Tourism in Salem is wild with 100,000 visitors descending on this historic Massachusetts town on any given day. Traffic is gridlocked, and there are virtually no parking spaces left. The mayor told visitors to go to satellite parking lots and take shuttle buses downtown. Then the satellite lots got maxed out.
Salem is famous for the 1692 witch trials, which has made "Halloween in Salem" a bucket list item. That's good for the Halloween-themed businesses, which have taken over downtown. Not so good for locals wanting to pick up groceries or do early voting at the City Hall Annex. And certainly not good for an understanding of the tragedy behind the merrymaking.
The Halloween festivities no longer limited to a day or a week, the "pointy hats" start showing up in early September. Joining them are characters dressed as goths, ghost hunters in top hats and tarot card readers.
The party scene is so good for business that Salem has branded itself as "Witch City." (The city's police car doors feature silhouettes of witches on broomsticks.)
Some local objections go beyond the inconvenience and kitsch overtaking this beautiful colonial-era city. They include the history being celebrated. It may be three centuries in the past, but the witch trials ended in a mass execution of innocents.
"I don't want to be an old curmudgeon," a Salem resident named Patrick told me, "but it seems like we have this horrific crime committed against the women on one hand and the Disney version of witchcraft on the other. The women weren't wearing those hats, I'm sure."
The Salem witch hunts ended in 24 executions, largely on charges of devil worship. Almost all involved women who died by hanging. But a male victim, an 81-year-old farmer named Giles Corey, was pressed to death after refusing to plead either way.
Nowadays, the town runs a month-long celebration called Haunted Happenings. The participants include costumed celebrants cruising the main pedestrian street. A few dress up as Hollywood witch characters offering to pose for photos, they hope, for money. Buses blaring music ply the streets.
There are Salemites who would like a rebranding around the city's fabulous Peabody Essex Museum and stunning colonial architecture. Also, the waterfront, which once served as the nation's biggest port, its tall ships venturing to and from all four corners.
But you can't escape Halloween, even at historically significant locations. The House of the Seven Gables is the real thing, a fine structure built in 1668. But as the inspiration for Nathaniel Hawthorne's gothic tale of the same name, it feeds into the Halloween theme.
Architectural dignity is obviously hard to maintain. Mobs gather at the 18th-century Ropes Mansion because it was featured in the 1993 movie "Hocus Pocus." (Ghost City Tours will take you there.) And enthusiastic crowds pile into the pirate museum, basically a converted old storefront.
One shudders to think what the Puritans who held the witch trials would have thought of all this frivolity built around bar hopping and puddles of fake blood. The Puritans, after all, banned celebrations of Christmas "as were superstitiously kept in other countries, to the great dishonor of God and offence of others" — an order of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, 1659.
All right. People are having fun, Halloween tourism fills Salem's town coffers, and the residents can use the back roads. Far be it for we starchy moderns to deny access to the Witch Dungeon Museum.
But let us recognize that all those executed "witches" were real people caught up in a mass hysteria. They were, in essence, murdered. The witch trials were really not funny.
Reprinted with permission from Creators.
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