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Social Panic and the Salem Witch Trials

The Salem Witch TrialsThe 1960s indicated a shift from horror films to creature feature films and the rise of science fiction. Still, there were some scary movies that laid a strong impression in the minds of the audience, such as The Exorcist. Movies like this sparked more inspiration for adult costumes for Halloween.

They say that true life is stranger than fiction. One example is the the Salem Witch Trials. Many still believe that this story is fiction, but it is true. It happened in the 1600s and was primarily motivated by dislike among the people of Salem of their new pastor, Reverend Samuel Pariss in 1689. He was given a generous contract and lived a fancy lifestyle. This went against the grain of the Puritans, who left England to get away from the Anglican Church and establish a more traditional church among themselves, with purity as their cornerstone. The Puritans defied corruption and, among other things, often believed that if something went wrong it was a punishment from God. They believed they had to appease God to regain his acceptance and blessings.

When Rev. Pariss came on board, many Puritans were angry and refused to worship in his church. This caused a split in which a second Salem Village Community was formed in 1691 to represent those who refused to pay taxes. This refusal directly affected Rev. Pariss’ lifestyle.

Rev. Pariss’ daughters, in the meantime, liked to spend their time listening to witchcraft stories from their slave, Tibuta. At the same time the family was struggling financially. Meanwhile, the girls began to behave strangely. A doctor found no illness in them and said they were bewitched. Pariss’ daughters accused three women: Tibuta, Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne.

These were convenient choices, for the accused had no way of defending themselves or fighting back. Tibuta was a slave with no rights. Good was homeless and a beggar. Osborne was old and hadn’t been to church for one year.

The village became mesmerized by the sensationalism of the event. This led to more accusations by Pariss’ daughters. Bridget Bishop, who wore all black with a red bodice was accused. The townsfolk murmured about her sexy attire. Actually, Bishop was a three-time widow.

All those accused were investigated in a way that was characteristic of the times. The women were pressed beneath heavy stones. If a woman refused to confess, more stones would be added until she could stand the pain no more and say what they wanted to hear. The sensationalism was such that much of the townsfolk already assumed that the women were guilty. More superstitious practices arose to determine the “truth” of their guilt. One was the “witch cake” made of rye meal and urine. This was fed to a dog. If the daughters of Pariss screamed in pain as the dog ate the cake, it was considered proof that the witch used parts of the cake to harm them.

And then, there was the touch test. The daughters of Pariss were blindfolded and their hands were tied. If one of those accused stood before them and the girls acted strangely, it confirmed that the accused was a witch.

After Tibuta, Osborne and Good were executed a smallpox outbreak hit the village. Again, witchcraft was blamed. Added to this was constant fear of Indian attacks. The town was filled with tension. This led to more trials, more deaths of supposed witches.

In the end, 19 innocent men and women were killed because they were believed to be witches. Fortunately, many trial documents are preserved to this day. Hopefully, we have learned our lessons from history.