I started listening to a podcast earlier this month that I quickly became obsessed with, finding myself going on drives on my lunch break, taking the long way home, and sitting in my driveway for an extra 15 minutes just to listen to more. After the third episode, which is my own personal podcast yardstick for, “yes, this is good and I’ll stick with it,” I texted a bunch of friends that they should check it out. It’s prescient, I said. It’s interesting. I’m learning a lot. And, the cherry on top? It’s seasonal. I sat back and waited for my friends to thank me for being a harbinger of taste.
The texts started rolling in. The consensus was, “Yes, Pat. That was good…when it came out last year.” My brother admonished me for ignoring him when he recommended it months ago. All I can say is, friends: my bad.
The podcast, which is now on its second season (which you’d think would’ve been a really good indicator to me that this wasn’t a new find), is called “Unobscured,” and season one, the season I was obsessed with the first week of October, focused on The Salem Witch Trials.
The Salem Witch Trials is one of those historical events that I’ve always been very interested in from a young age when I somehow got my hands on a book about it. It’s also one of those historical events that has been very misconstrued and revised, probably because of the economic goodwill it now brings the town of Salem, and probably in large part because of The Crucible, which used a very liberal artistic license to make exactly the kinds of points studying the trials should allow us to arrive at, but in a more sexually charged fashion.
Salem, which back in the days of the witch trials, was known as Salem Town, and wasn’t where the trials took place (that was in Salem Village, which is now nearby Danvers), has embraced the event that for so long was a real stain upon its history. If you go to Salem today, you’ll find witch statues, a witchcraft museum, and can go and take your photograph in front of the homes from Hocus Pocus. If you go up anytime in October, you could also find yourself a real party. I went up on a bus trip years ago. It was a very fun time, and I’d definitely return, especially since I was in the throes of my youth when I went up and thus spent far more time reveling than learning.
You probably read The Crucible in high school. It was one of the anchor texts of the American Literature classes I taught back in my teaching days, and it was one of my favorite things to teach. I watched the film the other day, after finishing the podcast, and it really holds up. I know it’s my love for teaching the play that made me forget a lot of factual aspects of the real events, that Tituba wasn’t an African slave, Abigail Williams wasn’t a pre-fall-from-grace-at-Saks-Fifth-Avenue-femme-fatale, and some of the heroes of the story weren’t as heroic in real life, that had me learning a lot during my time listening to “Unobscured.” I also know you don’t have to have any knowledge of The Crucible, or a strong background on The Salem Witch Trials to find the podcast thoroughly entertaining, very informative, and what I found the most compelling part of my listen: highly prescient.
“Unobscured” is written, produced, and narrated by Aaron Manke, who you podcast enthusiasts might know as the man behind the “Lore” podcast. I really like the idea behind “Lore,” but there’s something about his cadence that turned me off, and that stilted cadence is back in full force in “Unobscured,” but maybe because the subject matter is more grounded in reality, or because he lets a bevy of authors and historians do a bulk of the talking, it didn’t bother me as much. “Unobscured” throws a lot of information your way. This is not a quick overview of what happened in Salem in 1692, but a detailed breakdown of the political, social, cultural, and religious events of the day that are crucial for you to understand exactly how members of a small town for all intents and purposes murdered their friends and neighbors. It’s eye opening. It’s frightening, and it’s not the witchcraft aspect of the podcast that delivers those October scares we crave, but how little has changed since then. I’ll stop there. I don’t want to ruin anything for you.
I will though, recall a lesson I used in my Crucible unit, which was reimagining the “afflicted girls” as modern day influencers. The “afflicted girls,” at least in The Crucible, and public conscious, were a group of young women in Salem who claimed imaginary witches were tormenting them. It’s easy to lump this behavior on teenage girls, and a lot of academic work you read on the subject will bring up female hysteria, but the reality is that there were plenty of grown women “afflicted” by witches. There were also teenage boys and grown men, but that’s another rabbit hole and discussion for another day, and probably one that should be led by someone more qualified than I. The main gist of the lesson was that these were young men and women searching for something, who were given a platform they had no qualifications for. They received positive affirmations from people in the community, weren’t questioned on their methods, and didn’t have to back their assertions up with any real facts. It was a smoke and mirror show they used, or they were used as vessels in, to scam their way into prominence and other more nefarious outcomes. Lest you think this is a whole diatribe about the frivolity of Instagram, think again. “Unobscured,” The Crucible, and the lessons that swirl around The Salem Witch Trials are really an indictment about what happens when you let insecure people preoccupied with status and money run the country based on lies, fear of change, and settling scores. Trick or treat indeed.