It’s the season. Here in the fast waning days of September we can already taste October and thoughts turn toward ghosties and ghoulies and their kin. Susan Fair’s American Witches: A Broomstick Tour through Four Centuries is, as any book in the nation of Salem, a mere skeleton crew of a long and feared tradition. As is true of most things in the last two years, this book takes on a poignancy that was perhaps unintentional since it was written for fun. It is a somewhat uncanny combination as it is—witch accusations often led to (and perhaps lead to, far from official eyes) someone dying. We fear witches. Fair reaches back pretty far, going even to the point of discussing those (generally women) hanged on ships on their way to America because their shipmates thought them witches.
Salem so dominates our witch consciousness that we sometimes forget these other episodes. Fair explores, along with snarky asides, many early cases outside Salem. In fact, the sad chapter in our history where hearsay became fact—one can’t help but think of “fake news”—the mass, “legal” murders carried out in Salem, is part of a larger pattern. Not surprisingly women feature as the victims in this unholy web of fear and piety. The combination is a dangerous one and otherwise rational people sanction evil rather than confront what is a mere perception of evil. Fair moves on, however, to discuss other witchcraft scenarios—the witches (fortune tellers) of New York, the murder of a “witch” in Booger Hole, West Virginia (did I mention there was snark?), and the hex murder of York, Pennsylvania. All of these represent an underlying fear that won’t go away.
This breezy tour ends near the author’s hometown outside Burkittsville, Maryland. Although it is widely known that The Blair Witch Project was fiction from start to finish, this tiny town has been beset by those who refuse to accept that reality. Such credulousness should stand as a warning to a country even capable of electing someone like Trump. We are a suggestible nation with many people incapable of independent thought. We are natural believers. At the same time we’re a people that sees no value in studying religion even as it destroys us. It’s like that embarrassing relative we never talk about. But people still come to Burkittsville nevertheless. Fair’s book was written before the election that showed who we really are. Although the writing is charming, it’s hard to laugh about the subject these days. We have forgotten Salem and all it taught us.