In the Execution Room: Historical Significance of MACUSA Death Sentence
The darker side of Fantastic Beasts surprised a lot of us. Between the theme of repression, children who kill, and a rocky political climate, the film took on a different tone than comes to mind when we think about a suitcase full of magical creatures. Out of all these darker elements, however, it is hard for me to find one more eerie than the scene in the execution room. I couldn’t help but notice some of the elements of the room and the execution practice itself have significance in connection to witch trials of the past.
The four main elements of the execution chamber at MACUSA are water, the chair, fire, and memories. We’ll take a look at each element and its historical significance.
The MACUSA execution room contains a water-like substance. Of course, it must be something more than water from the way it acts later in the scene, but the symbolism of a “guilty” witch being asked if they want to “get in” is still significant. During the witch hunts of the 15th and 16th centuries in Europe, a series of tests were often performed to prove whether the accused possessed the ability to perform witchcraft or if they were innocent. One such test was the infamous “swimming” test. In this test, accused witches were bound and thrown into a body of water. Witches were thought to have “spurned the sacrament of baptism,” so the water would reject their bodies, causing those guilty of witchcraft to float and the innocent to sink.
In England in the 17th century, methods of torture were used to solicit confessions from accused witches. One of those methods was called the “ducking stool.” The ducking stool was a wooden chair attached to a see-saw mechanism on the edge of a pond. The accused was strapped into the chair and lowered into the pond until the fear of drowning prompted them to confess or name co-conspirators.
When one of the executioners’ wands falls into the liquid basin, the water or potion becomes irritated and begins to burn. That burning extends to the chair, causing it to light up with hot embers. It has been recorded that female witches were sometimes forced to sit on red-hot stools as a means to prevent them from ever having sexual intercourse with the devil again. In 1462, a woman named Perronnette was forced to sit naked on a scorching iron stool for three minutes before being burned at the stake (Naish, Camille. “Death Comes to the Maiden: Sex and Execution”).
The water turned firey potion hearkens back to one of the forms of execution for witches: burning at the stake. From the 11th to the 18th century, European religious leaders thought the proper place for a dead body was a churchyard. Burning and the scattering of ashes was reserved for heretics and witches, eliminating the potential for postmortem sorcery (Andrews, Evan. “Were witches burned at the stake during the Salem Witch Trials?”)
You’re probably wondering how on earth memories are connected to the witch hunts of old. You may have noticed, like I did, that while there are all these other symbolisms of witch trials, there are no references to hanging. Hanging was the number one method for executing witches in Europe. Burning was used, but the numbers killed by the gallows far surpass those sentenced to the flames. In fact, not a single person was burned during the Salem Witch Trials in the United States. All were hung, with the exception of Giles Corey, who was pressed to death by stones.
Why is there an absence of a noose in the American execution room? My answer is, Tina’s memories and her own will serve as the missing noose. It is Tina’s memories and her own mind that urge her into the chair and willingly into the execution. She is essentially being “hung by her own noose,” as the saying goes.
There is no exact figure for the number of lives lost due to witch hunts, but it is estimated that between 50,000 and 200,000 people died as a result of the trials between the 15th and 18th centuries. Is it possible that MACUSA is subconsciously channeling centuries of persecution into their own execution methods?