Essays & Books
We're Not the Only Ones
Excerpt from Chapter 5, Selling the Story
On the one hand, educational and high art museums and sites battle do de-emphasize Salem's witch past, which gets marked as entertaining, tacky, and trivial. At the same time, however, the city is witch-crazy; tourists are obsessed with witches, the Wiccan community is thriving, and witchcraft-related attractions continue to draw the greatest crowds in Salem. Salem's seaport gets constructed as the valuable, significant, educational, and "true" historical past, while witches get constructed as a kind of bogus and even fraudulent historical narrative. But Salem's seaport remains "bewitching," as witch history continually thwarts the efforts of maritime history to leave it silent and buried. This war, between classy and tacky tourist sites, between education and entertainment, between truth and fiction, is what drives and ultimately sustains Salem's tourist industry.
Excerpt from Chapter 2, the Witches Teat
To many observers today, the legacy of Salem's seventeenth century witchcraft trials has itself become a kind of witch's teat, nourishing a modern, Halloween centered growth industry catering to the public's bottomless fascination with witchcraft and the occult.
Salem's struggle between revenue for today and reverence for yesterday has become so touchy several people refused to go on record about the flourishing witch business" reported USA today in 1997. "We don't have much of a tax base," admitted Salem witch Teri Kalgren. "unless we want to sink, we have to do something."
Similarly, there's room for no less than five entrepreneurs to offer walking tours of Salem's haunted past, including narrated strolls through witch trial sites and historical burial grounds, with tales of "spectral assaults" and grisly crimes. Perhaps the most colorful tour description comes form Spellbound Tours Vampire and Ghost Hunt, which seems to import elements of Transylvania to New England: "Join certified ghost hunter Mollie Steward for a historical nighttime walk around Salem's dark edges in search of the living dead! Visit a haunted cemetery, haunted buildings, and an torturous murder site. Hear documented tales of New England vampirisim and modern vampires!""
In addition to spooky dinner theater at Endicott Streets' Mystery Cafe, the Crypt Cafe on Essex street offers Tortured Turkey, Stephanie's Screaming Spinach pie, and other tasty treats, all to be washed down with the far mellower proposition of pumpkin spice coffee.
In the colonial summer of 1692, no one in Salem ate tortured turkeys, spinach didn't scream, and nobody had ever seen a wax museum. But the existence of the supernatural was an accepted fact of life, and twenty women and men of Salem were put to death for the crime of witchcraft. None knew anything about Halloween. All hallow's eve was of no importance to the puritan colonists, who had established their own harvest celebration of Thanksgiving, an unofficial religious holiday that had nothing to do with the dead but everything to do with the reatliship of the living to the inscrutable and terrifying deity.
Nonetheless, the ritual human sacrifice known as the Salem witch trials would ultimately take on the commercial patina of a festival whose purpose and meaning its victims would find utterly mystifying and no doubt, abominable.
Excerpt from Greetings from the Witch City
I really tried to give Salem Halloween a chance this year. I kept telling myself to forget that this celebration is based completely on the tragic death of innocent people over 300 years ago and that there is no connection between Halloween and the Salem Witch Trials other than a manufactured one that has to be based on the completely unfounded assumption that these people WERE witches. People just don’t want to hear that, and my persistent haranguing has made me into a bit of a pest to my family and friends. A lighthearted attitude towards the month-long Haunted Happenings “celebration” is completely impossible for me to adopt, so instead I went for detached, either in time or of place: concentrate on the past (this always works for me) and avoid downtown at all costs. But yesterday I just put myself right into the fray, for you, dear readers, who have also been exposed to my Halloween snarkiness for years. I tried to adopt an objective attitude as I mingled among the huge crowds, but I couldn’t really maintain it and then I lost it altogether! So here are my observations, both in words and pictures–that latter a bit more objective than the former–I actually think they are a fair representation of what Salem looks like on Halloween. From my street-level perspective, however, I couldn’t quite capture the immensity of the crowd: estimated at 100,000 people, more or less.
Excerpt from the Chapter, The "City" in Witch City
"When you [Mayor Driscoll] were first elected, I'm assuming you came in with a list of things you wanted to get done. Where was figuring out Halloween on that list?"
"Halloween twenty-five, thirty years ago, wasn't what it is now, nationwide or certainly not within Salem. Somewhere around the early 90's it took a big turn where more and more people were coming. It became spring break for us. I think previous administrations didn't really want to own that. I mean, it's never been, and isn't today, an organized effort by a PR or event-planning firm. There's just a bunch of stuff happening that is not really linked, but people are still coming."
She told me about previous Halloweens during which stabbings occurred and where the front page of the newspaper on November 1 would have a photo of the SWAT team. "I came on in January, and I said we've got to figure this out. People are coming, so we have to own it. So let's start figuring out what we're going to do. And then we've tried to learn and get better every year."
In 2014, Breanna Mitchell, an American teenager, posted a selfie on Twitter. "Selfie in the Auschwitz Concentration Camp," she wrote, adding a blushing smiley face emoji.
A month later someone spotted her tweet and retweeted it, and within hours it had generated a backlash which spread from Twitter to traffic-hungry news sites to her mobile phone, which lit up with abuse and even death threats from people who had obtained her number, she said.
Ms Mitchell joined a growing number of people who had made arguably ill-judged social media posts and were dealt an online public shaming in return. Her picture generated a debate about appropriate behaviour at memorial sites.
Excerpt from Chapter 4, Fright Sights
Salem, Massachusetts, is the place to be during the month of October when the varied events of "Haunted Happenings" take place. Originated in 1982 by co-chairs Joan P. Gormalley (executive director of the Salem Chamber of Commerce) and Susanna Stuart (director of the Salem Witch Museum), the now almost-month-long festival is family oriented and yet offers "treats" for all to share in the spirit of Halloween. To ensure "good taste," the festival committee of Haunted Happenings sent out a letter in 1983 in which they stated that "we encourage all to participate in our [med-evil] costume competition and we require all costumes to be original, a reflection of the evening's theme, and in good taste...Any person or persons arriving at our festival clad in ugly, green-faced, troll-like, blood-dripped, or otherwise grotesque costumes will not be admitted on the premises and no refunds will be given."
New Orleans Monument to Confederacy Comes Down
New York Times, May 19, 2017
NEW ORLEANS — With the yank of a crane and to a cheer from the crowd, Robert E. Lee was lifted off his 80-foot perch, where he had been standing gazing north for most of 133 years, and slowly lowered to the ground.
It was the last monument of four to be removed, the culmination of an effort going back two years, when Mayor Mitch Landrieu announced plans to take down city memorials to the Confederate era. The City Council agreed, but the opposition to the move was fierce, allying Confederate sympathizers, historical preservationists and state lawmakers, local blue bloods and out-of-staters. Contractors involved with the process received death threats, forcing workers at the removals to do their jobs in masks and bulletproof vests.