Chances are you haven’t watched a lot of WGN America. The obscure cable channel had its fair share of great shows—but like a lot of networks in this Peak TV era, it mostly fell under the radar until they decided to shift away from scripted content in 2017. The handful of dramas they made were interesting shows, ones that took risks and carved out a unique niche in a busy market, but none of them did that with as much zeal and sheer chaotic joy like WGN's first original scripted series, Salem. Over three seasons, this historical paranormal horror created a heightened sort of madness, taking the oft-told stories of the Salem Witch Trials and turning it into a hallucinogenic tale of paranoia, hypocrisy and the power of women. Imagine The Crucible as directed by David Lynch after he watched a bunch of Italian horror movies.
How weird does this show get? There’s a scene where a nude woman pulls a toad from the throat of her husband and feeds it from a nipple on her thigh. That happens in the first episode!
Like any good sexed-up historical drama, Salem uses the truth sparingly and plays around with the witch trials to create something that's less documentary and more fable. Actual figures from the era are characters in the show—Mary Walcott, one of the "afflicted girls" from the trials, is the protagonist—but they’re cut from a different cloth to history. The first season centers on Mary (the excellent Janet Montgomery), a woman who gave herself—and her unborn child—to the Devil, and seeks to use that power to wreak revenge on the Puritans who have poisoned Salem with their ceaseless witch-hunts. Of course, in this instance, there are actual witches plotting in the town, but here they plan to use the paranoia of the Puritans to turn everyone in the town against one another until only they are left standing. Matters are made more complicated by the return of Mary's former lover, John Alden (Shane West).
This isn’t the first time we’ve seen a reimagining of Salem where witches are real, but it is the most interesting version of that idea. Where it particularly excels is in creating a situation where it is entirely understandable as to why women would give themselves over to witchcraft. This Salem is one, like its historical origins, where nobody is safe from the possibility of accusation. Old men dictate the rules, and those who show the slightest opposition to them risk being paraded through the town as a witch (one scene, where this happens to a clearly ill young woman, is especially distressing). Even without the witch hunts, Salem is a smothering place to live—particularly for its women, who are expected to keep quiet and do as they’re told. Basic femininity is coded as witch-like—the town’s midwife is a frequent target for suspicion solely because of her occupation—and viewers are treated to an insight of how this world affects women’s wellbeing. It’s no wonder that witchcraft proves so enticing to many who encounter it. When your options are brutal sex work, loveless marriages or being burned at the stake, wouldn’t you go for orgies with Satan?
It’s a tough line to tread as a concept: how do you make the Puritans such hypocritical scolds when they’re technically right about there being witches out to destroy everyone? It takes a little while for Salem to get the ball rolling on that front, but what it does strongly establish is the moral murkiness of that central quandary. Yes, the Puritans are right, but it doesn’t excuse the way they treat women, and that callousness is what breeds such hostility in the first place.
While there are interesting men in the show—it’s so good to see Shane West on screen in the platonic ideal of the “pretty long-haired historical hero” trope—Salem is all about the women. History is flipped on its back and the narrative of the witch trials is reclaimed in favor of those who suffered the most under its frightful reign. Salem is as much a women’s revenge fantasy as it is a horror or drama. At times it’s even like a soap opera, delightfully languishing in the inter-personal dramas of love, sex and toads amidst the supernatural plotting. Women gather throughout the show and their interactions make for some of the tightest drama throughout three seasons. For those who may have been put off by the “sexy witches” marketing of the series, rest assured that, as sexy as the show is, women’s ideas and bodies are handled with care.
Salem is a seriously fascinating show, one that surprises at every turn, but it’s also unabashedly silly. Even if you overlook the toad suckling, you can’t deny the barmy joys of a guy having his penis cut off and turning it into a bird. Don’t be deceived by the show’s prestige aesthetics. As beautifully detailed as the sets and costumes are, this is all a step away from being a drug trip and that’s what makes it so exciting. Salem makes its own rules, breaks them and then makes new ones as it goes. So many historical dramas toe the line of twee and respectful, but Salem is proud of its brashness and is completely self-aware of its thoroughly modern silliness. Why else would the theme music be a Marilyn Manson song?
Salem was cancelled after three seasons, but it wraps up in a satisfying manner, so don’t worry about getting invested then being burned by the climax. It’s a disappointment that this show slid by the wayside during its run, but it wholeheartedly deserves to experience a second life as it’s discovered by those who didn’t know it was what they’ve always wanted. Witches remain one of the most alluring figures in folklore and pop culture, and Salem is a show that gives them the mind-bending genre rewrite they sorely deserved.
Salem is currently available to watch on Netflix.