terrible situation, particularly if some of those concerned had eaten rye bread contaminated with ergot, now known to cause convulsions, itching, parathesia and psychosis. Add in the petty disputes and prejudices of a small town and potential for settling old scores and you have a situation where the false accusations would be readily accepted by the authorities.

It would appear, however, that such a rational approach is beyond many; while researching a previous post, I read that a substantial proportion of the million or so tourists who visit Salem every year apparently come for the ‘spooky’ atmosphere and the association with ‘real’ witches. Thanks mainly to film and television - not to mention Young Adult fiction - people are flocking to ‘Witch City’* and they are unlikely to be disappointed; the town is bursting with witch-themed attractions and entertainments. 

It would be tempting to regard this as merely a celebration of fiction - much like the hordes of Goths who descend on Whitby in tribute to Bram Stoker’s most famous novel -  but these tourists are visiting the scene of real-life events; to embrace the witch narrative is, subconsciously, to endorse the activities of those responsible for the trials and executions, a worrying attitude in a country where, in a recent online poll, 21% of respondents claimed to believe in the existence of witchcraft and black magic.

It is, I suppose, evidence of the growing appeal of superstition described by AK Haart and a frightening indicator of the public willingness to disregard rational explanations - and, in this case, the judicial murder of twenty people and the imprisonment of many more. In a culture where student essays defend Abigail Williams in ‘The Crucible’, it’s hard not to believe that the recent shift towards equating victimhood with credibility and a growing demand that those dissenting from current orthodoxy should ‘correct their thinking’ risk creating perfect conditions for a new generation of witchfinders.



 *It is rather fitting, somehow, that they are celebrating their history-that-never-was in the wrong place; most of the trials and executions took place in Salem Village, a separate settlement, five miles away from Salem Town and now known as Danvers.
 


6 comments:

  1. It's all very weird isn't it? Over recent decades, many people must have been comfortable with the rise of a secular culture without ever thinking that in their rational terms it could go backwards. I was one of them.

    As a simple example, a quick web search for healing crystals comes up with lots of places selling them. Buyers can't all be using them to study geology or make jewellery.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. With hindsight, I suppose it was hubristic - if understandable - to assume that the Enlightenment was a one-way process.

      Delete
  2. Speaking of magic and crystals -

    https://www.msn.com/en-gb/health/fitness/kate-moss-moonbathes-to-absorb-lunar-energy-as-part-of-her-wellness-regime/ar-AA1hbyHc

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I’m stealing this from Giles Coren in The Times as it’s far too good to disappear into the ether...

      “I put all my crystals on a tray and put them outside in the garden, just charging the crystals,” Kate says in a typically relatable moment. I mean, who hasn’t grabbed their crystal ahead of a long journey, realised they’ve forgotten to charge it, shouted “f***!” because they will run out of juice by Crewe, and run around the carriage frantically asking if anyone has a moon they can use?

      Delete
  3. You can't even get away with it on cokkery shows - when James Martin did his US tour, he went to Salem and met a 'modern witch'...

    ReplyDelete
  4. Well, there’s my nomination for typo of the week!

    ReplyDelete

Moderation is on as I’m having some technical difficulties with Comments