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Salem, MA: Witches, Hangings, Wikka, and Chachka

Salem, Massachusetts is an oxymoron, at once both historical and fiction.  The town is famous for the 1962 witch trails in which over 150 innocent people were arrested, imprisoned, and tried for witchcraft.  Nineteen accused witches were hanged and one man was crushed to death by stones.  In history, there were no witches in Salem, only mass hysteria.  Now, there are witches in Salem, practicing Wicca, but there is still mass hysteria.  This time, it’s chachka hysteria.  You cannot imagine a town with more trinketry, souvenirs, junk-for-sale, keychains, and crass t-shirts. 

Ashley and Samantha

I even had my photo taken with the town statue of Samantha*, from the 1970s TV show “Bewitched,” adding yet another dimension to the town’s eccentric marketing strategy.

 Worth visiting? Absolutely!  With babies and toddlers? Sure. With 3-8 year olds?  Maybe not.  Tweens and teens?  Oh yeah!  Why not young kids?  Well the themes of the town are hangings and horror.  You could probably have a nice visit to the Peabody Essex Museum and an educational trip to the ‘Witches: Evolving Perceptions” exhibit in the basement of the Salem Witch Museum but you would likely catch yourself sheltering and explaining.

To start your visit, I would strongly recommend the Witch History Museum.  It has a terrific recorded history of the witch trials in which dioramas light up around the room to show the action.  The “show” takes place in an old church, adding an ironic twist.  I remembered the show from a visit to Salem when I was just 15 and it hadn’t changed much at all.  Perhaps it hadn’t even been dusted since then?  But dust and decay add a bit of creep and 1692 history really hasn’t changed since I was a kid.  Down in the basement, there is something new, an exhibit on evolving perceptions of witches.  The exhibit puts the witch trials in the context of many other sad events of mass hysteria and persecution.  It also explains the Wicca religion and asks folks to reconsider stereotypes and preconceptions.

The problem is that, out on the street, the town is selling preconceptions and stereotypes. Stores are full of junk: spells and sex-jokes, dragon dust and witch masks, voodoo dolls and bags and bags of salt to protect against demons.  As Vegas hands out little cards with photos of women for sale, Salem hands out photos of Tarot card readers and fortunetellers.  “It’s still fun!” insists my 12-yr-old.  The two biggest shops were called “Hex” and  “Omen.”  But, we’re supposed to understand that witches aren’t really evil?  One store did take itself more seriously, selling food-grade herbs and honest relics.  The shopkeeper was bustling around complaining about how busy she was getting the Samhain decorations down in time for Yule.  (Luckily, we had just learned that Samhain was a Wicca holiday that occurred at the same time as Halloween.)  There was a bookstore that could never weather an earthquake, delicious seafood, and a gorgeous, green town commons with a white steeple silhouetted against a crisp blue sky.       

We never made it past the fantastic gift shop at the Peabody Essex Museum (fondly referred to as PEM), which will certainly force us to make a more highbrow return visit to the art collections and historical homes.  Next visit, we’ll also catch the house of seven gables.  We have some reading homework before we visit that landmark.  My cousin and I read “The Lace Reader” before visiting Salem this time.  I can’t recommend the book but we enjoyed having some fiction to discuss and reading the book probably helped us to see the strange dichotomies between the town’s tourism and its more honest, though ironic, commitment to the Wicca religion. 

We stayed at the Salem Inn, in an afforadable and very large family suite.  It was at the top of 3 narrow flights of stairs and sported a big kitchen, neat views, and plenty of charm.  There was a parrot and free sherry in the front lobby.  Breakfast was included and, thought not superb or gourmet, it was definitely better than we expected.  The other big hotels in town were significantly pricier with a bit less character.  However, the Hawthorne Hotel, looked like a very fun place to stay and the location simply can’t be beat.  

Was there an educational value in all this historical tourism and obsessive devotion to chachka?  A visit to Salem is likely to expand your family’s ideas about religion.  For kids ready to think, the town’s history is a fabulous example of the destructive power of peer pressure.  It’s a perfect reminder that, no matter how many people say it is OK to do something and no matter what religion they drag forward as evidence of the right of their way, hate is never a virtue and even very large crowds can be very, very wrong.   

*” TV Land spent $75,000 to install a bronze statue of “Samantha” in Salem, Mass’ Lappin Park on June 15, 2005.

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