History Forgotten History Lost in History

What the Blair Witch fable reveals about 17th-century women

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The summer of 1999 was captured by The Blair Witch Project, a documentary-style movie that burst into theatres and enthralled audiences.

The Blair Witch is barely seen in the film, just as a towering terror that wipes out the lives of a few curious teens. But that’s not how the story began. Filmmakers drew the inspiration for the Blair Witch from the fable of Moll Dyer. The story did more than scare children, it revealed how women were portrayed in the 17th century.

The story of Moll Dyer

Moll Dyer was an elderly, single woman who lived on the outskirts of a small Maryland settlement in the late 1600s. We’re not sure exactly what she looked like, as there are very conflicting opinions. Some sources cite her as a “hag” while others recount her as a lovely older woman. All sources describe Dyer as exceptionally tall for a woman, with most men in the town barely hitting her frail shoulders. This difference already made her an outsider, and her oddities did nothing to remedy that.

Dyer’s exploits upset the townsfolk. She was not wealthy and so would seek out monetary contributions or request food. But for the other residents of this Maryland town, this behavior was not as concerning as her frequent incantations and habit for foraging for herbs.

Dyer was an outcast, so when the townsfolk experienced a frigid winter, they had an easy target to blame. The only explanation for this terrible season could be a vengeful witch. In 1697 an angry mob swarmed Dyer’s modest home. There was no trial and she didn’t even have a chance to explain herself. The mob set Dyer’s home aflame. But they didn’t stick around to see her burn.

Dyer fled her burning house and hid in the woods. However, due to the cold temperatures, she froze to death before she could make it to safety. Dyer was found with her hand reached up to the sky and knees perched on a rock. Dyer’s body stayed in this position for days, until someone found her petrified body.

From that point on the townsfolk believed Dyer had used her final strength to curse them. And they all lived in fear of what that curse would bring.

Moll Dyer may never have lived. It’s very possible that her story is all that ever existed of her. But the Blair Witch fable reveals cultural perceptions of women during that time, and for the years after when the story was shared around packed campfires.

Witch” was a term thrown at women who existed outside of cultural norms. Women who were unmarried, divorced, widowed, childless, had too many children or were too outspoken. With that characterization, it’s easy to understand how Dyer was thrown into the category.

Throughout the fable, It’s clear that Dyer made a fatal mistake. She remained unmarried. This romantic choice meant she was already a social pariah. Dyer did not conform to traditional family values that ruled colonial society. Because she did not have a husband to support her she had to wander into the town to beg for sustenance. This reminded the townsfolk of her curious antics whenever she was in sight and placed an emphasis on her otherness.

Lasting impact

Women have been blamed for hardships since Adam and Eve, witchcraft claims were just the latest installment of a misogynistic trend. When men were unwilling to take responsibility for their failings or insecurities, they would project them onto women who were outside of their social circle. But these prosecutors wouldn’t have been successful without the willful approval of their female counterparts. Women turned against each other for the approval of their community. These fables are built upon settlers turning against the most vulnerable, and then controlling the narrative after they condemned the innocent.

In 17th-century terms, all of Moll Dyer’s actions may point to “witch,” but that’s not a 1999 thought. This story lived on for hundreds of years, retelling the same narrative. People in the 20th century anticipated vengeance based on irrational fears from 1697. The misplaced anger of a starving town has led to the continued tale of an exiled older woman cursing the innocent. Dyer’s true story has been erased by her persecutors.

Part of woman's face looking into camera while crying
“Blair Witch Project” still from John Squires via

The Blair Witch Project’s guerrilla marketing campaign left viewers confused about the authenticity of the film and led to a lasting impact on marketing and horror movies for decades to come. But the “real” Blair Witch left a lasting impact on the perceptions of women in American colonial society. 

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History It Happened Once

I Googled the Salem Witch Trials so you don’t have to – and they are hella confusing

As a part of our Halloween series this year, since we’ll be mentioning witches a lot, let’s talk about the Salem Witch Trials and how the events that took place do not make any sense.

Honestly, after reading a bunch about the “trials,” I still do not really understand what happened or why it happened. Suggestions about fungus causing illnesses and other analyses on political issues within Salem at the time are speculations that are often used to try to explain the trials. But, you have to admit that there are a bunch of missing pieces in the story. The whole thing sounds like complete chaos to me!

