Posted by Varia Fedko-Blake @varia
Staff Writer at Moviepilot! [email protected]
Varia Fedko-Blake

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is finally upon us, its long-awaited release pulling its eager audiences into a never-before-seen corner of the Potterverse, delightfully brimming with spellbinding action and whimsical wizardry.

Indeed, there's no doubt about it — #JKRowling has certainly done well with her latest addition to the magical world. And yet, while the movie allows true Potterheads the opportunity to delve right back into that pensieve of #HarryPotter nostalgia, there's something about #FantasticBeasts that feels very different and very grown-up, indeed.

Ultimately, this is a new world on a new continent with new rules. And among the unfamiliar forces making it tick, here we have a 1920s Prohibition-Era society shaped by a dark historical event seldom mentioned in Rowling's original 1997 book series — The Salem Witch Trials.

Yet, how much has J.K. Rowling actually borrowed from this real traumatic event to form her magical tale?

With themes of persecution, paranoia, ignorance and segregation simmering under the surface of Newt's adventures in Fantastic Beasts, what do we actually know about one of the most defining moments in North American history? Below, familiarize yourself with what actually happened during The Salem Witch Trials at the end of the 17th century, before exploring what it means for our modern-day insecurities.

Paranoia In Colonial Massachusetts In The 1690s

Our own history certainly hasn't been kind to the concept of witchcraft and over the centuries, scattered accounts of persecution and torture have suggested that over 100,000 poor souls have been forced to walk through Death's door for performing "the Devil's work."

Between the 14th and 17th centuries in particular, men and women of both high and low status wholeheartedly believed in the hostile activities of witches, a malevolent "other" — in 1602, these fears reached fever pitch when Lord Chief Justice Anderson sat down with six earls to draft the Witchcraft Act of 1603, concluding that:

"The land is full of witches… they abound in all places."

Witch burning | WikiCommons
Witch burning | WikiCommons

With witch-hunts becoming a common occurrence in Europe and the Americas, thousands received the death penalty by being hanged and or burned at the stake. With regards to the demographics of those accused, 80% were women as they were considered to be the weaker sex, particularly vulnerable to diabolical influences. At the height of hysteria, husbands were implicating wives, children their mothers and siblings each other. The poor and elderly became particularly easy targets.

Yet, perhaps of all the witch trials sweeping the world, the most famous began in a small Puritan colony in America, during the spring of 1692 — the trauma of which continues to be felt today.

'If Any Man Or Woman Be A Witch, They Shall Be Put To Death'

It all started when a group of young girls began to suffer from uncontrollable fits and body contortions in Salem Village, Massachusetts. Although it was later found that their ailments may have been a result of epilepsy, mental illness or disease from eating fungus-infected rye bread, the local doctor suggested that their behavior was a result of witchcraft. Consequently, a wave of hysteria spread like wildfire throughout colonial Massachusetts, where a special court convened to hear the cases and to banish this multiplying evil following a 1641 Massachussetts law stating:

"If any man or woman be a witch, that is, has or consults with a familiar spirit, they shall be put to death."

Cultural depictions of the Salem witch trials | WikiCommons
Cultural depictions of the Salem witch trials | WikiCommons

Yet, over the following weeks, more and more women showed symptoms of possession, leading to three local women being accused of witchcraft — a Caribbean slave named Tituba, a homeless beggar and an impoverished old lady. Terrified of being branded a bearers of dark magic and fearful of their execution, the social outcasts pointed out other "witches" in the community in efforts to shift blame. Tituba also confessed, while describing images of black dogs, red cats and a man who wanted her to sign his "document." She is oft quoted as saying:

"The Devil came to me and bid me serve him."

The first convicted woman was called Bridget Bishop, who was hanged that June at the gallows in Salem for bewitching five young women on April 19, 1692. According to several people, a figure resembling Bridget would pinch, choke and bite them and even force them to sign a pact with the Devil.

By May 1693, following the arrest of a well-respected woman in the area, a local governor prohibited further arrests, dissolving the special court and calling for spectral evidence to be used in court to be invalid. The remaining men and women in jail were also pardoned and in 1702, the trials were declared to have been unlawful — in 1957, the state of Massachusetts formally apologized for the Salem Witch Trials and finally, the horror was over.

Yet, in this short period of time, over 200 people were accused of being a witch and 20 were brutally murdered at the height of Salem hysteria.

The Salem Trials And Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them

Newt Scamander and Tina Goldstein | Warner Bros.
Newt Scamander and Tina Goldstein | Warner Bros.

