The Witching Sell

Marketplace of the macabre

Paul M. Soper

Salem rocks: a bluegrass band plays in Essex Square

It’s dark in the forest. Screams, the hysterical screams of young girls, reverberate in the New England night. As lightning flashes ominously, striking the tips of the trees, a girl walks toward us and whispers: “We’re going to go up the stairs and exit through the gift shop now.”

Welcome to the Disneyland of Horror, where history is served with a smile. We stumble dizzily into the gift shop with its array of “Witch Crossing” shot glasses. Across the street, you can buy witch figurines and candleholders at the local souvenir shop. In Essex Square, the town’s main drag, there is the usual array of fried dough and roasted nut stands common to county fairs everywhere. Salem is much like any other tourist trap, except when you remember what happened here. 25 dead. 200 imprisoned. The trials the Massachusetts State Legislature referred to as “those dark and severe Prosecutions,” when it officially pardoned the witches in 1771.

At the moment though, it is a warm fall day and a long line of camera-happy tourists snakes its way out the door of the Witch History Museum. A notice on the wall advertises a “Live Presentation followed by a guided tour with modern animated techniques. Historically accurate.” On the tour, it seems as though all of Salem’s high-school drama club members have been stuffed into ill-fitting Pilgrim costumes and are now performing an occult show-and-tell. “My name is Chelsea,” an unhappy girl in a bonnet tells us as she guides us to the museum’s basement. “If you have any questions or concerns during the tour, just let me know.” With no change in tone, she then informs us, “You are about to meet...the Devil.”

We move into “the forest.” Granted, I haven’t spent much time in the New England forest, but I didn’t recall it having wall-to-wall carpet. We assemble, strollers and all, in front of a tableau of Pilgrim girls dancing devilishly in the woods. Except that they’re not moving. At all. They’re made of wax. Strange recorded laughter echoes from a visible boom box as the wax statues cavort as best they can in their stationary manner. After a reverent two seconds at this display, everyone moves on to a “kitchen,” which is equally poorly lit. From another speaker (concealed under a burlap bag) comes the sound of strange blubbering. The source of this sorrow seems to be a wax figure sitting sadly in a rocking chair.

Chelsea informs us that we are moving on to the village green, which is also, for some reason, in pitch darkness. “Now careful,” she says with a cheer usually reserved for road-company musicals, “they may accuse you of being a witch!” These accusations turn out to be represented by a single Pilgrim with an animatronic hand that swings jerkily on her plastic wrist. The Salem witch trials were paranoia at its most fierce. Now they’re represented by an ill-made plastic finger bobbing up and down. You. You. Not you.

“Now you’re gonna take a walk up to Wells, Maine! And you’ll meet your next tour guide Jimmy.” After promising that “we’ll get to know each other very well,” Jimmy delivers the next two minutes or so of the tour. Strobe lights flash as the motionless figure of a slave girl named Candy insists that she is not a witch. A goblin and a cat made out of felt stare at us sadly.

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Jimmy directs us to the next tableau. The hanging of George Burrows, one of the accused, is represented by My Little Pony-sized figures. A doll version of Burrows hangs from a good three inches of string. I look closely. There’s no blood. The doll is smiling. Before we can take it in, a new tour guide has replaced Jimmy. “My name is Laura and I’m going to see you through to the end. On your left, you’ll see a witch pit...”

Cotton Mather is pictured digging up Burrows’s corpse. His animatronic shovel moves jerkily. Laura asks us to join her by the corpse, and to “make room” so that everyone can have a chance to see. She tells us of how Mather boiled Burrows’ skull and found that it was of an abnormal size, leading him to claim Burrows was a witch. “But, of course, when you boil someone’s skeleton, their bones expand,” Laura tells us chirpily.

This kind of history, the kind you buy tickets to, is for those who expect to assimilate an event like the trials in a matter of hours. Its storylines are whittled down into their most digestible form, and time becomes a slideshow of lurid details.

Elizabeth Laskin, a lecturer in the history department who teaches History 71a, “America: Colonial Times to the Civil War” notes that the jumbling of eras in Salem creates a skewed version of history: “In front of the witch museum, they have that marvelous statue of Roger Conant. It’s sort of oversized, and he’s got this great billowing cloak...I think a lot of people look at him and think ‘Salem witch trial judge right there.’ In fact, Conant was dead before the witch trials. He was the founder of the town.”

The compression of Salem’s history into a dark basement full of wax figures is a slick way to market the past. “Witchcraft sells, certainly, so that’ll draw people up there, and it’s a lure to tourists,” Larkin says. Hangings and stonings are more titillating than a broader historical explanation. “Rather than saying, ‘Well, they had economic problems, and they were on the brink of a shift to a shipping economy,’ That’s probably where all the focus on black magic comes from,” she says.

One local center of black magic is the Goddess Treasure Chest, where sales associate Andrea Landro says the store sells supplies for witches: “We have books, oils, crystals, wands.” She adds that “summer is kind of busy sometimes, but Halloween—it’s the busy season.”

On the counter in front of her is a basket of stones that read “BITCH.” “I should buy one for my wife,” a middle-aged man jokes. Landro doesn’t even fake a laugh. “All the guys that come in here, they say that,” she tells me.

Sylvia Martinez has owned and operated the Treasure Chest for ten years. A former psychotherapist, she now does psychic readings in the back of the store. She welcomes me into an extremely pink room, decorated with crystals and chimes. When I point out the cat curled up on the sofa behind her, she gestures dismissively, saying, “It’s a fake cat.” In other words, alive—just not anymore.

Martinez has long dark hair and a tiny, barely visible nose stud. She says that most who come to her store are just garden-variety tourists, some with an interest in paganism and witchcraft. She has had her odd run-ins though, even by Salem standards. “We did have a Holy Roller who came and tried to strangle my dog.” She thinks for a moment. “We had a woman come in and say that it was blasphemous to call a store Goddess.” She shrugs and hands me a card, powder pink, which advertises her insights into “past-life regressions.”

Outside on Essex Street, Louis Gottstein is taking advantage of the Halloween rush. “We make them handmade, or out of poured resin from originals that we’ve made,” he says as he holds up one of his handcrafted pairs of devil’s horns. “These are even copyrighted,” he brags dubiously. Gottstein is originally from Oshkosh, Wisconsin. He noticed a lack of handmade devil’s horns in the world and, like any American, was eager to capitalize on this entrepreneurial black hole. “We do Renaissance fairs, lawn and garden shows, and street fairs such as this one,” he explains. In terms of horn color preferences, he notes that today the traditional “red seems to be very popular. We’re selling out of red like crazy.”