“Are You a Good Witch, or a Bad Witch?”

Harry: So light a fire!

Hermione: Yes... of course... but there's no wood!


From: Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone

Witchcraft. It is one of America’s long, dark, and not so secret obsessions. The Enlightenment worked tirelessly throughout the 18th and 19th centuries to drive a stake in the heart of what it believed to be superstitious hoobooloo, and 20th century modernity felt quite content to ignore it altogether. But like a bad case of the Oedipus Complex, what gets suppressed by day often works itself out in dreams and literature by night...during the witching hour, no doubt. To be sure, we Americans are something of a paradox: sitting upon the highest peak of the scientific revolution, we remain among the most superstitious# and religious# folks to be found in the developed world. How do we account for such a dichotomy? Perhaps we can look to collective trauma for the answer.

Psychologists tell us that it is the traumatic events in our lives which we remember most vividly and with greatest clarity. Historians and anthropologists tell us that it is those events which are traumatic for a large number of people, or over a large expanse of space, which survive the ages in one form or another as myths and legends. The arts and letters which most shaped the early - dare we say formative - period of America’s self-identification were those of New England; and perhaps nothing captured the interest of those writers more than the wild landscape in which they lived, and the Salem Witch Trials which seem even now to fit so perfectly into that setting. Both of these - the inhospitable, often brutal environment and the lynching of women accused of the darkest crime then imaginable - touched upon deeply held fears, and ought rightly to be thought of as genuinely traumatic; not merely for a few New Englanders then alive, but rather system-wide. It has seeped into our collective DNA where it remains lodged even today, a paralyzing fear, just waiting for the right environmental trigger. That this trauma inhabits the fabric of the early American psyche explains its prominence in our literature; and it is only natural that it be so. To better grasp the origin and implications of this phenomena, let us look briefly at each of these ideas in turn.

The Trauma of Place

In writing about the difficult beginnings faced by the Pilgrims, Bradford gives more than a few paragraphs to describing the harsh realities of the environment faced by those early colonists (and for our purposes here we may safely consider their experiences as broadly representative of most New England colonists). After surviving “many fierce storms” at sea in a leaky ship (59), Bradford reminds the civilized reader that:

“Being thus passed the vast ocean...they now had no friends to welcome them, nor inns to entertain or refresh their weatherbeaten bodies, no houses or much less towns to repair to, to seek for succor. [...] ...these savage barbarians, when they met with them...were readier to fill their sides full of arrows than otherwise. And for the season it was winter, and they that know the winters of that country know them to be sharp and violent, and subject to cruel and fierce storms, dangerous to travel to unknown places, much more to search an unknown coast. Besides, what could they see but a hideous and desolate wilderness, full of wild beasts and wild men? [...] ...the whole country, full of woods and thickets, represented a wild and savage hue. If they looked behind them, there was the mighty ocean which they had passed, and was now as a main bar and gulf to separate them from all the civil parts of the world.” (61)

Alone, without hope of aid or assistance, in a frozen wasteland, seeking to survive against all odds, even with people shooting at them. Life simply does not get any more traumatic than that.

If we gaze ahead into later periods of the American experience, with very few tweaks we find Bradford over and again: Jeremiah Johnson and the tales of the mountain men, Lewis and Clark, the Oregon Trail - each reiterating an encounter with the same fantastic trauma; and then having overcome it, wearing it as a badge of honor. In the 20th and 21st centuries, this environmental trauma shifts from America proper to wherever the American goes, whether “over there” as a result of our wars, or into space “the final frontier”. And just when it might seem that the environment may have become too staid for our tastes, climate change (or 2012) comes to our rescue. Now the whole world can shortly expect to deal with an environment at least as inhospitable as the one Bradford encountered nearly five centuries ago. But come what may, we Americans will weather the storm, because we’ve been successfully overcoming whatever the environment can throw at us generation after generation, since 1620.

