Witches in one form or another have been an unfailing object of both fright and fascination throughout American history. From the Salem witch trials to the Wicked Witch of the West to Sabrina—it all begs the question: what is a witch, anyway?
Chris Payson, AG18, a teaching fellow at the Experimental College, looks at that question and its vast scholarly context in American Witches, a course that builds on her Ph.D. thesis in English and American literature, which examined historical fiction set in Puritan Massachusetts. Witches, she says, are an inherently interdisciplinary subject, and students in her class explore their changing place in culture through historical texts, literature, popular culture, and law.
Witches are also older than America—think of those in Macbeth; they are part of an ancient tradition, she said. “What happens in Puritan Massachusetts is that elements of older, European traditions are incorporated into the conversation,” said Payson.
Payson, who has taught college writing courses, now divides her time between Tufts, Framingham State, and UMass-Boston. In 2016, she was a Robyn Gittleman Graduate Teaching Fellow in the Experimental College. She spoke with Tufts Now about themes related to witches that recur in American history.
Tufts Now: How did you get the idea for this course?
Chris Payson: Witches have always been part of our history, and part of what is so engaging about them is how many opportunities they offer to explore culture and society. They give us a way to think about history, religion, power, gender, race, and sexuality, and about how we continue to have conflicts about government and politics. The course gives me a chance to explore with students some of those intersections.
There have long been witch hunts—literal and figurative—in American history. Why is that?
Witch hunts are about how much power we have—or don’t have—about our position in relation to other people, and what it means to be afraid of someone. In broad strokes, a witch hunt is a desire to explain the inexplicable as the intervention of some otherworldly force—to blame the outsider.
In American history, our witch hunts build on the fungibility of what it means to be a witch. Is she a witch because someone’s cows are missing, or because you’re having a property dispute that you are not sure how to settle, or because you believe you’re on a mission from God?
And the accused women of Salem certainly don’t fit the stereotype of the cackling witch whipping up black magic in her cauldron.
Witches were already a part of Puritan theology. King James I’s Daemonologie  finds its way into theological conversations. Witch marks, for instance, historically were things like warts, bug bites, and other physical abnormalities, and it’s by these ‘teats’ that the accused would feed her ‘familiars,’ usually a small animal, with blood. In the Salem witch trials, you read about a little yellow bird flying around the meetinghouse that one of the witches allegedly suckles from a secret little spot.
So some of that belief comes into the Salem witch trials. Some of it is darkness, isolation, struggle, paranoia. Some of it is a genuine conviction that they are the new Israelites. If something is going wrong, that must mean that God is punishing them, or Satan is interfering, or God is allowing Satan to interfere, which is a punishment.
What new insights are coming forward about witches? Are your students finding new scholarship areas?
I try to think about covering the Salem lineage, but also the Afro-Caribbean-Louisiana lineage in thinking about American witchcraft and who and what we are. We’ll read Zora Neale Hurston’s anthropological writings on voodoo practices in the American South, and part of a legal case in which the city of Hialeah, Florida, tried to ban Santeria religious practices of animal sacrifice, which went all the way to the Supreme Court and was decided as a First Amendment case.
There also continue to be conflicts over the appropriate role of women in American public life, in politics and the church—that doesn’t go away. The first time I taught this course, one of my students did a paper on Latina communities reclaiming the word bruja, a derogatory term for a woman—someone who looks like a hag or a witch. Two other students did pieces about cultural appropriation in witch stories—one looked at J.K. Rowling’s story “Ilvermorny School of Witchcraft and Wizardry,” set in Massachusetts. Rowling wrote the American equivalent of Hogwarts and is interpreting North American indigenous mythology. What’s fair game? Whose traditions does this borrow from and in what ways?
Can you talk about how witches are portrayed in popular culture—there is no shortage of television shows that incorporate witches, from Samantha in Bewitched to Sabrina the Teenage Witch.
We spend one of our classes watching a trick-or-treat episode from Bewitched in which kitschy, green-skinned witches show up at the door. Sam is offended, and Darrin is trying to figure out why. This is where my students went right to an interesting point: this seems like a proxy for talking about something else. I hesitate to use the word mixed marriage, but the wife comes from witch culture and the husband doesn’t. How do you negotiate across those cultural boundaries—and what other cartoonish representations of people are there to talk about in the 1960s?
Some things that people think are funny or harmless are not. It marginalizes a community of people and it justifies violence. It can be silly and funny, but there is another layer, too. There’s a lot of that in the Wizard of Oz. In that case too, we have the contrast between the evil old spinster and precious girl-child—it goes deep fast.
What aspect of the role of witches do you find most fascinating?
I tend to be most interested in the religious dissident. I’m revising one chapter of my dissertation for publication, so I spend a lot time with Salem’s Martha Corey. More people remember her husband Giles Corey, a farmer who refused to enter a plea in the witchcraft trials and was pressed to death by rocks. Martha openly laughed at the witchcraft trails, and the records state that she repeatedly insisted that she was not a witch and that witches don’t exist.
In one document she is quoted: “If you say I am one, then I say there are none.” Put another way, “if you say I am a witch, that means there aren’t any.” She is staking her own claim in a theological debate—are witches real? She just says, no. She says, “God told the Israelites to kill witches—and we’re not the Israelites. You’re mistranslating the Bible, and I will die for it.”
Laura Ferguson can be reached at email@example.com.