Thursday, October 31, 2019

The Truth About Salem

Salem, Massachusetts currently has outsized influence in pop culture as the "Witch City," due to the major tourist draw of its annual Halloween festival. These days at least half the paranormal television shows and movies explain characters that can cast witchcraft spells as having "families from Salem" or some other nonsense. What all of that ignores is that the "witches" executed at Salem were not witches or pagans or magical practitioners of any kind. They were for the most part marginalized members of their communities caught up in a moral panic that claimed their lives.

Kate Fox is the director of Salem's marketing organization. According to this article, much of Fox's work consists of drawing distinctions between the cartoon Halloween witches celebrated by the festival and the totally-non-witch victims of the infamous 1692 trials. She's the sort of person I would really like to see advising paranormal television producers to maybe link witchcraft to something or someplace else that makes more sense.

Fox is well-versed in distinguishing holiday from history for tourists. “The Salem Witch Trials do not have a direct relationship to Halloween, and the people who were accused and condemned in 1692 were not witches,” she clarifies, “they were innocent people and they were victims of a social crisis.” Pop culture, including Arthur Miller’s 1953 play “The Crucible,” has fueled misconceptions and Salem’s witch tourism economy.

Fox says many of the attractions, museums and more than two dozen walking tours can open visitors’ eyes. Jeff Page leads one named “Bewitched After Dark” that stops at a bronze statue of Samantha from the iconic TV show “Bewitched.” It briefly filmed in Salem in 1970 for a plot where Samantha, played by Elizabeth Montgomery, attends a witch convocation only to end up being chased around by a seemingly possessed, floating bed warmer.

“Once those episodes aired people come from all over the country to get a look at the Witch City,” Page explains to this day’s group, “About that point we start painting witches on everything in town. You guys seen our police cars yet? There’s a witch on ‘em.” Fox thinks Sam is the most photographed landmark in Salem, but visitors don’t really ask how or if it really fits in with history. “They take pictures, twinkle their nose and off they go.”

This attraction that's courted controversy in the past gets a major uptick in October. According to Fox more than one third of Salem’s annual tourism spending is generated this month at an estimated $42 million. A short walk from the Samantha statue, people can participate in a history-based re-enactment called “Cry Innocent" at the Old Town Hall. “Now good people, has anyone here served on a witch craft jury before?” an actor asks people seated in rows on the historic building’s second floor.

“Cry Innocent” is an immersive way to learn about Bridget Bishop, one of more than 200 Puritans accused of being a witch. Kristina Wacome Stevick, artistic director of History Alive, the theater company that produces the show, says people in the audience can ask questions and vote on her fate. “They learn of course at the end of the show that Bridget Bishop did historically go to trial,” she tells me, “and she was convicted of witchcraft and she was hanged on June 10, 1692.”

It probably is inevitable that Salem's association with campy fictional witch characters from pop culture and media will endure, mostly because the Halloween festival has been very successful for a long time. But it also seems to me that re-enactments like "Cry Innocent" are important reminders of what happens when superstition, paranoia, and moral panic go off the rails. Witchcraft panics still happen all over the world today, and the "Satanic panic" of the late 1980's and early 1990's happened right here in the United States not that long ago.

The real history of Salem clearly demonstrates the need to remain vigilant against this nonsense and prevent it from ruining or even taking innocent lives.

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