Salem Season 3 and The Inherent Weirdness of Marilyn Manson

Enigmatic rocker Marilyn Manson is sharpening his scissors and a straight razor to cut more than hair on Salem.

This article originally appeared in the Den of Geek New York Comic Con special edition print magazine. You can find the digital copy here.

Ask the folks who work on WGN America’s Salem about Marilyn Manson, and they will tell you he’s a mystery, an enigma. While arranging our interview, one of the promotional people from the show spoke in hushed tones about Marilyn’s “unbelievable” confessions on an old Celebrity Ghost Stories. Brannon Braga, the creator of the witching horror series, now in its third season, meanwhile told Den of Geek that “nothing truly bizarre happened” on the Salem set until Manson came along. “He brought it with him,” Braga says. “He brought a whole bunch of things with him.”

The Mephistopheles of Los Angeles signed a one-season contract to set up a barber’s pole on Salem where his character will be cutting more just than heads. Barbers did double duty as surgeons back in the 17th century when the series is set, so it’s not all leeches and follicles with Manson manning the straight razor. Braga described his character as a cross between Vidal Sassoon, Jack the Ripper, and Sweeney Todd—and the first teaser trailer made it look like he might have a taste for human flesh. Marilyn Manson took time before jetting off for a European tour to talk about his latest incarnation.

Manson says his character, Thomas Dinley, is in between “the world of the dead and the world of witchcraft.” Season 3 is set in “devil-occupied Salem,” Braga explains, and Dinley “plays an important role in making the devil’s plan come to fruition.”

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There may be no better devil’s advocate than the Antichrist Superstar. After all, Manson is an honorary priest in the Church of Satan, but “they didn’t know that” when he was cast. It was even news to Braga, who was surprised by the missed opportunity.

“If I had [known], I might have gone to him for some ideas for magical things to do on the show,” Braga says.

The actor-musician has real-life experience. The band that carries his name recorded the Antichrist Superstar album “by Carcosa, which you might remember from season 1 of True Detective,” Marilyn recalls. “I also put a hex on somebody while I lived down there 18 years ago. I can say it successfully worked.”

“I’ll leave it at that,” he adds—because a magician, good or bad, never reveals his secrets. “There is some element that is electric or something that you can’t quite describe. If you could, you wouldn’t want to tell people what it was because you wouldn’t want to let people know what really is magic,” he explains.

“You’ve got magicians and the whole ability to fool people, whether it be with snake oil or tricks that have been around since the dawn of psychiatry, all of these things are various elements of what could be considered witchcraft. It’s just men’s ability to understand things and other men’s ability to control it.”

He believes Salem does a good job capturing that historic divide.

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“They’re as accurate as you can get based on the available reading material,” Manson explains. “It’s well-researched … I think that the torture devices and that scold mask, the things they put on the girls when they went into the trial, I think that’s all pretty accurate.”

“As far as the rituals, that I couldn’t say. I don’t think you could ever really know unless you were there,” he adds, before explaining why that didn’t make much difference. “I think there are a lot of times that people look at rituals in the literal sense. Some people are just born with a natural ability to make things happen or a determination to make them happen.”

A lot of people think Marilyn Manson conjures his own reality. Some fans thought that he made it rain while on a recent summer tour stop in Phoenix, Arizona. “I had sprained my ankle the night before and I wasn’t particularly in the mood to play,” Manson says. “It only rains seven times a year in Phoenix. I was pounding a witch drum I had since I was a kid. I’m not saying I control all the weather but when it came down it was a torrential downpour. There was more rain than they’ve had in 20 years. The show got cancelled.”

The songwriter believes the supernatural series captures an elusive ingredient that interests him more than historical accuracy.

“I know that they’re really in tune with the alchemy of it all,” Manson says. “That’s what I like about my character. He’s basically an alchemist. He’s motivated by gold. He does things that could be considered magic, depending on what you consider to be magic.”

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A mixture of synchronicity and alchemy brought Manson into the role. The singer happened to have “a copy of a book on alchemy in my house” that a writer on the show had given to a friend. “The synchronicity was too sick. Also being best friends with Johnny [Depp] and with him playing Sweeney Todd, it all seemed to flow together really well.”

The author of The Dope Show, who once proclaimed on Bill Maher’s old Politically Incorrect that “drug abusers give drug users a bad name,” added a caveat to his usual philosophy of better spirituality through chemistry:

“I don’t ever want to do acid again in my life,” Manson says. “It really attracts demons and the older you get, the more demons you have and they all want to shake hands with you. That’s a bad drug to do.”

But maybe it’s not a bad drug to prescribe, at least not in the sleepy little seaside town in Massachusetts where local puritans aren’t even that fond of firewater.

“My character is the drug hookup,” Manson mainlines into my recorder. “He’s a drug dealer. He has the apothecary. My character invents a certain fluid to imbibe. It’s probably historically inaccurate, but I like that they let my character be responsible for it. It’s not absinthe, because that would be too obvious as far as being historically inaccurate.”

