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by William H. Benson

September 23, 1999


     Dave Barry, the syndicated columnist, in last week’s column volunteered a rather dreary opinion of the recent and wildly successful movie–“The Blair Witch Project”.  He wrote, “Apparently SOMETHING terrifying is happening, but you can’t really tell what it is, because pretty much all you see is the ground, or total darkness.  Much of the footage near the end appears to be shot deep inside a sleeping bag.”

     Although I have not seen it yet (and probably won’t), according to Dave Barry, the three characters walk into an uninhabited forest in Maryland and with a videocamera search for the legendary Blair Witch.  The movie is seen through that videocamera tape.  All three end up killed, but because the film is so dark, it’s difficult to know precisely how.

     This week, actually the 19th of September, marks the 307th anniversary of the final executions at Salem, Massachusetts during the infamous summer of 1692.  Giles Cory was layed between two boards and then the authorities placed stones atop the top board until the sandwiched victim was crushed.  His last words were said to be, “More weight.”  His wife Martha had already previously been executed, but by hanging.

     Altogether 25 people were either crushed or marched to Witch’s Hill outside of Salem and swung from the gallows.  The first to hang was Bridget Bishop, a tavernkeeper, on June 2nd. Also there was Tituba, Sarah Gadge, Sarah Osbourne, and also Sarah Good who remained defiant to the end.  “I am no more a witch than you are a wizard,” she told the attending minister.  The authorities even rode north to Maine and arrested a former minister in the Salem village, George Burroughs, and tried, sentenced, and executed him for being a wizard.

     Who was accusing them?  The answer is adolescent girls with innocent-sounding names like Abigail Williams and Mary Warren and others who exhibited contortions and fits when stood before the supposed “witches and wizards”.  Were these girls shamming and pretending?  Some historians say, “Yes!”, but others qualify their position by pointing to the ideological atmosphere at the time in Salem.  The Devil and witches and witchcraft were commonly-held beliefs in New England, and this eruption was a logical, though not inevitable, conclusion to those beliefs.

     Whichever it was, those wrongly accused could confess and escape death, but if they did confess, they were then expected to name others.  And so the web of accusations grew thoughout that summer.  August produced six more trials and five hangings.  By September over a hundred suspected witches sat in jail.  Early in October Increase Mather called a hault to the whole thing.

     What are we to learn of the Salem experience?  Above all else we learn how powerful the “accusation” is.  Although we in the twentieth century have not yet turned full circle and allowed teenage girls to accuse their neighbors of witchcraft, it seems to me that anybody can say anything about another and somehow convince others to believe it.  In such a situation, truth spreads its mighty wings and flies right out the window.

     And it must have been a heady experience for those teenage girls.  Imagine yourself in their place.  People pay attention to you, hanging on every word.  The gears and machinery of government turn at your command.  Suddenly, (like Monica Lewinsky) you’re in the center, in the limelight, and everything is topsy-turvy and revolving around what you’re saying and what you’re doing.  You’re smiling one moment–contorting, and throwing a fit another.  What power!

    And what is it like to be on the receiving end–to be the accused?  It has to be black and dark; others have pointed out your human failings and then exacerbated them into something spectral, sinister, and tainted with evil.  In so doing, their accusation overreaches your fault.  The punishment far exceeds the human failing.  It’s like you’re deep inside a sleeping bag, and the video camera is rolling, and no one has the courage to reach down and unzip it and let you crawl out and into the light.