Take everything you remember about the Salem witch trials from history class and English class readings of “The Crucible” and add in ghouls, some very randy, decidedly un-Puritanical sex scenes, and actual witches doing witchy things, and you have the new WGN drama series “Salem.”
WGN’s first scripted series, created by Adam Simon and “Star Trek,” “Terra Nova,” “24”, “Cosmos” producer Brannon Braga, spices up the old school story of the Salem witch hunts not only with sex and scary supernatural creatures, but with actual witchcraft. In “Salem,” witches do exist, and they’re the ones egging on the witch hunts, for their own purposes.
But this fictional spin added to juice up the series doesn’t mean the names you remember from high school are MIA. Cotton Mather, Tituba, and Giles Corey are among the real world characters who pop up in “Salem.”
"First of all, just the names are cool: Cotton Mather, Mary Sibley, Mercy Lewis. There’s great pain there," Braga tells Yahoo TV. "But if you look deeper into it, you’re going to learn a lot more about [them]. I just thought it was a good starting point. These people were very interesting. Cotton Mather… his father Increase Mather comes into the series at some point, too. We were inspired by people who really lived, but we changed the characters as well."
The real-life Salem citizenry who have “Salem” counterparts:
Mary Sibley (played by Janet Montgomery)
In Salem: Not a witch herself, she reputedly proposed the idea of the “witch cake”: a cake made of rye and the urine of women suspected of being witches. The cake was then fed to a dog (dogs were believed to be tools of witches), and the belief was that the source of the urine would be revealed as someone who injured another, i.e. a witch.
In “Salem”: Mary is so a witch. Without spoiling the way her identity unfolds in the premiere, we’ll just say she’s not only a witch, she’s the witch.
John Alden (played by Shane West)
In Salem: A voice of reason during the witch trials, he was a soldier who was among the accused himself, though he was eventually cleared. After the trials, he wrote an account of what happened during them. He was also the father of 14 children.
In “Salem”: Mary’s true love, he’s sent off to war after he dares to question the Puritanical punishments doled out by wealthy town leader George Sibley. But when he returns from war, he finds a very different Mary, and a hometown wrapped up in witch hunting.
"We didn’t want to do a ‘are they real, are they not’ kind of show. We just wanted to be brazen," Braga says. "This show unfolds as a horror piece, as kind of a terrorist thriller, with Salem witches. It’s also a romance. Mary Sibley and John Alden… will Mary sacrifice everything she’s built to be with the man she loves? John and Mary are on a collision course emotionally, in that they’re starting to rekindle their interest in each other. But they’re also unwittingly on a collision course to kill each other."
Tituba (played by Ashley Madekwe)
In Salem: A slave, she was one of the first women accused of being a witch, and after being beaten, she was one of the first to confess to being a witch and speaking to the Devil.
In “Salem”: She’s definitely a witch. She’s very powerful and mysterious, and though she has helped Mary Sibley reach her position of power, it remains to be seen what Tituba’s true motivations and plans are for the town.
Cotton Mather (played by Seth Gabel)
In Salem: A Harvard-educated Boston minister who wrote a book about his investigations of witchcraft, and, during the trials, urged that confessions should be considered the best evidence of an accused witch’s guilt, even in the face of contradictory evidence.
In “Salem”: He’s a Harvard-educated rich guy who’s hot on the trail of local witches … and local prostitutes, who he patronizes regularly.
"At one point, we had a Cotton Mather character and there was a Sheriff Hopkins witch hunter that was also based on a real person," Braga tells Yahoo TV. "We decided, ‘Let’s just make that into one character. There’s no room for two witch hunters,’ so history was the beginning inspiration for us. But this ain’t the History Channel."
Increase Mather (played by Stephen Lang)
In Salem: A Boston minister, the first President of Harvard College, and an influential community member who refused to condemn the witch trials. He was also much, much stricter about his moral beliefs than son Cotton.
In “Salem”: Papa Mather isn’t in the premiere, but in a statement about Lang’s casting, Braga describes Increase as “a man driven to monstrous deeds by the intensity of his convictions; and a loving father who torments his son precisely out of love.”
Mercy Lewis (played by Elise Eberle)
In Salem: After being orphaned and sent to live as a servant, she became one of the chief accusers of witches. Her former boss, the Rev. George Burroughs, was one of those executed after being found guilty of being a witch.
In “Salem”: The daughter of the Rev. Lewis, Mercy appears to be possessed by some sort of evil being (think 1700s version of Regan from “The Exorcist”).
Magistrate Hale (played by Xander Berkeley)
In Salem: John Hale was a Puritan pastor who originally supported the witch trials, but later changed his mind, after his second wife was accused of being a witch.
In “Salem”: The town’s most influential politician, he has some major secrets and surprising cohorts.
Giles Corey (played by Kevin Tighe)
In Salem: A farmer who was accused of witchcraft, Corey died — by being pressed to death — after he refused to proclaim his guilt or innocence.
In “Salem”: No spoilers, but Giles was definitely an inspirational character for the “Salem” production.
"Some people have made analogies between terrorism and the Salem witch trials, that these people were so freaked out by witches that they very easily began to turn on each other. To what degree will you ferret out the terrorist? Will you use torture? Giles Corey was really pressed to death, and that’s where the term ‘pressed for an answer’ comes from," Braga says. "His case was specifically pointed to by our founding fathers in the formation of the fifth amendment, the right to remain silent. There are so many things that happened at that time that still resonate today."
"Once we knew who the basic players were, and we started imagining (the storylines), the thing that became quickly apparent as we developed the idea was Mary Sibley was going to be the central character," Braga continues.
"Though she’s not a huge historical figure by any means, the characters start to take on a life of their own, and go beyond history. Mary Sibley, the idea of this Puritan woman who’s secretly a witch and also in love with a man who returns to town and causes her turmoil… Lady Macbeth who’s also a bit Scarlett O’Hara. She really took on a life of her own. Everything else just began to orbit her character. We realized that the show was really about her. At some point the historical aspects of it all are your foundation and everything else is fiction."
Though the story and the setting are fact-based, creating the “foundation” — in terms of the “Salem” production set — required just as big an effort as creating the mishmashed fiction/reality characters.
"Salem was a bustling seaport… there were people from all over the world there, and a lot was happening and a lot was at stake," Braga says. "The country was just getting started, and there was something really intriguing… this is just a time and place that had not been explored very much. Of course, on a production level, that’s a nightmare, because nothing’s been made. We couldn’t rent anything. Every single stitch of clothing, every prop, and every set and building had to be designed and made from scratch.
"We wanted to be authentic, and we’ve taken some liberties, stylistically, making the Puritans look like Puritans. They also look like something out of ‘The Matrix.’ Our costume designers are phenomenal. We also knew we wanted to be geographically authentic. Salem was wedged between the woods, and the woods were a feared place by the people, where you could be killed by Indians, animals, or demons. There’s this town that is sandwiched right between two huge bodies of water, and we needed a lot of land to build on. We found that in Shreveport, Louisiana. An unlikely place, but it fit our needs, so once we found the land, we said this would be a good place to build a town, and we built a town. It was hard, and took a long time, but it’s a little town. When the place is lit up at night and you have all the extras walking around, couple hundred extras walking around, you definitely feel transported."
"Salem" premieres Sunday, April 20 at 10 p.m. on WGN America.