The Great, Ghastly Images of Salem



Built on something of a delightfully tasteless premise, WGN America’s Salem is a series of surface pleasures, a consistent parade of salacious, gruesome imagery that—whether intentionally or no—successfully recalls the ghastly thrill of horror comics from the likes of Warren, or EC. And why not? Its general conceit feels directly out of the pages of Creepy or The Haunt of Fear, where a story’s last panel would grinningly reveal there were in fact! witches in Salem. Unknown Worlds No. 18 actually contained a tale entitled “The Witch Hunter of Salem,” one which found its eponymous authority figure secretly a witch himself. 

So, it’s a relief that after breaking the barrier of ‘questionable’ with its setup, creators Brannon Braga and Adam Simon’s show doesn’t pretend it’s something it isn’t, nor does it restrain itself. Salem doesn’t wade into pulp, it revels in flesh and grue and occult lore; it gives hooved devils and weird sisters domain over dreams and the dead, as well as the ability to splatter brains right across the wall. There’s theme, sure, most about the danger and manipulations of religion on either side—especially with town preacher Cotton Mather (a fantastic Seth Gabel), whose ‘father’ issues are multifaceted. Funny enough however, Salem actually succeeds in implementing such theme better through its gory mayhem than it does when it slips into dull, expository scenario.

There’s also plenty of that. There’s a wealth of discussion in Salem, and despite Stephen Lang’s precise cadence, or Gabel’s bug-eyed hysterics, or Janet Montgomery’s oscillation between a stone fox and an emotionally overcome one, plenty of it is uninteresting. There are trials and threats and (an honestly engrossing) sentimental through-line of whether Shane West’s John Alden and Montgomery’s queen witch Mary Sibley can ever reconnect after he left for war and she offered her baby to the dark lord. Though earnest, little of it compares to the grosser visuals on hand; for instance, what the witch’s familiars say of themselves and who they insert them into. Mary Sibley’s bewitched-to-the-point-of-paralysis husband George certainly resembles the toad that is implanted and extracted from his body, while her serpent slithers through poor Mercy, a young girl that plays all sides of the town before finding her own fanatical teenage witch fanclub in the forest. The perils of adolescent overconfidence and recklessness at play.

Religious manipulation is also far more interesting when elder sisters with blood tears emotionally blackmail Mary, or when Mary dreamily transports Mercy to fairy tale terror in the trees, than when Lang’s Increase Mather proceeds to verbally guilt his son over loving a prostitute (the affecting Azure Parsons as Gloriana). Similarly, Anne Hale’s (Tamzin Merchant) constant side-eyeing of her father never attains the heights of her season finale psychic rage emancipation from him. There’s an energy imbalance in Salem, one where the stakes only truly feel real when they materialize into sexual appetite or physical violence.

To be honest, that’s more than fine. The work from FX, prosthetic and makeup artists like Jack Lynch, Matthew W. Mungle, Clinton Wayne and many more is spectacular. Genre is about transgression and true dread as much as it is party splatter and horror comic chaos, and it’s felt some time since there was something to enjoy unreservedly on such a pulpy, ‘oh shit’ level. To wit, Salem had me utter such on several occasions. This is a lopsided series, but what it’s contributing on the level of ghastly visuals to horror TV is major. Not Hannibal major, but still.

The upcoming second season of Salem, subtitled Witch War, happily looks to stick to such, and bringing in a guest star like Lucy Lawless gives hope for more chewing in the necessary plot-heavy moments. As I’m a recent convert, below find some of just what I’m speaking of – a lineup of the first season’s best moments of gore and grimace.

Note: These are likely both spoiler heavy, and NSFW