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SALEM TODAY: MAKING THE MOST OF A DARK HISTORY
October 31, 2000
Forget Burkittsville, Maryland, the site of a fictional witch hunt in last
year's Blair Witch Project.
Three hundred years ago, Salem, Massachusetts was the site of some of the
scariest events in U.S. history.
For nearly a year, suspicion and intrigue gripped this coastal New England
town as residents accused women, men, and even a five-year-old child of
Salem's witch crisis began in the fall of 1691. Two young girls -- the
daughter and niece of the minister of Salem village -- fell into hysterical
fits, blaming their odd behavior on witchcraft.
The children's game launched a season of suspicion in Salem. When the
infamous witch trails of 1692 were over, 24 men and women had been accused
of witchcraft and 19 had been hanged.
Though the town once tried to shake its legacy of witchy happenings, a
changing view of witches -- and Halloween -- has helped turn Salem into one
of New England's most popular tourist destinations.
Now, Salem embraces its dark past, offering visitors hearse-guided tours of
its infamous sites, including four haunted houses and a staggering seven
witch museums. And for the entire month of October, the town hosts one of
the country's largest Halloween celebrations, "Haunted Happenings." The
events range from canine Halloween costume contests to psychic fairs to a
Halloween parade that draws 150,000 "spook-tators."
BALANCING FRIGHT AND FACT
Salem's popularity has risen along with that of Halloween in the last few
decades. It is now the second most popular holiday in the U.S. after
Christmas, says Kate Fox of Destination Salem, a partnership between the
government and local businesses that serves as the city's office of Tourism
and Cultural Affairs.
About one-third of Salem's annual 1 million visitors come during the month
of October, drawn by the continuing allure of the city's infamous history,
Though the exact location of Salem's Gallows Hill -- where 19 of the accused
were hanged -- is in dispute, tourists can visit Salem's Witch House, which
actually belonged to one of the judges in the witch trials, and the
homestead of Sarah Nurse, one of the first accused -- and hanged -- in
In 1992, the city erected a memorial to the victims of Salem's witch hunt to
mark the 300-year anniversary of the witch trials. The memorial was
dedicated by holocaust survior and Nobel Prize-winning author Elie Weisel.
"It shows that the concept of a witch hunt updates itself. Bigotry,
prejudice -- whatever you want to call it -- is universal," says David
Gavenda, a lifelong Salem resident and director of the Salem Visitor's
Today, there is a strong Wicca community in Salem, and even an official
witch, Laurie Cabot, who was commended by Massachusetts Governor Michael
Dukakis in the mid-seventies for her work with children.
Salem's present-day witches are "very diligent, determined to co-exsit
peacefully with everyone else," says Gavenda.
BEYOND SALEM'S WITCHES
Once the seventh largest port city in the colonies, Salem has a rich
maritime history, and offers visitors a unique window on nearly four
centuries of U.S. history.
"Witches are the hook that gets people here, but they come back to
appreciate the history," Gavenda says.
Salem's Peabody Essex Museum has just completed a U.S. $100 million
restoration. The oldest continually operating museum in the U.S., it honors
Salem's seafaring heritage. Salem sea captains were among the first
Americans to travel to Asia and the Pacific, returning with exotic
souveniers. The museum also houses a remarkable 552 documents realting to
the witch trials of 1692.
Now the second most visited city in Massachusetts, Salem offers vistors
arts, antiques, historic homes, and the feeling of a real New England city,
says Gavenda. "When vistors go down to the waterfront they see [that] this
is a true working community."
A LONG HISTORY OF SCARY FUN
As early as 100 years ago, tourists bagan coming to Salem to experience the
witch heritage, says Hillary Witham, of the Salem Halloween Comittee, which
organizes the month-long "Haunted Happenings" events.
In fact, says Witham, Salem is credited with starting the collectible spoon
tradition in the U.S. In 1892, a Salem shopkeeper sold the first collectible
spoon -- embossed with the image of a Salem witch.
"Other places have Halloween events, but this is one of the fewmaybe the
only sites in America that has a direct link to witches and witchcraft,"
"It's all in fun, though," he adds. "[Salem] has grown to what it is not
because of spells and witchcraft, but because it's fun. Ninety percent of
the Halloween vistors come to see what costumes the other people have
dreamed up for Halloween."
We've had people coming in costumes since Colombus Day," says Kate Fox, who
notes that at the city's various costume balls, competition can get intense.
"A few years ago, we had two groups dressed as the cast from Titanic. It got
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