WGN's 'Salem' Promises A Firm Hold in the Reality and Brutality of Witches


The newest addition to horror television is WGN America’s Salem. Set during the witch trials of the 1600s, Salem premiered a long-form trailer at the Television Critics Association conference. After watching the footage, I am all-in. This is not going to be a mushy modern-day witch show with ties to the Salem Witch Trials; this is not a romance that is aided by a little nose-wiggle and a sprinkle of fairy dust. This is looks brutal.

Executive producer Brannon Braga explains that in their version of the witch trials, witches themselves are doing the witch hunting, and are running the trials for reasons that will become apparent. (So I am guessing it goes deeper than witches trying to throw others off the scent.) Executive producer Adam Simon asserts that, while we will see other supernatural entities besides just witches, there will not be an “endless line of supernatural creatures.” “We want to be true to the people of the time, and the things that they believed,” he says, which seems an interesting way to present a show like this. The Salem Witch Trials did happen; there is no denying that. And while the women who were executed during that time were not witches, the belief in witchcraft was certainly a common and deep fear.

Of course, this led to some offended critics in the room. There seemed to be a pervasive sense among some of them that this was going to be an exploitative white-washing of history, ignoring the real, underlying problems of the time: religious fervor, political rhetoric, and pervasive misogyny. While these themes were certainly rampant at the time, the mass hysteria could not have gripped the colony like it had without a true fear of witchcraft. Even so, as I was leaving the conference room, I heard one (male) journalist grumble about how the producers would next blame slavery on demon possession.

Braga, Simon, and the cast defended the show strongly. "We are not endorsing, exploiting, or belittling any of the social issues that were going on at the time. This is just an alternate history,” says Braga. “A lot is derived from actual trial transcripts,” which were all well-documented.  “There won’t be vampires or werewolves. Our form of magic is more grounded in what people claimed happen at the time.”

Janet Montgomery will play the female lead Mary Sibley, a woman who is a Puritan, “but not really a Puritan,” who faces a loss of innocence when confronted by the consequences of choices she made in the past. “No one wants to see a woman on TV dealing drugs like Walter White,” Montgomery says, referring to Breaking Bad’s anti-hero, and how her character will be unlike any female character on television. “Mary does some really horrific things,” she confides, while Braga suggests that “Mary is both the hero and the villain.” “She is a woman in trouble who is causing trouble.”

Seth Gabel plays Cotton Mather, the man who historically is seen as the driving influence behind the real witch trials. “The show is so dynamic; nothing is distinctly good or evil,” he explains. “My character is charged with heading the witch hunt. I am a scientist, a theologian, but I am a hypocrite - I go to brothels at night (and quite enjoy myself) then go to church the next day. Every character has something good in them, but also has something to hide.”

Perhaps the most amazing part of what we saw in the seven-minute trailer was, well, Salem, as it looked in 1692. Braga explains that they had to build Salem. “This was not a period where we could easily rent sets or costumes. We had to find a huge parcel of land where we could build Salem.” They found that land in Shreveport, Louisiana, and built up a functional town with real buildings. “We could live there,” Montgomery remarks, while Gabel adds that “75% of the show is lit with real fire.” 

Salem marks WGN America’s first entry into original scripted programming. It will air Sunday nights beginning April 20th.