Fast forward a few centuries and with Fantastic Beasts bursting onto our screens, the paranoia of the real events that broke apart society in the 1690s appears to be creeping back to the surface. Although Rowling's Harry Potter world had highlighted the divisions between the wizarding and Muggle communities, the new franchise cranks the simmering fear and mistrust between the magical and non-magical communities up a notch.

'International wizard hunt intensifies' | Warner Bros.
'International wizard hunt intensifies' | Warner Bros.

Despite the fact the Salem Witch Trials appear to us (Muggles/No-Majs) as a single tragedy amongst many in North America's bloody past, we learn that persecution is still ingrained into every detail of the wizarding world — in fact, in Fantastic Beasts, it is in every newspaper headline, on leaflets scattered on street corners and sprinkled in with the dialogue.

Ultimately, we learn that the Salem Witch Trials were such a defining moment for magical-folk in North America that they led to the creation of the The Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA). And even here in 1926, at the headquarters of the authority that makes the magical society tick, the aftershocks of the witch-hunts are still being felt — we need not look past the bronze sculptures in the middle of the vast space paying homage to those who lost their lives to see this.

The Salem memorial, found in the lobby of MACUSA | Pottermore
The Salem memorial, found in the lobby of MACUSA | Pottermore

Moreover, while the memorial is a throwback to the Salem tragedy, scenes showing Mary Lou Barebone chanting anti-magic mantras at the helm of a new group called the New Salem Philanthropic Society suggests that while reminders of the witch trials may be uncomfortable, the threat is once again imminent.

But who are these "Second Salemers" in Fantastic Beasts and why are they convinced that witches and wizards should be obliterated?

See more:

A Society Caught In The Jaws Of Paranoia

Mary Barebone | Warner Bros.
Mary Barebone | Warner Bros.

To figure this out, we need to go back into the depths of wizarding lore.

According to J. K. Rowling's writings on Pottermore, life for the wizarding folk was tough in the 17th century, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of witches and wizards, as well as wrongly accused No-Majs. With the country swamped with paranoia and fear-mongering, the environment became so hostile that many retreated from North America, choosing to go back to Europe.

Yet for those who stayed, in 1790, the enacting of the "Rappaport's Law" saw strict regulations put in place that forbade witches and wizards from marrying No-Majs, driving the magic community further underground. As miscommunication and ignorance increased, hostility towards the "other" did too, and with no official authority to defend the rights of the wizarding community, ruthless mercenaries called "Scourers" initiated their own Salem Witch Trials. Pottermore describes them as such:

"An unscrupulous band of wizarding mercenaries of many foreign nationalities, who formed a much-feared and brutal taskforce committed to hunting down not only known criminals, but anyone who might be worth some gold. As time went on, the Scourers became increasingly corrupt. Far away from the jurisdiction of their native magical governments, many indulged a love of authority and cruelty unjustified by their mission."

Fast forward to the 1920s and we have the "Second Salemers," the non-magical witch hunters that wish to further segregate the two communities and who certainly aren't averse to teaching young children songs about flogging, burning and killing those that they consider undesirable. As proven time and time again, history loves to come full-circle.

The On-Going 'Need To Blame And Segregate'

Credence Barebone | Warner Bros.
Credence Barebone | Warner Bros.

Although the Salem Witch Trials are far behind us, Fantastic Beasts certainly deserves a pat on the back for pushing the ever-pressing issues of xenophobia and intolerance into the spotlight. Ultimately, the movie reiterates once again what can happen when racial prejudice and the abuse of power rears its ugly head — issues that draw clear parallels between the 1920s drama and our own hateful, political climate current making headlines all over the world.

At the end of the day, a very politically aware J.K. Rowling has no qualms about exposing this seething suspicion of the "other" by shoving it into the focal point of Newt Scamander's action-packed efforts to find his escaped beasts. Actress Alison Sudol put all of the above quite succinctly in an interview, saying:

"There are a few really beautiful and pertinent messages in the film ... There is this fear of the other, this fear of what we don't understand, a need to blame and segregate. And how hate can grow into something that is just overpowering because of that."

Indeed, Fantastic Beasts shows that there will always be someone to point the finger at, and this is why David Yates thinks that it may be the most unexpectedly relevant addition to the Potterverse to date:

“Things are happening now that are extreme and extraordinary in some way, and to not reflect that or to explore those things seems to be a missed opportunity, especially as our film is going to reach so many people."

Did you rate the political message in Fantastic Beasts?

(Sources: Reuters, New York Times)