Exploring language used to demonize outsiders at the site of America’s original satanic panic
It’s a crisp October day — Friday the 13th to be exact — and a close-knit group of young women is descending on the “Witch City.”
They’re not here for haunted houses and Hocus Pocus. These Suffolk University freshmen are seeking a link between the past and the present in Salem, Massachusetts. To learn what it means to be marginalized and vilified — and to explore the power and agency that come with reclaiming a hurtful word.
They‘ve come to unpack the term “witch.”
Freshman psychology major Ruya Caglar chose a course called Literary Witches and Wizards for her first semester in college because she knows what it feels like to be labeled:
“I’m an incredibly feminist person. I’m outgoing. The term ‘witch’ has actually been used on me. Like ‘Oh, this person is a witch; she doesn’t fit the social norms of a woman. She is a little bit out there, too much.’”
Literary Witches and Wizards is part of the Seminar for Freshmen course series offering new students unique opportunities to immerse themselves in exciting, provocative, or timely topics. Seminars enhance the college experience by encouraging students to engage in-depth with the world outside the classroom, from the wild acres of Wolf Hollow to the graveyards of Salem.
“Why are women reclaiming the term? Because it’s been used to denigrate women, and, really, it’s a term of empowerment. A witch is a feminist.”
What’s in a Word?
Using “witch” as an insult against perceived outsiders has deep roots in our cultural and literary traditions, says English Professor Elif Armbruster.
Although the modern usage is less literal than in 1692 when 20 accused witches were executed in Salem, echoes of misogyny and scapegoating remain. Armbruster designed the Literary Witches and Wizards course in response to the 2016 presidential election.
“I thought of a ‘witch’ as the ultimate ‘nasty woman.’ A woman who is vilified and penalized just for being outspoken,” says Armbruster.
“When ‘b*tch’ won’t suffice to denigrate a woman, ‘witch’ adds an element of supernatural evil that has no male equivalent.”
Readings for the class span centuries. Students study the witches who open Shakespeare’s Macbeth, read the dramatization of Salem’s Witch Trials in Arthur Miller’s Cold War allegory The Crucible, and find a magical context for discriminatory language (see: mudbloods) in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.
But to find witchcraft’s mark on modern discourse, Armbruster and her students turn to the daily news.
On the day of the class trip to Salem, Armbruster is concerned about derogatory, victim-blaming language used in news articles about Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein and the abuse of women. A few days later, director Woody Allen would tell the BBC that he feared the Weinstein situation would lead to a “witch-hunt atmosphere, a Salem atmosphere” where men worry about being wrongfully accused of harassment.
“The irony of those terms — used for centuries to marginalize women and vulnerable groups — in this context is astounding,” Armbruster says.
Nowhere is the real “Salem atmosphere” — historical reverence tinged with the macabre — more apparent than at the city’s Witch Trials Memorial. Dedicated by Nobel Laureate Elie Weisel in 1992 — the 300th anniversary of America’s most infamous witch hunt — the memorial is a contemplative space where victims’ names are inscribed in stone alongside snippets of their courtroom statements, intentionally cut short to represent the silencing of their voices.
On the day of the Suffolk students’ visit, fresh flowers left on each victim’s name highlight the resonance of this cautionary tale. Caglar is immediately drawn in.
“When I walked in there were two memorial graves that pulled me,” she says. “It was like, ‘Come to me, learn my story, understand me.’”
“You read a book, you can imagine how it is, but when you’re physically there, seeing the tombstones, seeing the places and hearing the stories right where it happened, you really understand. Fear still lives here.”
“Witchcraft was hung, in History,
But History and I
Find all the Witchcraft that we need
Around us, every Day”
At the House of the Seven Gables, students walk the ground between American history and their reading list. The colonial mansion inspired Nathaniel Hawthorne’s famous novel, which begins with a curse on a powerful man who uses witchcraft accusations to steal a poor man’s land.
“It could be that Hawthorne, a descendant of one of the Salem Witch Trials’ ‘hanging judges,’ wrote the story in part to assuage feelings of family guilt,” says Armbruster.
“One of my main goals for bringing students here today was to have this conversation about learning from this shameful history. What are we doing right now in this country that’s similar to that past? We have to watch out for that, and we have to open our minds.”
Hex the Patriarchy
Today’s visit is more about critical reading than palm reading, but studying the reality of modern-day witches means understanding a complex brew of feminist theory and spiritual practice.
English major Victoria Williams has been to Salem before, but this visit is different. She feels the heightened energy and activity of the city, she says. And when the group meets up with a self-identified witch for a historical walking tour preceded by a Wiccan blessing, she’s introduced to a new, positive interpretation of the word.
“From what I’ve learned today about witches, it’s really opened my eyes to the religious aspects of how they practice,” says Williams. “It just wasn’t something that I thought happened a lot. It’s interesting to see how many people study it and how.”
Caglar takes that sentiment a step further, noting how much the class has changed her perspective on the world.
“I’ve always named myself as a feminist, but now I’ve kind of switched to just calling myself a witch. Even on my Instagram bio it says ‘Witch for Life.’”
“It is important to remember that we all have magic inside us.”
Also on Armbruster’s agenda? Helping students find their voices — and use them. She’s heartened by the robust discussions students from diverse majors are having in class and by the friendships she sees solidifying on the trip.
Both Caglar and Williams say they’re learning from the perspectives of fellow students, like public relations major Spencer Vu, who couldn’t make the trip to Salem. Spencer is one of a handful of male students in the class and an international student from Vietnam.
“My culture is very familiar with supernatural phenomena and practices,” says Vu. “I believe in a source of magic living among us.”
Armbruster hopes to see each one of her students “tap into their own magic.”
Caglar sums up her takeaways from the course and the visit:
“The term ‘witch’ just recently became empowering. We don’t get oppressed by this. This is something we’re proud of.”