The creators of Salem talk the origin of the American witch

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Apr 23, 2014, 11:54 AM EDT (Updated)

If your head's been buried in the sand, then you might have missed the sudden rise in TV witchcraft. Witches were part the foundation of supernatural buffets like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Vampire Diaries and, of course, Supernatural. The most recent installment of the American Horror Story anthology series, Coven, hit the mark perfectly several times, but missed painfully, too. So, where does WGN America's first original-scripted series Salem fall in what seems like the current supernatural rage?

"It's the nature of what we do," co-creator Adam Simon responded at WonderCon. "Similar images pop up out of the brew of the social unconscious of the same moment. Yes, there's a certain amount of imitation that people do of each other. 'Look, there's zombies, that's cool, let's have zombies now.' But no, there's something else that the culture generates the monsters it needs. America needs witches right now, that's why we're getting witches right now. It's something bubbling up from within. We really believe these aren't like other witches. In fact, these are the witches." Simon's co-creator Brannon Braga describes Salem as "The origin of the American witch."

The first episode of Salem premiered on Sunday night to a solid start at 1.5 million total viewers, and its harsh portrayal of a puritanical town rocked by the witch trials near the end of the 17th century set the tone for one intense and wild ride. It navigates the gray area of fiction and history, much like Vikings on the History Channel. At its core is the story of John Alder (Shane West), who left the woman (Janet Montgomery) he loved to fight the French and Indian War. When he returns seven years later, Salem has been overcome by paranoia and gets the state to sanction death penalties to those suspected of being witches. Interestingly, the woman who Alder's heart belongs to, Mary Sibley, is now a power-hungry city politician controlling the trials. Unbeknownst to Alder, Sibley is a witch herself. She employs Cotton Mather (Fringe's Seth Gabel), the town's expert on witches, alchemy and malice, who is helping to spread the hysteria. It's this historical take that allows Salem to steer away from its peers.

"On the one hand, we're going back to the events of Salem, and going back to what people actually believe in," Simon explained. "That allowed us to escape making reference to the witches you've seen in other shows, to the magic as you think you know it from a lot of other genre shows, and to make you go, wow, what were people actually accused of doing? What did that actually look like? You've got this image of a familiar, of a toad inside somebody. What is it like to actually have a toad inside you? How did it get there? And you feed a familiar? What is that like? We took all those things, and let's say they're real, so let's treat them like they're real."

"Who's to say what witches, ghouls or goblins even looked like? Because it's the 1690s," said West. "We can control that. We can get away with murder with a lot of things."

Braga, the longtime writer of multiple Star Trek series and films, as well as a co-producer on Fox's Cosmos, feels that Mary Sibley, John Alder and Cotton Mather are the triumvirate of the series. "They're the Kirk, Spock and McCoy of the show. The characters are inspired by real people, but obviously it's not the History Channel. We've taken a lot of license, but I passionately feel like our show doesn't feel like other witch shows."

"By going back to the history, that's what allowed us to do what's never been done," explained Simon. "Even the versions that we think we know, like The Crucible, are really very narrow versions. You'd never know from The Crucible that this was a much more complicated place. There were people of different colors and different types, not just Puritans. [Salem] was a bustling port town that, within a generation or two, was the richest town on Earth. You'd never know from reading The Crucible that everyone believed in witchcraft and magic. The president of Harvard himself had an alchemy lab in his basement." Braga added that Isaac Newton, arguably history's greatest scientist, believed in alchemy and astrology.

"It's like there's this giant invisible wall in history," Simon continued. "Before that, everyone believes in the supernatural, and afterward we're more or less on the road to reason. Salem takes place on that barricade, in the moment, and the decade that this is mixing."

Even though they're newcomers in the original programming, WGN America is aiming high and pushing the limits of content, language, violence and sex. Braga explained that the dark tone of the show is purposely designed to show the brutality of that time and to put the audience under a specific mindset of the fearful place that Salem was at that time.

When he arrived on the set, West was worried if the pilot script would be shot as it was written or punches would be pulled, but Simon assures those concerned that they've yet to find a scene they needed to change. Braga admitted that they've been assigned a censor who often calls with a nervous tone, but WGN America is challenging them to take things further dramatically. "What's fun about the genre, the scares, the glimpses of nudity, or whatever we can get away with on basic cable -- clearly, we got away with a lot -- is being done to further the storyline. To me, it's all done in an appropriate way."

West, a self-proclaimed horror geek, said they are being creative with the show, and its "historical" reference point. "There's some cool references to, believe it or not, films made in the 1980s that now technically stole from us, because we're in the 1690s. We're having fun with it, and we have leeway to it as long as it stays pure."

"In a time of paranoia, there's a lot of elements you can play with. We could go to just the physicality of certain things like the first type of flashlight or bathtub. We try to be as accurate as we can [with said objects]. Cotton Mather is almost the scientist of our town, so we play a little with him potentially creating these things. Did that happen in reality? Probably not, but it's something we can mess with."

"The horror on the show is more David Cronenberg or David Lynch rather than the Harry Potter vibe," described Braga. "It's rooted in nature, and maybe it could be real. It's kind of repulsive in a weird, unique way. A lot of it came from these transcripts of the trials, which were meticulously detailed. The imagery in there is some of the weirdest stuff I've ever heard of. What these people imagined went on was weirder than anything I've seen in any horror movie."

"We've got to remember that this takes place in a world where everyone believed in magic," added Simon. "Even those people who are vaguely skeptical about whether there are witches living amongst them don't doubt they are witches. One of the funnest things about Salem is to bring to life a period of history that we don't usually take that into account. It's a completely supernatural world." "We didn't just limit ourselves to what happened in Salem. We decided to draw from this whole tradition of a 100 years or so of accusations leading up to Salem that were all over Europe, especially in England; let's find all the juiciest, most interesting things of what went on and let's put them in here -- let's bring them to life."

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