Halloween in the Witch City


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            One thing you learn if you live in Salem, Massachusetts: Don’t leave your house on Halloween night after 6 pm. It’s the equivalent of stepping out onto Bourbon Street at Mardi Gras, except that nobody’s flashing boobs, which is a big improvement, depending on your feelings about slutty behavior in public.


            Other than that, the whole month of October is Halloween in Salem. It’s kind of like living in Halloweentown, except that the inebriated ghoulies are pissing against your house and tossing beer cans in your yard. But visitors, especially if they come earlier in the month, have a lot of fun. The whole town is full of “haunted” attractions, ghost tours, psychic readers, witch and occult museums and enough tacky souvenirs to keep the entire economy of China fat & happy for decades. If you’re coming for the real 1692 history, you won’t see a lot of that. There’s only one building (the Witch House pictured here) connected to the hysteria still standing, and of course the Old Burying Point with Judge Hathorne's grave is still there, right next to the Memorial to those who died in the witch hysteria.


           It’s odd – and hotly debated as to the moral implications – that this town has built a reputation for spooky shenanigans on the strength of killing twenty of its citizens on only the flimsiest of evidence. But that sobering event has only the most tenuous of ties to the Halloween season, though plenty of local witches try to associate modern-day witchcraft with those terrible events. Personally, I feel that those efforts are as much an exploitation of the deaths of innocent people as anything the witches accuse the town of doing. If you go to Salem, note how many of those witches are trying to sell you something, just like the shopkeepers they claim are pandering to tourists.

    By contrast, the neighboring town of Danvers, where the witch hysteria of 1692 actually started, has managed to preserve the history of the era with a quiet dignity. Some of the houses and farms of both accusers and accused still stand: indeed, most are occupied still, a few by the same families. The foundations of the house of Rev. Samuel Parris, “ground zero” for the witch accusations, has been unearthed: it stands in a relatively silent patch of ground that backs up to someone’s backyard. You have to know where these places are, and carefully search for the discreet historical markers.


            There’s an elaborate memorial in Danvers, and another one in Salem, but standing in front of either, even on a quiet afternoon, you don’t really feel connected to history. In Danvers however, turn slightly to the right towards the “ordinary” or tavern that still stands as a private home, and you can get a vague sense of the everyday feel of the place as it must have been. And it’s that quiet, everyday feel of normal people carrying on with their lives that makes the reality of the past so horrible. These people weren’t monsters. They were religious people convinced that they were fighting an evil that they believed was real.


            Go to the Rebecca Nurse farm, carefully preserved by the Danvers Alarm Company (a Revolutionary re-enactor group), and you’ll get an even more pervasive sense of the ordinary, of  average life interrupted by the unbelievable. You can tour the house and grounds, and visit the silent little cemetery at the end of a dirt road. Rebecca was in her 80s and sick when she was accused, thrown in a filthy basement jail, tried and hanged.  She isn’t buried in the cemetery. The bodies of the accused were thrown into a ditch near Gallows Hill, deemed not worthy of burial. Her family crept to the site late at night and stole her body away for a private, grief-stricken burial. She’s somewhere on the property she loved, her secret kept for all this time.


            So if you go to Salem, have a good time, spend some cash, buy a few T-shirts and shot glasses, get a good scare at the haunted houses, and marvel at all the inventive costumes walking around on Halloween night.

            But spare a moment in the madness and have a thought for Rebecca, and for the rest who died and the hundreds who were jailed and financially ruined. They deserve to be remembered as ordinary, hardworking people who died with great courage, insisting on their innocence until the final snap of the rope strangled the truth.


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