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The Salem Witch Trial, Still Deadly After All These Years

"Witchcraft at Salem Village", in Pioneers in the Settlement of America, Vol. 1, by William A. Crafts

"Witchcraft at Salem Village," in Pioneers in the Settlement of America, Vol. 1, by William A. Crafts


People still can’t seem to get enough of the Salem witch trials.

Since they started in 1692, the Salem witch trials have captured the popular imagination. They have been used to show why government persecutes the innocent, how the ignorant masses are manipulated or why people get caught up in hysteria.  Writers and artists still try to answer the question of what really happened. Even video games use the Salem witch trials.

One reason for the continued fascination with the Salem witch trials? A lot of people are descended from the main players.

Salem Witch Trials in Literature

salem-witch-trials-crucible-coverIn 1953, playwright Arthur Miller visited Salem, Mass., and felt like the only person who was interested in the witch trials. He got that wrong.

Since the early 19th century, the witch hysteria of 1692-93 has been interpreted in literature, art, theater, film, music, television programs, comic books and video games.

An 1820 novel Rachel Dyer by Maine writer John Neal was one of the first literary treatments of the Salem witch trials.

Well before that, the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay Colony tried to explain what caused the trial and execution of 20 alleged witches. Puritan minister Cotton Mather wrote the devil was using witchcraft to persecute the Puritan settlers. Five years after the trial,  Judge Samuel Sewall wrote a confession apologizing for his role in it.


In 1835, Nathaniel Hawthorne published a short story, Young Goodman Brown, set during the witch trials. Hawthorne’s great-great-grandfather, John Hathorne, was a judge in the trials.

In 2008, the black metal band Ceremonial Castings recorded an album called Salem 1692. Two members of the band are also direct descendants of Hathorne. And Neil Peterson, bass guitarist for the band Curious Yello, is a descendent of Alice Parker, who was hanged as a witch.

A 1993 Disney film, Hocus Pocus, starred Sarah Jessica Parker as a witch who was hanged in Salem but returned in the 20th century. Parker later found out her 10th great-grandmother, Esther Elwell, was arrested for witchcraft but never tried.

Still Deadly After All These Years

Salem’s killing spree inspired one video game, Murdered: Soul Suspect, to feature a modern serial killer motivated by the trials.

In the 1930s, horror writer H.P. Lovecraft set many of his stories in Arkham, Mass., a fictional town founded by Salem witch trial refugees. His story The Dreams in the Witch House was later adapted to a play, two novels by Graham Masterton, a cable television show and a British horror film, Curse of the Crimson Altar.

salem-witch-trials-comic-book-seriesIn his play The Crucible, Miller used the Salem witch trials as an allegory for the persecution of alleged Communists by the House Un-American Affairs Committee. Miller himself been questioned by the committee and was cited in contempt of Congress for refusing to name the names of people he thought were Communists.

The play won a Tony award in 1953 and inspired an opera in 1961, a 1957 French film Les Sorcieres de Salem and a 1996 film starring Daniel day-Lewis and Winona Ryder.

Four years after The Crucible was published, Ann Petry, the first African-American woman to publish a best-selling novel, wrote a children’s book based on the witch trials called Tituba of Salem Village.

Even Spider-Man got tangled up in the witch trials after he traveled to Salem to battle his nemesis Dr. Doom, helped by Cotton Mather.

The witch trials today are more popular than ever. Since 2000 alone, the Salem witch trials have been the subject of no fewer than 10 books, 14 rock songs, seven films, three video games and a comic book series.

Art and Tchotchkes

During the colonial revival, photographs of the houses of the trials' main players became popular reproductions. Rebecca Nurse, a respected grandmother who was hanged as a witch, lived in the house pictured below. It was used to illustrate the 1892 book, Witchcraft Illustratedby Henrietta D. Kimball.


Today, the Rebecca Nurse Homestead is a historic attraction that can be visited in the summer.


Throughout the 19th century, many artists illustrated the witch trials in paintings and in books.

"Witchcraft at Salem Village," pictured at the top of the story, is one of the most famous depictions of the Salem witch trials.

In 1890, a Salem jeweler named Daniel Low began selling souvenir sterling "Witch" spoons to tourists.


Today, the Witch City attracts wiccan gatherings, Halloween celebrants and tourists to its creepy and comical witch museums. History lovers can see the long-running playlet, Cry Innocent, or take historic walking tours describing what happened and where.

Today, tourists can buy still buy witch spoons and other affordable mementoes of the witch hysteria – such as shot glasses, refrigerator magnets, floating witch pens, Christmas tree ornaments, T-shirts, bumper stickers, tote bags and hoodies.

Photos: Rebecca Nurse house CC BY-SA 3.0, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17061487




  1. I have been to Salem a few times as a tourist & always learn something new.What happened way back then was not the first instance of mass hysteria and now we have numerous witch hunts going on all over the world.

  2. Laurel T. S. Leslie

    Rebecca Nurse was my 9th great grandmother.

  3. While Cotton Mather had a considerable influence on the trials as a minister, he was not a judge.

  4. Cotton Mather was only 28 years old at the time; the judges were colleagues of his father which made it difficult for him to criticize but he did urge caution to the magistrates in the use of “spectral evidence” — the testimony of ghosts. That was all his involvement except he did ask for a transcript of the trials and he did write about them. Instead he is blamed for them. I wish people would get their facts right. Mather’ father Increase, returned from London, was responsible for stopping the trials. (I give talks about the trials; I keep finding new facets.)

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