Psychedelic Lunch

Welcome to our “Psychedelic Lunch” series, “Spooktober Edition” where we find out how deep the rabbit hole really goes and explore music from the 60’s to today. Weekdays At Noon EST. Enjoy the trip!

American Witch By Rob Zombie, Album: Educated Horses 2006

This song is about the Salem Witch Trials in 1692, when women suspected of performing witchcraft were burned alive. When Zombie sings about “20 innocent,” he is referring to the 20 people who died during the witch trials.

Depiction of the Salem witch trials c 1692
(Library of Congress)

Robert Bartleh Cummings a.k.a. Rob Zombie has made his career by combining Texas Chainsaw Massacre-style theatrics (think: deformed hillbillies) and commercially accessible heavy-metal/industrial musical style, sometimes referred to as part of the genre of “shock rock,” of which Marilyn Manson is an example. With a love of horror movies, Zombie’s songs are like listening to an episode of Supernatural or Buffy the Vampire Slayer in three-and-a-half minutes. Zombie’s vision has extended into the realm of cinema in recent years, where he has directed six of his own satirical and highly-enjoyable horror films (think: same deformed hillbillies doing an improvised performance of The Rocky Horror Picture Show to a great soundtrack).

Zombie’s retelling of the events surrounding the Salem Witch Trials in “American Witch,” a song from his third solo album entitled Educated Horses (2006), is just one of many interpretations. First dramatized in Arthur Miller’s seminal work The Crucible, released on Broadway in 1953, this horror story began when two little girls, cousins Abigail and Betty Parris, began to act very strangely, possibly after having eaten bread made from ergot-infected rye. By that I mean: bad LSD. Their behaviour had all the hallmarks of a bum trip; writhing around in pain, pricked by invisible forces, trying to climb up the chimney… Substantive scientific evidence supports this theory, and ergot poisoning was not at all uncommon in areas conducive to its growth, Massachusetts being a prime example. This fungus, from which Albert Hoffman first extracted this notorious psychedelic in the 1950s, was known for its ability to produce strange behaviour in subjects if ingested, as well as paranoia, hallucinations, immune-system dysfunction, and even death in some cases (it has been linked with large drops in the populations of affected areas). 

After examining Abigail and Betty, the local physician was stumped and could not find any medical cause for their ailments. Witchcraft always came in handy in those days as a spare medical diagnosis in situations where the common cold wouldn’t suffice, so he suggested that. It was not long before other women in the village began to exhibit similar behaviour, and arrests started taking place. The two little girls made the first accusations, which started a shock-wave of accusations throughout Salem and surrounds. A year later, over 150 people had become implicated, and some had been hanged on Gallows Hill, referred to by Zombie as the “20 innocents.”

Judge Corwin “Witch House” in Salem

In “American Witch,” Zombie uses Salem during the witch trials as a context in which to place the listener, a starting point for his MacBeth-ian description of the experience of being a witch in this place, barely stopping short of “Double, double, toil and trouble; fire burn, and cauldron bubble.” He combines rich traditional black-magic imagery interspersed with vague social-commentary.

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