BY DR. AGONSON
Disregarding the moral question of the Salem Witch Trials, I wish to explore the elements of horror present, to dissect the event on the level of narrative, thereby uncovering those parts which may be used in the art of scary storytelling. True horror is not to be understood as a medium assaulting our nerves with many sudden frights, rather a lingering chill carried onward with us when returned to the comfort of home. Once there we find no comfort, only dark moments, only long walks, of pregnant contemplation. The following essay contends that true horror is found in the text, The Wonders of the Invisible World by Cotton Mather, by its incorporating certain elements: 1) When that which is familiar becomes alien; 2) The uncertainty of what then remains familiar; 3) The certainty that a response is necessary; 4) The right response—the place where reason or intuition leads—is permanent, dreadful, and the seeding of much regret or repentance; and 5) That lingering uncanny. Mather, for his part, seems to be aware of this entertainment value, and these elements, found in his work, facilitated wonder.
Before jumping into the fray, let the following terms be defined. The concept of true horror will refer to any medium which transmits—intentionally or otherwise—a certain disturbing effect upon its audience. This effect I have described as a lingering, a term taken from the video essay Horror That Lingers – How the Uncanny Instills Fear by the YouTube channel Extra Credits. The familiar and the alien are diametric terms used to characterize the shift by which an ordinary part of life, the familiar, becomes something uncanny. The uncanny describes, like the term lingering, a disturbing affect, but the object of this is not the whole medium in question, simply an element of it. Also to be understood, this is not a paper based on a full reading of Mather’s The Wonders of the Invisible World, but sourced primarily in the text represented within the ninth edition of the Norton Anthology: American Literature where one may read of the trial of the woman Martha Carrier. So, in the words of Mather, “. . . I shall no longer detain my reader from his expected entertainment. . .” (Levine 324).
Mather himself, “. . . counteract[ing] the mounting criticism . . .” (Craker 335) of the trials, was not present for the proceedings, citing instead the testimonies of others regarding the accused. This sets the tone as reflective; we are looking back at what was done, willing to shed tears with the bereaved, those still living relatives of the condemned. However, Mather’s readers should be characterized. He is speaking to people, which like himself, who are living the same lives, the same histories, as the subject matter; it is a mirror to the audience, as if to say it could be your town, your neighbor, sister, your very daughter condemned for a witch. The setting, therefore, is of the familiar, and more than that, described as the “center” of the “English settlements” (Levine 323). Yet the alien is not far behind, more so it is, chronologically, before.
The narrative opens reminding the people who they are, that they themselves have invaded what was once the Devil’s habitat, possessing the lands for Jesus. As if pulling a leg out from under a stool, Mather here takes away a key element of the familiar, readying the transformation into that which is alien. All this is as if to say to his audience that what now is familiar was once antithetical to them, and proceeding, prescribes to invisible forces the motive to ruin these New Englanders, citing the eschatological Revelation, and from it, the flood spewed forth from the dragon’s mouth (Levine 323.) The persecution by the Devil is all couched in poetic language until this invisible is instantiated; what starts as imagination—that is imagination not as fancy, but as something one can only understand within a metaphorical frame—morphs into an exact event, the trial of a witch some forty or more years prior.
Thus we can see, even before considering Carrier’s case, precursors of the uncanny. What to the audience is a familiar world is shown as something alien, but alien in the past. The Devil has vomited his flood, but they have hitherto ridden the storms, making this place a home, making it familiar. “[The people] continue to this day” (Levine 323). But Mather is not done, prescribing to this renewed devilish assault an ultimate quality. It is greater than those before, and once overcome, will prove to have been the darkness before the dawn. But what is it that is to be overcome?
Mather describes a plot, confessed to by an unnamed and murderous witch, a plot fiendish in nature, a conspiracy to “pull down all the churches of the country” (Levine 323). What is understood is that witches have been at work to undermine the advancements of Christianity for some time. Here again, it should be noted, is a readying for the uncanny: their own history is becoming alien, and not the distant history of their forefathers. Something from within their lifetime is now described to them with an alien element, one they were protected from, suddenly threatening a reoccurrence. The past, Mather is telling his audience, is not so solid and unchanging as one may hope.
Here we have ventured into the second element of true horror, uncertainty. If the past is not what you think it is, then neither is the present or the future. All is ready to change, but into what? Mather gives two extreme possibilities. On the one hand the presence of the church may be destroyed off this land. On the other, with Mather’s use of eschatological allusions, he only just shies away from declaring something like Revelation’s Millennial Kingdom. It is all or nothing, which irrevocably leads to the third element, a call to action.
Stepping out of the narrative a moment, the second and third elements need to be understood together. Who hasn’t faced instances in life where decisions must be made, but made in uncertainty? One is sure one must decide, but unsure of the facts out of which he is making the decision. These are moments of tension which often have very little import in the grand scheme of things, however, the more important the decision and the greater the uncertainty, the higher the tension. These elements can be used outside of true horror, but without that tension we cannot move on to the more intrinsic fourth element.
Though this work is partially a defense meant “to show the carefulness in which the court had acted” (Craker 335) the fact that Mather is defending reveals the consciousness of regret. That is not to say Mather, and those who “command[ed]” (Levine 324) him to write a record were of two minds, but the enterprise is meant to answer criticism. Mather himself shows he understands the regrettable nature of the outcome, if not mourning for those executed, yet proclaiming of those bereaved, “The Lord comfort them!” (Levine 324). So, met with a crisis, utilizing what was then considered a prudent judicial-method over the affair, the actors of this narrative execute the best reason they have.
To sum up, before we have touched upon Carrier’s case, we find the path prepared for that quintessential element of horror, the lingering. The audience is reminded that the world is not so solid as they might think, they begin to wonder at yet an unseen plot—or have they seen it? What have they missed in their lives? What could be just below the surface?—and this uncertainty bears with it the dread certainty that they must act to save themselves.
Then to compound the uncertainty hitherto mentioned, Mather opens the door to the possibility that the Devil might be tricking them: Could not a devil use his powers and deceive us into sending an innocent woman to the gallows? Here, I think, at the top of page 324 in Norton, is the key passage which makes this true horror. The devil may be fooling us, Mather intimates, but we would have to suspend the belief in our own understanding. Let the concept sink in. Reason itself could fail, trusting in our “understanding” may make us murderers, the shedders of innocent blood, ill actors, the monster of this narrative.
This is said in a manner to bolster the defense, and yet I held this thought in my mind while reading Carrier’s trial. Afterwards, I was aware of it haunting and following me that day and the next, lingering on into dark musing. Mather was no fool, neither were those who believed in these witches and the methods employed in their discovery and trial. If in our modern moment we can look back and see reasonable people, working from a different set of premises, commit what’s considered one of the more tragic moments in our history, how can we be so sure of the ground we stand on? What core assumptions of ours may be stripped away some century from now, and in the growing light, what will we be revealed as? For myself, I was carried away by the narrative of the trial, in the moment ready to believe all that was said. And what do I believe now, returning to the modern narrative?
Craker, Wendel D. “Spectral Evidence, Non-Spectral Acts of Witchcraft, and Confession at Salem in 1692.” The Historical Journal, vol. 40, no. 2, 1997, pp. 331–358. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2640070.
ExtraCreditz. YouTube, YouTube, 29 Oct. 2014, www.youtube.com/watch?v=vSKtTBjSBg0
Levine, Robert S. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. 9th ed., vol. 1 5, W.W. Norton & Company, 2017.