[Hansel and Gretel] is a story we tell to teach an important lesson: be careful around strangers. And as our world has more and more become a dangerous place to live, it’s a fairy tale that still seems to hold onto a lot of its relevance. Of course, most of us were raised to see the fantasy in a story like that–a witch who murders, cooks, and eats other people. Honestly, how much more fictional could we get? But it never hurts to push back against assumptions and ask the difficult question: what if it could actually happen?
In these review posts, I sometimes critique Aaron Mahnke’s Lore podcast for getting bogged down at the narrative’s outset in historical contextualization. This episode takes matters in the opposite direction, jumping right into an extended story, which can be a bit disorienting at first. Mahnke details the life and crimes of Leonarda Cianciulli, a figure who would become notorious in Italy in the mid-20th Century. Cursed by her own mother (who disapproved of her daughter’s choice of husband), Leonarda seeks out a Romany fortune teller who warns her that she will outlive her children; a second fortune teller a few years later asserts that Leonarda is fated for either prison or a mental asylum. Circumstances (I won’t spoil the whole story here) lead Leonarda into occult practice herself, and then to mass murder (what she did with the corpses afterwards is the true jaw-dropper). But was Leonarda the powerful witch she claimed to be, or simply criminally insane? Pondering the woman’s self-mythologizing, Mahnke eventually steps back to address the purpose of fairy tales and folkloric story. Still, one might question whether this justifies the extensive focus on such a singular case. Overall, “The Crucible” is a fast moving episode, but falls short of a bewitching listening experience.