Salem on Hallowe'en: Witch and Kitsch
Trip Start Aug 10, 2010
6Trip End May 30, 2011
Map your own trip!
Show trip route
I had visited Salem before--it was a very small, cold town when I went in mid November two years ago. The town's most famous resident is Nathaniel Hawthorne, who penned the excruciatingly long and dry novel, The Scarlet Letter, which was used as an implement of torture upon us in high school. The novel (and many others) centered around the concept of propriety and shame and being haunted by conscience. While perhaps the writing is difficult to digest to today's tastes, his ideas on morality are quite modern. But I digress--we'll return to him later
Salem, being famous for witches, has a month long Halloween bash, which for those unaware of this 'holiday', is actually a take off of the pagan holiday Samhain, which is actually New Years for the old celts. However, it was absorbed by Christianity and became an eve to All Saint's Day on November 1, where one is within speaking distance of spirits of the deceased (and the Saints, too). In the US, Halloween is a big deal because you can dress up in costumes, go beg for candy at neighbor's houses and have an all around scandalously secular time.
The decision to go to Salem was last minute, so we arrived unwarned to the hordes of tourists gathered in town, though I should have expected it. It was person to person gridlock on the pedestrian street, where shops had open houses; stalls of souvenirs and ghost/witch tour companies hawked their wares and intrepid street performers decked out in costumes posed for cameras and snarled for tips. The main drag, Essex Street, was basically downtown, with a handful of random witch-related shops--occult jewelry, fortune tellers, even a museum devoted to Lizzie Borden (who killed her parents with a hatchet, but was not a witch). There were definitely Halloween sights to see--for example, a man dressed as Marie Antoinette, down to the window-ledge hips and whipped cream hair--though he was smoking a Marlboro under his lace parasol
Most of Salem's important sites are clustered within a half mile of each other near downtown, but the only one remaining that really historically pertains to the Witch trials is the Corwin House, which is unfortunately named the Witch House. Going off of the name, my immediate expectation was some theme-park like structure with screeching puppets all over the place. Instead, it's a dark wood two story house that belonged to the main judge in the trials. On Halloween weekend nights the house hires actors to hold half hour horror story tellings. This blending of historical tragedy with child-like irreverence is pretty much the theme of Salem.
My friends were off to a Halloween party and were on the train back to Boston by the late afternoon, but I decided to stay and get the whole Halloween so I spent a couple of hours wandering the rest of town before catching a night walking tour. Originally, I had planned to go to the Salem Witch Museum (to avoid the bone aching cold), but it turns out that it's not so much a museum as a display space with a half hour presentation that was basically sold out until 9:30 that night (and would be sold out, even the midnight session by the time I came back at 9:30)
But there was definitely other stuff to see. The wharf area, which no longer serves the purpose of hauling up seafood was transformed into a carnival space, with ferris wheel, fried food stations and roller coasters. Next door were the really kitschy Halloween venues--rows of 'haunted' houses with gargoyles and monsters and all things gory. And in between the main drag and the carnival port, is the Old Burying Point, where famous Salemites were buried. Along the edge of the grounds are a memorial to the 20 people executed (their bodies were not buried here--as witches they were left to rot or stolen away by family in the dead of night and buried on family property). It's a testament to Salem that the graveyard was overflowing with people cheesing it up for the camera during the afternoon.
After wandering through lots and lots of partying revelers, I found myself in the middle of a huge 100+ group waiting for the candlelit night walking tour, Salem Witch Trial Trail
Witches were a catch all term for those who were considered heretics--many of these people retained some pagan aspect, usually women who used herbs and natural remedies for midwifery. Through the growth of the church in Europe, many disagreers and those who threatened the church's power (but were not quite rich enough for it to be an eccentricity) were persecuted and executed as heretics. An official tome about witches, named "Hammer of witches" came out in Germany at the end of the 15th century. This became the gospel for telling who was a witch and describing the insidious extent they had infiltrated society.
The Puritans, who came over to Massachusetts in the early 17th century, were generally of the belief that their good virtuous living would spare them from the evils of the world. But in 1988, Goody Glover, a servant for a rich doctor's family in Boston was accused of being a witch after the man's children became ill. The unfortunate thing about this case is that she embraced the idea of witchcraft and admitted to communing with Satan at trial
Fast forward 4 years and then you've got Salem. The trials were no merely an exercise in religious persecution--in fact, it was Christian versus Christian. It's a story about the class war and money, which is not so unique at all. During the 17th century Salem became the home to a rising elite of merchants who made themselves rich through the fish trade. Because of their wealth, they were given the opportunity to buy large tracts of land for their estates. These tracts were next to the established residents who were families of farmers. They had planned to buy these lands to provide for their children and expand the farm.
