‘Salem’ Q&A: Seth Gabel On Witch Hunting In Scary New Show

“Salem,” the first original drama from WGN America, launches this Sunday night and it’s one scary thrill ride.

Set in 17th century Salem, ahead of the infamous witch trials, the show is filled with chilling moments and jump out of your seat frights, courtesy of some dark supernatural forces. And the drama left Seth Gabel, who plays witch hunter Cotton Mather in the series, wide awake after work.

“It’s very haunting, and being on set, experiencing a lot of the things that we depict on the show, even though I know it’s not real, those images stay with me when I go home at night,” Seth told AccessHollywood.com.

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“I’ll admit that I have some sleepless nights, but at the same time, it’s something that works for the character in terms of – when you’re in the Salem set that we’ve built, it’s in the middle of nowhere and there’s not much light from the city surrounding it, so you really get a sense of what it’s like to be in a town that’s lit only by fire,” he continued. “When that fire goes out, things are pitch black. You get a sense of the fear and of the nightmares that people could imagine working in the shadows around them. You get a real sense of what it must have been like during that time period.”

In “Salem’s” series premiere, Seth’s character, Cotton (a historical figure), steps in to rid Salem of its witch problem, that may or may not have something to do with Mary Sibley (Janet Montgomery). A conflicted man, Cotton’s witch-ridding work is inspired by religion, but his nightly activities relate to pleasures of the flesh. In a new interview with Access, Seth set up what’s to come when “Salem” premieres Sunday at 10/9c.

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Access: What made you want to jump into this character’s shoes?
Seth Gabel: What I loved so much about the character was how tortured he was and how repressed he was and at the same time, how much he wanted to break free of all of the oppression in the society that he’s grown up in. I see the character as being like a Miniver Cheevy from the Edward Arlington Robinson poem [of the same name], where he’s kind of like a guy displaced in time and he feels like he should be living in a different time. I feel like Cotton Mather is that way, and I feel like if he were alive in the 18th century, when the Founding Fathers were part of America, he would have fit in right there. He’s a person who has wonder and curiosity about the world that he lives in, but the society around him doesn’t encourage that, and all of his natural instincts are repressed by everyone around him and so as a result of that, he ends up exploding into chaos and misbehavior.

Access: What is Cotton’s main agenda when we meet him?
Seth: His father is responsible for creating the monster that is Cotton Mather, and he sent Cotton, as a rite of passage, to Salem from Boston, as kind of his first test at being a witch hunter. And, at first, they don’t realize how big the problem is. We look back on it and know how bad that situation got, but at the very beginning, the father just heard about, ‘Oh, there’s a witch in Salem. Why don’t I let my son take care of it?’ So he sends Cotton to Salem and Cotton gets there and he sees that there’s so much more going on.

Access: There’s nothing weird that happens on set is there, when you’re doing a show about witches?
Seth: There is. Strangely, there is. I didn’t really believe in that stuff, but I had heard about how ‘The Exorcist’ had a lot of problems and accidents on set, and I think everyone except for me and Shane West [who plays John Alden on ‘Salem’] have been injured in some way while working. We’ve had someone cut their finger, we’ve had a couple [of] knees go out, we’ve had a wrist break, we’ve had a stuntman fall off a horse and the horse fell on top of him. There have been a lot of different accidents. And actually, I heard the line producer the other day, who is in charge of like hiring people and paying for things and that person is pretty frugal with their money, they’re actually looking into having the set blessed by someone.

Access: Wow. Like a shaman?
Seth: Yeah, a shaman or some religious figure of some kind.

Access: When you were playing The Count on ‘Arrow,’ you were using electronic music to get into character. What do you listen to say, before Cotton has to help out a possessed girl, who is screaming and tied up?
Strangely, I’ve been listening to old Jamaican ska music. For some reason, Jamaican ska music from the ‘50s and ‘60s for whatever reason has helped me be a man in New England in the 17th century. … You know what I think it is? The music is so joyful and optimistic. I think because the world of the show is already so heavy and dark, I think I’m at capacity, so I think when I’m in my trailer listening to music, I just need an outlet, I need to know what it is to feel just joy and not be tortured by things, and Alton Ellis is the best at doing that for me.

Access: Since you play a witch hunter, did you actually do any research on them?
Seth: Oh definitely, and the real Cotton Mather was very prolific and he has tons of journal entries and letters and books that he wrote about witch hunting and about being loving and devoted to God, because their perception during that time was God was a figure where there’s a constant war between God and the Devil, and if you don’t pray to God and if you are not a good Puritan, you will be going to hell. And so understanding that mindset was so key to understanding these characters in this time period. And in terms of the witch hunting stuff, there’s a wealth of material out there. Adam Simon, who created our show, is kind of a walking library of all of those things and he has all of this information on torture devices and how Salem wasn’t even the beginning of all this, how all of this happened before, in England, and then, when they came over to New England, all of that superstition and all of that skill that they had acquired, through trial and error in England, they then applied to the Salem witch trials.

“Salem” premieres Sunday at 10/9c on WGN America.

-- Jolie Lash

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