Salem, 2018. The start of the school year. High school junior Lily (Odessa Young) and her three best friends’ lives buzz with their usual barely contained levels of debauchery. Bad behavior simmers under the facade of conservative, well-coiffed exteriors. But what happens when that exterior is forcibly ripped off? When private sins are publicly scattered and everyone’s hypocrisy is confirmed?
That’s when systems of politeness topple, when buttoned-up towns become violent states. And that’s the precise transition that Assassination Nation, a thrilling movie out September 21, depicts in chilling detail. In Assassination Nation, half of the citizens of Salem are victim to an extreme hacker who unleashes the content of their phone — including their photos, messaging, and search history — onto the internet. People’s pasts become evidence against their characters. Rogue gun-toting townspeople become the judges, and later the punishers. Unfortunately for Lily, Bex (Hari Nef), Em (Abra), Sarah (Suki Waterhouse), they become targets of the ire.
While the elaborate hacking attack in Assassination Nation isn’t based on a real event, the movie is definitely in conversation with history — a truth you’d recognize immediately if you took U.S. History in high school or attended a performance of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. Centuries earlier, in 1692, the tiny settlement of Salem Village in the Massachusetts Bay Colony was seized by similar hysteria in a months-long saga infamously known as the Salem Witch Trials.
When the term “witch hunt” is used now, it’s usually in reference to a series of Donald Trump tweets or feeble rhetorical retaliations against the #MeToo movement’s sweeping revelations (and ensuing structural changes). Back in the 17th century, when Salem’s saga took place, a witch hunt was far more literal than a cyber rant. Throughout the 1500s and 1600s, a series of witch hunts swept the European Continent and British isles, resulting in the deaths of approximately 40,000 to 60,000 people, 85% of whom were women.
The hunts took place during an era in which, for many people, the presence of the devil was as universally accepted as the color of the sky or the taste of water. Witches were people who consorted with the devil in exchange for supernatural powers, and thus should be persecuted. These hunts were also a convenient way for a community to root out differences, and rid itself of potential enemies to a conservative status quo.
When Puritans crossed the Atlantic to establish their own community, they took their fear of witches — and the custom of rooting them out from society — along with them. This brings us to the kitchen of Reverend Parris in Salem Village in 1692, when Parris’ daughter, Elizabeth (9), and niece Abigail (11), regularly spent afternoons with the Parris’ Barbadian slave, Tituba. In February 1692, the girls started experiencing strange fits and pain. Then, so did seven other girls.
The villagers had only one explanation for the girls’ behavior: They were bewitched, and their bodies were actively trying to expel witchcraft. Two of the girls accused Tituba and two other villagers, Sarah Good and Sarah Osborn, of witchcraft. From there, the number of the accused bloomed. By the time the trials ended in May 1693, almost 200 accusations of witchcraft had been levied against villagers.
During those months in Salem, righteous and fear-laden hysteria burned stronger than reason among the village's 600 or so residents. Many of the accused didn't fit squarely into the Puritan ideal. They were Quakers, slaves, people with criminal backgrounds, or outspoken women. Anyone who questioned the validity of the trials — like the farmer John Proctor, who later became a major character in Miller's The Crucible — were then accused of witchcraft themselves.
The trials didn't proceed through level wisdom, but through a series of supernatural, almost gossipy, accusations. In court, the afflicted girls testified that Proctor's spectral spirit tortured them in the evening. Then, during testimony, Abigail Williams and Mary Walcott claimed that Proctor's spirit was appearing throughout the court room, including sitting on the magistrate's lap. "I have seen the apparition of John Proctor among the witches and he hath often tortured me by pinching me and biting me and choking me and pressing me on my stomach [tell] the blood came from my mouth," said Proctor's former servant, Mary Warren. She claimed that Proctor's spirit forced her to touch the Devil's book.
Soon, members of Proctor's extended family were accused by other townspeople — townspeople, perhaps, who had always been seeking an excuse to get revenge on their neighbors. The explanation for the Salem Witch trials range from fungus poisoning or undiagnosed encephalitis lethargica causing hysteria, fear of strong women, or competition between families. Some historians suspect that the powerful Putnam family used the trials as an opportunity to get revenge on their enemies. Thomas Putnam wrote over 100 accusations himself — and given the similarity of handwriting and wording, there's reason to believe that Putnam was behind the afflicted girls' initial accusations, too.
Despite the proliferation of shoddy evidence, these trials had teeth. Bridget Bishop, an older woman with a reputation for promiscuity, was the first to be brought to trial — and the first to be hanged. As with Assassination Nation, the results of the Salem Witch Trials were gruesome: 20 people were executed, including Proctor, and even more died in prison. The trials' fervor waned when Massachusetts Bay Colony Governor Phipps banned such spectral evidence from being considered valid at trials, but that wasn't until October of 1692. By then, it was too late for the many victims.
Assassination Nation transplants themes of fear, scrutiny, and a judgmental, knife-wielding mob into the 21st century. The movie leans into the Salem Witch Trials in more ways than it just being set in Salem. At one point, after the hack, Lily’s boyfriend, Mark (Bill Skarsgård) inspects her body for a birthmark. During the witch trials, potential witches were identified by something called “witches marks,” supposed proof of their communion with the devil. Proctor, for example, was examined by other men in the town before his trial. They failed to find a witch's mark.
The movie’s real connection with the trials comes not through specific crossover, but through the way Salem changes rapidly after the hack. Suddenly, neighbors turn on each other. Justice is meted out with guns and brashness. It’s like everyone was waiting, watching, for true character to be revealed — and then, at the first excuse, they’d pounce. It’s just as Lily says in the beginning of the movie: “The world world’s watching and waiting. It’s only a matter of time before you fuck it up.”
In both the movie and in real life, people of Salem were certainly watching their neighbors for years. The trials were just an excuse.
It’s Heathers meets The Purge when a town-wide data leak means four teen girls have to rise up against slut-shaming, hate, and toxic masculinity. Get ready for Assassination Nation, the first film in an exclusive partnership from Refinery29 and Neon. Grab your tickets now for the theatrical release on September 21.