As you can imagine, having your future land be bought out from under you by rich outsiders made the farmers angry. Over the course of decades, this class division widened--the elite owned most of the land, had the better church and relegated the farmers to second class citizens. So the farmers bided their time until they had the opportunity to have their revenge against the rich. And this revenge came in the form of an illness of a child, Ann Putnam, that the village doctor (self-educated) found was strikingly similar to that of the children in the Goodwin case
The slave in the house Tituba was suspected and interrogated, and likely through intimidation by her master, admitted to being a witch and implicated several other citizens. The cycle could have ended, but the afflicted children backed up these claims by falling into fits whenever the accused were paraded by and claiming that the person's spectres were tormenting them. The concept of spectral evidence, which could not be proven and therefore not be refuted meant that there was no real chance of being found innocent. It was through these children that the embittered farmers exacted their revenge against the elites. It was surprisingly effective--many of the accused were those who publicly doubted the veracity of the claims.
All told 19 witches were convicted (including 2 men) and hanged, though well over 200 were accused by the girls. The irony is that only those who refused to confess were hung--the others found that by confessing and them implicating others, their lives were spared, though their property and wealth were seized by the state.
After 16 months of accusation, the exhaustion of the mess, especially of having routed out witches from every corner of society, who then implicated even more citizens made the process untenable
Much of the aftermath of the trials was the silence on the whole matter--the community chose to try to forget the entire affair. Though there were key statements, from some judges on the court and from Ann Putnam, one of the girls involved in accusing her neighbors, that the process was flawed and lead to the execution of innocent individuals. Various compensation was offered to the families of the accused.
One judge who remained convinced that he had done God's work and refused to repent was John Hathorne, the great-great grandfather of Nathaniel Hawthorne. The story is that the taint of John Hathorne on Nathanial Hawthorne lead him to change his surname and contributed to the themes of shame in his novels.
After the walking tour, I headed over to the Nathanial Hawthorne house (and House of Seven Gables), where they took advantage of Halloween night to stage half hour actor reenactments in the house. Each room had an actor in period dress playing the part of someone involved in the Witch trails--except for the first room where we met Nathaniel Hawthorne himself. We met John Hathorne, an accused woman in jail, three bewitched girls and the repentant Ann Putnam. Though rather melodramatic and quite overwrought and overdone, about halfway through you start to get into a bit. Given the options of ghost tours and pirate tours and ghoulish houses, I'd rather be spooked by real history
My final stop was the Salem Witch museum, which was rather disappointing. I had expected real exhibits--letters, court orders, evidence and period artifacts. Instead it was tableaus set up around an exhibition space. Lights lit up these scenes as a narrator told us the history of the trials. It was rather superficial and there was one part that was meant to be extremely horrifying but turned out rather comical. One of the accused men, Giles Corey, refused to enter a plea in court, which meant he could not be tried. To force a plea out of him, the court had him pressed--he was laid on the green whereby rocks would be placed on him for 2 days. In the end he died without entering a plea, a protest against a court he knew would offer him no chance of mercy anyway. The soundtrack included an actor trying to approximate the gurlges and moans of a man being crushed to death, but ended up being very slurry and drunk.
After the presentation they had a 10 minute extra bit that was almost like a wicca propaganda exhibit. Here they discussed the pagan history of real witches and then the modern day wicca, which apparently numbers in the thousands in Salem. I had known that there were quite a few witches in Salem these days, but no idea it was so pervasive
Back in Boston, the whole trip to Salem seemed like a weird kind of dream. The dressing up, the occult tourism and the historical reality of the witch trials seems completely at odds with one another. How do you learn a horrifying lesson while enjoying being fake terrified by gory and kitschy amusements? But like going into an amateur play, where you spend the first 10 minutes distinctly uncomfortable because it doesn't seem believable at all, after a bit in Salem, you tell yourself, 'What the hell, you're here, why not relax and have some fun?'
And then I found myself able to at least look on the entire place with a less critical eye. Learning about the history of the witch trials was my highlight, but I'm a history nerd, so that's no surprise. It's a history that relatable and the cornerstone of pretty much all the injustices in the world--greed, fear, hysteria and lapses in due process. I'm not sure if this message comes out the clearest underneath the brims of witches hats in Salem, but it's an important concept regardless. And after the history, you can enjoy Salem in a different way--monsters and fake blood and carnivals and live music.
Kitschy? Yes. Interesting? Some yes, some no. Unique? Definitely. In the end, I'm conflicted about if I really enjoyed it or not, but I'm definitely glad I can at least say I've done Halloween in Salem.