It’s not too hard to swallow that the ever-inquisitive Manson knew he could sink his teeth into the role of the barber-surgeon.

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Manson sizes up Dinley as a “childish sort of sociopath who, when looking at a body, live or dead, was curious about what was inside. He was the type of person who just carves it open and looks inside without emotion.”

The singer was already familiar with the ancient medical equipment.

“The moment he stepped into Dinley’s space, he said ‘I have most of this stuff at home,’” Braga says. “His lab is filled with charts of body parts and Grey’s surgical instruments. He was right at home.”

“I have a barber’s chair in my house and I collect straight razors,” Manson modestly offers, never one to shy away from the grisly details.

“I didn’t get to use all of them as I’d like to. My character is one of the most unhygienic surgeons you ever want to have. There is one episode where I have to deal with what I call witch herpes. Someone has some kind of lesion. I just called it witch herpes because it’s disgusting. Some sort of boil. My character has no problem going in with unclean hands, no disinfectant, and extracting them. Then smelling them to try to tell what kind of infection they were. A really unsanitary character.”

And certainly one you wouldn’t want around food.

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“You know, it’s interesting,” Braga notes, “there are meat pies involved. I don’t think Marilyn made the pies. I doubt very much he cooks at all. But a lot of people, when the shooting was over for the day, would grab those pies and take them home and eat them. I never managed to steal one myself.”

“I cooked one of them,” Manson admits. “I cooked one sausage and I really wanted to eat it. I wasn’t really quite sure what they put in it. I’m no vegetarian, but I tried to get someone else to eat one.”

Like all great anti-heroes, Manson’s character has a delicious arc.

“I think throughout the course of the season he starts to discover there is more between skin and meat,” he says. “I think the one thing you can always be certain of is, if you go there and you talk to him, you’re probably going to end up dead. And where you go after you die is probably into a sausage.”

Just don’t expect the lifelong rock-and-roll fan to cook up any Goat’s Head Soup.

“They did let me play with a goat,” Manson recounts. “I asked if I could play with a goat when I wasn’t on camera because I had just seen the movie The Witch. I was obsessed with Blake Phillips, so I asked for a goat. They brought me a red one, but like the Rolling Stones sang: I saw a red goat and I had to paint it black. They painted it black for me and I played with it. The goat’s owner let me hold it and the ornery fucker dragged me across the entire streets of Salem. I didn’t want to let go of it and it just dragged me going ‘maaaaa.’ That was kind of amusing. That’s what you get when you play with the devil. When you pull the devil’s horns, you get dragged.”

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It wasn’t the devil’s horns, but Marilyn Manson’s rhythm section that first brought the musician to the show. His song “Cupid Carries a Gun” wasn’t written with Salem in mind, but since Tyler Bates, Manson’s musical writing partner, was scoring the show, they decided to make it the theme song.

“Tyler Bates, our composer who happened to be working with Marilyn Manson on an album, said to me one day ‘Marilyn has a song about witches that would be perfect for the show,’” Braga says. “He played it for me and it was perfect, exactly the right song. They recorded a different version for the show. It’s the ‘witch drum’ song.”

“Because it said ‘witch’s drums,’ they loved it,” Manson says. “But I had never really seen the show at that point. It hadn’t been out. That was synchronicity happening there.”

Since the earliest days of the blues, rock-and-roll has never gotten enough of that demon rhythm. I wanted to know whether the man who once said “music is the strongest form of magic” believes Robert Johnson got a good deal at the crossroads or should he have held out for publishing shares.

“I think he got the fame and fortune, his forever,” Manson concludes. “His Mephistophelian/Faustian deal still lives on. So I’d say he might not have gotten the deal he wanted but he got the deal that was right for him. Sometimes men don’t know exactly what they want.”

At a Christmas party, of all places, Braga met a man who knew Manson: “Standing under the tinsel he told me Marilyn wanted to be on the show. I said we have the perfect role for him. He is perfect for sure.”

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So perfect, it sometimes seems like the Goth rocker is just playing himself.

“He’s doing a character but it’s hard to distinguish the character from the real guy,” Braga says. “There’s a certain look he brought to the part, an inherent weirdness. But also he was really funny. We didn’t expect that, so he was also able to provide some comic relief that the show has been lacking, which I think was an important change.”

“From the minute I put my glasses on, I just became a complete deadpan asshole,” Marilyn explains. “And, if anyone complained, I just said I’m in character. So no one complained.”

Manson’s magic will only last one season, as far as anyone knows. The show has already survived another icon in a guest-starring role:  Last season, Lucy Lawless, the legendary Xena herself, played an ancient witch of the first order. She turned to dust, but it didn’t leave the show in ashes.

“I think that’s one thing about Salem,” Manson says. “It is episodic. It keeps people wanting more and that’s part of the lure of witchcraft and Satanism. Always leave them wanting more.”