Between 1692 and 1693, more than twenty people were executed in Massachusetts. They were the victims of a series of trials and persecutions against people accused of witchcraft. Most were women. All but one died of by hanging. During that time, Rebecca Nurse, a 71 year old grandmother known piousness and stature in the community was hung for witchcraft.
Years later, her great, great grandchild, Rebecca Goyette tells a new story, inspired by the events that killed her grandmother. I was lucky enough to be part of the live studio audience for the the filming of her new work “Ghost Bitch: Arise From the Gallows”, which imagines the life of a character by the same name doing historical reenactments by day and dominatrix work by night. She is a modern day witch who works hard to fulfill the expectations of thrill-seeking tourists—and art audiences.
The result was improvisational work of theatre and film that so thoroughly impressed and terrified me I reached out to Goyette to discuss the work. It premieres at the Satellite Art Show in a bandshell on Miami Beach next week, as part of her curatorial project “Extra Teats: A Screening of Bad Ass Puritan-Purging Digital Artwork”. The screening includes works by Katie Cercone, Kerry Downey, Dawn Frasch, Faith Holland, Narcissister, Kenya Robinson. We discuss gender dynamics and power struggles, Ghost Bitch, and the filming of that project and the most frightening art I have ever paid witness to.
IJ: Tell me about the title “Extra Teats”. What does that title mean?
RG: The fair asked me to premier my film, and suggested I curate a video program. I’m calling the film night, “Extra Teats.” In Puritan New England, if a woman was accused of witchcraft, she could be jailed and examined for extra teats. Pilgrims believed witches had extra teats, nipples their devil-possessed animal familiars could suckle. “Extra Teats” became the title for the entire show, featuring feminist artists whose work addresses sexuality, oppression and the body.
IJ: Your project also seems to tie into the premise of your film in which you deconstruct the puritanical origins of sex in American culture.
RG: I am a direct descendant of Rebecca Nurse, a woman hanged as a Salem witch. Rebecca Nurse was in her seventies, a female landowner. The people of Salem were threatened by her persona, accused her of witchcraft and hanged her. When I delved deeper into the story of the Salem Witch Trials, I uncovered many themes I see recur in American culture today.
IJ: What are some of those themes?
RG: Women’s sexual agency was considered suspect. Today, women are slut shamed, we are taught to play hard-to-get and there’s a lack of female-imagined and empowered sexual imagery in film/television. I see Puritanical thinking manifesting itself in Donald Trump, who performs our pervasive issues with xenophobia, racism and sexism.
IJ: Your film’s very existence addresses this problem because its female driven and female authored.
RG: I developed an improvisational style of directing. Each scene is created with a loose plot structure, no rehearsal, thus allowing my performers to act as they wish. By opening up the process, I ask people to explore their own psychological nature.
IJ: Could you talk about how your character, Ghost Bitch, came into being?
RG: I imagined my character, Ghost Bitch, to be a modern day performance artist and witch in Salem. Salem has many touristic museums and reenactment theaters offering sensationalized versions of the witch trials. So I conjured the ultimate Disney version of the trials: an aerialist show where male Puritans would hang me as a witch, with my Ghost Bitch aerialist ascending from my dead body in a magical rope act. I imagined Ghost Bitch’s long blonde hair growing as she flies. Her supernaturally long hair symbolized her new-found wildness in the afterworld.
IJ: Long hair is always associated with sexuality and freedom.
RG: Exactly, that long seductive hair! Within the film, I established a coven of Ghost Bitches who wear blonde wigs and sheer Puritan attire covered in extra teats providing public and private fun to tourists. My Ghost Bitch character gets hanged by day and is a dominatrix by night.
IJ: Your characters seem to be taking on this role that they have been forced into, and taking ownership of it unabashedly. It’s like your characters are ridding themselves of that sexual shame you were describing earlier.
RG: Absolutely. While making the movie, I released some of my own shame. My cohort Jenny and I performed dominatrix routines on “Puritans” from Salem, tourists clad in Red Sox fan gear. I let Jenny take the lead: she was sexy in her role of control. My character, still traumatized by a near-death experience in her day job as a historical reenactor, dreaded her night job as a dominatrix. But then, having a man on a leash for pet play became oddly freeing for Ghost Bitch and for me, as I took charge of my own fantasy realm.
IJ: The hanging scene in your first filming was terrifying. (I know, I attended.) One wrong move and you could have actually died.
RG: For the hanging scene, I had rehearsed for it [the scene] rigorously beforehand. A long rope was tied around my neck and tightened. That rope was loosely hung over a pipe, thirty feet in the air, so it could be out of the shot. Of course, I had a harness on so I wouldn’t actually be hanged, but if I was bustled around too much, you never know, the rope around my neck could slip off the pole above me and actually hang me. I was in a vulnerable position, and knew it because I studied the whole rigging situation.
My pilgrims got rambunctious, fighting me down to noose me. One gentleman suggested, “It would be much more realistic if we put you in the noose, tightened it, and then put you in the harness afterwards.” I guess I have a very strong will to live, because I screamed my ass off. I kicked those boys; I bit them. All kinds of shit went down, as you know, because you were there. Fights broke out in the audience, triggered and titillated by the image of a live public hanging.
IJ: It was really scary and traumatizing for the audience.
RG: I chose to work with that trauma, because I felt threatened. I was taken there as a performer. Instantly, I viscerally knew how I would feel if I was about to be hanged. I felt proud that I wouldn’t quietly whimper my way to death, succumbing to the mob mentality that could make that person acquiesce to being hanged.
IJ: People are often scarier and more violent in groups than individuals are.
RG: I orchestrated a situation in which that night anybody could do whatever they wanted.
IJ: And people transformed into the roles you gave them. It was actually very meta, in the sense that it shows how uncomfortable men can be working under a woman.
RG: It was strange, because the energy was very masculine, aggressive and violent in the room. When the aerialist flew up out of my dead body, spiraling and swinging to ethereal music, the energy became more feminized. The alchemy was palpable. It was powerful to experience this group catharsis, and process it through the creation of “Ghost Bitch: Arise from the Gallows.”