The Trauma of Public Hysteria

Even after nearly a century of slow, but steady growth of prosperity in the New World, the wilds of the New England landscape still challenged the colonists both physically and psychologically. Cotton Mather called it “the devil’s territories” (144). It was all well and good that these Puritans saw themselves as building a city on a hill, but dislodging the devil is not for the faint of heart. One can reasonably expect the aforementioned devil to defend his territory tenaciously. Whether the devil really was or was not the operable force here is not really the point; life was being carried on as if he was. Apparently, there was much carrying on with the devil as well. Like Boston Tea Party or the shot heard round the world, the the inquest which is now famously known as the Salem Witch Trials was relatively small; its impact anything but.

In the post-Monty Python era, it is difficult to imagine with a straight face what the inquest of a witch looks like. But the folks involved were deadly serious. And this was no local matter, this concern went to the highest levels. While the 24-hour news cycle may not yet have been invented, we can have little doubt that this was the story inquiring minds wanted to know. The fact that Governor Phips did not actually have authority under the Massachusetts Bay charter to order such an inquest, not only lends drama, but also makes them essentially illegal#; only adding to the deep sense of collective embarrassment we harbor over what strikes us as such an obvious travesty of justice. Except, it seems we also cannot help but wonder whether, maybe, they really were witches after all. Mather, who so obviously tried not to be personally involved with the trial, but who nonetheless records it in a markedly intimate manner, captures it best when he writes:

“We know not, at least I know not, how far the delusions of Satan may be interwoven into some of the circumstances of the confessions, but one would think all the rules of understanding human affairs are at an end, if after so many most voluntary harmonious confessions, made by intelligent persons of all ages, in sundry towns, at several times, we must not believe the main strokes wherein those confessions all agree: especially when we have a thousand preternatural things every day before our eyes... [...] Now, by these confessions ’tis agreed that the devil has made a dreadful knot of witches in the country...” (145-6)

Admittedly we cannot really know just how “harmonious” these confessions really were. But simply put, there is just too much evidence for us to ignore the very real possibility that at least some of these ladies, whom we have already condemned to death and executed#, were in fact in league with the devil himself, in a clear and obvious effort to do God-knows-what; yet there can be no doubt that, whatever it was, it was very bad. Wow, that’s drama.

What’s more, we still think that way, by and large. A quick glance through Barnes and Nobel or the TV Guide will demonstrate our continued fascination with witches, and all that goes with it. Now, like then, we seem to exist somewhere in the grey fog residing between belief and disbelief, for the American tends towards agnosticism on the question. Our religions give us precedent and have imposed taboos, so we keep our distance. But like Mather, we see so much which cannot be explained, and each of us is just a little intrigued by the possibility that we too could command things to levitate, or become invisible, or fly on a broomstick (thankfully Hawthorne does provide the general public with a consumer protection advisory, warning us of the perils of operating such machinery at night or without proper safety features). Like an accident with injury, we Americans have been rubber-necking over the wreck at Salem since it hit the papers.

The Trauma of a Compound Predicate

What is a witch? Ambose Bierce humorously defined a witch as “(1) Any ugly and repulsive old woman, in a wicked league with the devil. (2) A beautiful and attractive young woman, in wickedness a league beyond the devil.”# (Ironically, it may be that perhaps even this humorous dichotomy captures something of the schizophrenia evidenced on this topic by both literature and popular culture.) More seriously, a witch is someone who possesses or is able to exercise power or control over the environment. The more powerful the witch, the greater the exercise of control. Indeed, many contemporary witches describe their “craft” as being in balance and harmony with the natural order.# So whether one views the witch as a benign practitioner of a harmless new age Mother Earth adoration or the work of Satan, there is a visible convergence of “witch meets nature”. The more wild the nature, the more sinister the designs of the witch, or so the New Englanders clearly believed. In Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown we get what seems to be an authentic look at this Pilgrim paranoia. Hawthorne sets the good of home (civilization) against the perils of nature (the wild). His story takes place in the “deep dusk in the forest, and the deepest in that part of it” (606). In these woods, a man loses his Faith (611). Goodman, on his improvised broomstick:

‘Ha! ha! ha!’ roared goodman Bown, when the wind laughed at him. ‘Let us hear which will laugh loudest! Think not to frighten me with your devilry! Come witch, come wizard, come Indian powow, come devil himself! and here comes goodman Brown. You may well fear him as he fear you!’ [...] On he flew, among the black pines, brandishing his staff with frenzied gestures, now giving vent to an inspiration of horrid blasphemies... {...] The verse [of the choir] died heavily away, and was lengthened by a chorus, not of human voices, but of all the sounds of the benighted wilderness, pealing in awful harmony together. (611)

Witches are in the wilderness, because these are the rough and wild lands which are the devil’s territories, and those who would seek power over them must first attend there to its lord and pay rightful homage to its master. Hawthorne captures this trauma in story - a myth, if you will - where the particular facts are less important than the truth it conveys. It fills in the silence which surrounds the matter.