I have so many questions. Like, why did they randomly believe the claims of young girls without any true evidence? Who really thought that allowing spectral evidence was a good idea? How were the accused supposed to prove to a court that they were not actually witches? And lastly, what were the true reasons and motivations behind this tragedy?

So let me explain what all went down in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692 and 1693.  It all began when the daughter and niece of Reverend Samuel Parris, the minister of Salem Village, began having violent fits, intense contortions, and uncontrollable outbursts such as screaming. After a local doctor in Salem could not find anything physically wrong with 9-year-old Elizabeth Parris an 11-year-old Abigail Williams, he diagnosed them and other young girls within the community that showed similar behaviors and symptoms with bewitchment. This first diagnosis of witchcraft led to the imprisonment of over 200 people and 20 hangings throughout Massachusetts.

Puritan pioneers first settled in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630. During this time, the Puritan communities established their own theocratic government systems. Theocracy is a form of government largely led and structured by those who believed to be divinely guided. The government and legal system are structured based on religious law.

You still with me?

The Puritans believed that the Devil could give individuals on Earth powers in return for their loyalty. (and that isn’t even the most ridiculous claim) Those who received powers from the Devil were called witches. The principle of witchcraft became prevalent in 14th century Europe, where between the 1300s and 1600s, thousands of people, the majority being women, were executed for accusations of witchcraft. Under the legal structure in Salem, an individual who consorted with the Devil was considered a criminal. The punishment for committing such a crime was hanging, yikes!

During the time of the Salem Witch Trials, the community was stressed and struggling. The King William’s War put a strain on the community’s resources. Additionally, there was a rivalry between wealthy families and the working class that depended on forms of agriculture. There was also an on-going smallpox epidemic and fear of attack from neighboring Native Americans. The stressful and anxiety-fueled climate of the community led to ongoing tensions and suspicions among the Puritan villagers.

After the diagnosis of bewitchment, a few of the “bewitched” young girls blamed three women for bewitching them. The first is Tituba, an enslaved woman from the Caribbean bought by the Reverend Parris. The second woman was Sarah Good, a homeless beggar.  And lastly, an impoverished elderly woman named Sarah Osborne. Of course, all three of the accused women were considered “outsiders” based on race and/or class. (Is anyone shocked?)

It remains unclear if the girls were persuaded or forced to accuse these three women. However, I think that the social statuses and positions of the women in society should be considered when trying to interpret the potential reasons that these three women in particular were actually accused of the crime of witchcraft.

This is where the whole thing launched full speed into a downward spiral to me. The imprisonment of the three women led to further paranoia in a society that already suffered from numerous stresses. Good and Osborne claimed that they were not guilty; while Tituba confessed and named other witches who were working along with her against the Puritans to receive repentance. In response to Tituba claiming other individuals were also practicing witchcraft, the governor of Massachusetts ordered the establishment of the Court of Oyer and Terminer to pass judgment on witchcraft cases.

The accusations of witchcraft continued to spread across the Massachusetts colonies against mostly women and a few men (which I did not know). Similarly to Tituba, those accused confessed and named others who practiced witchcraft. The court allowed testimony based on spectral evidence. This refers to evidence that is based on visions, dreams, and a person’s spirit. The testimony was based on witnesses claiming that they interacted with or saw a person’s spirit, in place of basing testimony on a person’s physical actions. The trails lacked focus on truth and investigation. Under religious practices, the courts preferred that the accused confessed, asked for forgiveness, and vowed to not engage with the Devil again.

After years and the (unlawful) deaths and imprisonment of so many people, the Court of Oyer and Terminer was finally replaced with the Superior Court of Judicature, the testimony of spectral evidence was no longer allowed, and the trials were deemed unlawful. In 1697, the General Court ordered a day of fasting and soul-searching due to the events that had occurred during the trials. Additionally, in 1711, the families affected received reinstitution and the restoration of the names. However, it was not until the 1950s that Massachusetts formally apologized for the event.

The whole story is definitely a lot to digest, but it did give me a lot to think about.

While many aspects of the Salem Witch Trails are perplexing, within this tragedy remains lessons that should be reflected on and questioned today. It remains crucial to have objectivity, to think about the consequences of unjustly punishing individuals, to be cautious of the use of fear within the justice system, and to foresee the damages of groupthink going unquestioned.

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