So last night, I was watching television with my mother, which meant, as usual, that we had flipped around with great despair until, finally, we’d become resigned to watching something ridiculous. In this case, the something ridiculous we watched was The Biography Channel’s Celebrity Ghost Stories. No, really. That’s seriously a thing. It features a number of people who are almost or once were actual celebrities describing, with great suspense, their almost or actual hauntings.
This particular episode featured a typically almost-recognizable man who was scruffy enough to be believable as an almost- or once-celebrity. Predictably, his wasn’t the most coherent story ever. He’d been staying at a friend’s friend’s house in LA, where he found a box containing tarot cards and some really creepy cassette tapes full of really, really creepy chanting. Then he had a bunch of girls over and something happened, and then something happened with a painting. I don’t know, exactly, because I wasn’t exactly paying attention. I was in the middle of this enormous paint-by-number project that required a great deal of focus. Anyway, I started half-listening when the creepy music ramped up, implying that we were about to reach the cliffhanger before a commercial break. The friend’s friend, it seems, had called because she somehow knew that he had unearthed the box with tarot cards and creepy cassette tapes. She’d called to warn him not to mess with them. “And then she said” – here, the story paused for maximum suspense and creepiness – “‘I’m a witch.’”
At that point, I wasn’t just listening. I was furious.
After the commercial break, the almost-recognizable man repeated the sentence, pausing again before saying it: “a witch.” Things in the house got worse and worse, until a demonic voice screamed “get out of here” and the man obeyed. And that, he said, was the end.
Where do I begin.
I was terrified, but it wasn’t the story that scared me. It wasn’t just the flagrant disregard for paganism, or the absurd and inflammatory equation of paganism and Satanism (not the same thing, Mr. Almost-Or-Formerly Famous. Not anywhere close). It wasn’t just the complete ignorance about witchcraft (I’m guessing that the producers, Mr. Almost-Or-Formerly Famous, and/or The Biography Channel weren’t aware of the Wiccan Rede — An it harm none, do what ye will – which, I mean, perhaps they should take a look at that? And stop with the harming?), it was the perpetuation of said ignorance, without thought. It was the off-handed carelessness with which they perpetuated misinformation about an ancient, beautiful, and terribly misunderstood system of belief.
You’re probably thinking, Emma. Come on. It was just a ghost story. Lighten up. And yes, it was just a ghost story. But I’m not sure I should lighten up. It’s the mindset behind the ghost story that’s really, truly frightening – so frightening that it’s definitely worth discussing.
When I was doing research for Maleficae, I came across countless explanations for The Burning Times, the witch trials that happened in early modern Europe between the 15th and 18th century. I read theories about ergot poisoning from central stores of grain, about movements of mass hysteria. I read about how property laws changed to allow women to inherit property, which in turn made women less dependent on men – which many men wanted stopped, so they accused women engaged in pagan practices of consorting with Satan. I read about how the Catholic Church gave midwives the power to perform baptisms so that babies who died shortly after birth wouldn’t be damned. Women began to ask questions: if they could give this sacrament, why not the rest? And the Church, the theory goes, responded with witch trials and executions.
Though the explanations differ, it all seemed to boil down to the same series of actions: one group feared or hated another, and so they turned against them. That energy built and built. People spoke out of ignorance, and that ignorance became dangerous. That ignorance led to action, which led to persecution. And the trials began.
It’s estimated that between 40,000 and 100,000 people were killed.
There’s something missing here that I think is important, and that’s another group, another set of voices. What’s missing here is the group that speaks up, the group that speaks for the persecuted, the group that says, at the very beginning, that perhaps everyone should cool off and actually talk to and understand each other. Silence, it seems, is an action in itself. Silence is acquiescence.
So yes, I probably did take the story too seriously. But isn’t that the point? What happens if you keep letting things go, telling yourself that you shouldn’t take them too seriously? What happens if those things build and build, accreting a power of their own? If silence persists, if no one says hey, wait a minute, if we continue to speak out of ignorance and ignore the fact that ignorance can become dangerous, and fast – well, that’s when the story becomes really, truly frightening. Better to risk speaking up at the beginning than standing powerlessly by the story’s terrifying end.