Indeed, nothing fuels a youtube conspiracy theory more thouroughly than the absence of information. Young Goodman Brown reminds us that what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. Having pushed the emergency eject button, Goodman has safely parachuted his way out of the plane, but his experiences in the war prevent him from returning to civilian life, because no one will acknowledge the war. It’s a conspiracy of silence for Goodman. Who all is in on this? the Masons? FEMA? the Pope? Mather doesn’t know. Goodman doesn’t know. ConspiracyMan532 definitely doesn’t know. These witches, are they real? Is their power real? Who are they? Is it Harry and Buffy, or Eastwick and Endor? And, more secretly, who do I call to join? Mather took a look around him and concluded that some of these ladies just had to be witches in the same way that ConspiracyMan532 looks at countless videos about Roswell and all those underground bunkers and the antenna in Antarctica and concludes that the government just has to be up to something diabolical. Neither Mather nor CM532, I do not think, have drawn their conclusions on the basis of air tight, irrefutable evidence...but then, the devil does have a few things in common with the government: they both operate in the shadows, and neither one is in the habit of telling the whole truth; and in doing so, or more accurately, not doing so, each leaves plenty of room for (mis)interpretation.

The Trauma of Endings

Further, I find that this fascination has born itself out in my own experience as well. For example, one night, while camping in rural New England, I myself was awakened by what sounded like a rushing stream of wind. I stumbled from my cabin, alone, standing in a grove of tall pine trees, their boughs soaring well over a hundred feet into the air. A lone light from the bath house cast a pale glow, presenting the scene in shadowed relief. My orientation was off, not quite right, because it was as if the entire forest were sailing, passing the rest of time and space, the wind whipping at my collar, leaving me with a sense both of exhilaration and dread - I was sure that evil was abounding, and what a rush. So traumatic was the experience, that I can still clearly feel unseen branches reaching to grab me, to draw me in. I sense that if I could have a conversation with those trees today, they would remember me; but like Goodman’s neighbors, would doubtless remain silent, mocking. But I know what I saw, what I felt. And in that moment of personal experience, I passed my own judgment on the Salem jurors: not guilty. Those woods really are the devil’s territory; I know, because I passed him on my way to nowhere. Consequently, my question really isn’t whether there are witches, but rather, “Are you a good witch, or a bad witch?” As an American, I think I have plenty of company in this query.

What we see here, then, is communal-level trauma experienced (almost cyclically) by generations of Americans who sought, fought, and ultimately survived a physically, socially, and emotionally traumatic environment. Today, it is commonly described in terms of eat or be eaten, dog eat dog, survival of the fittest. When we see a man with his back to the wall, we understand and accept the notion of, “Well, what else could they do?” as being morally acceptable, regardless of any abhorrence we might otherwise feel. This environmentally-induced trauma helps to explain both the New Englander’s need to seek out and destroy these witches, as well as our fascination with it. The inner belief in the supernatural permits the human spirit to move beyond the fight and flight, and to find peace in the present. But the supernatural not only comforts, it also explains the horrific, those parts of us which fear seizes in the night. This supernatural belief is passed down through story, and it sticks even second and third hand. Without it, the real life events no longer make sense. So we Americans experience an innate assent to the supernatural (even when it is unwanted), which has become integral to the American story and grips even the most fierce atheist when their witching hour finds them.

Blerkins is an eclectic blog of scholarly reflection and cultural commentary for folks who still believe that Western civilization has merit; and that life is far too interesting to give up on, or waste on television.
Our audience tends to be people exasperated with the world but too idealistic to give up on cultural engagement; who swim in a world seemingly devoid of truth, yet are too ethical for hedonism.


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