Saturday, October 18, 2014

Exploring the Dark Side of Western New York: Frightworld Screampark

     Tonight, we will continue our series, "Exploring the Dark Side of Western New York," where Ghost and his haunted friend What a Witch will visit or explore an area, place or attraction in western NY that has a dark, spooky past, or lends itself to the darkness we long to explore. 

Exploring the Dark Side of Western New York: Frightworld Screampark 

     For this installment of western NY's dark side, we come to Frightworld Screampark, WNY's premiere haunted house attraction. This year, we again sat down with Stephen Szortyka, GM and Director of Operations for Eeire Productions and Frightworld America's Screampark, to talk about what makes Frightworld so widely popular-- and wildly unique-- in western New York. 

Stephen, thank you so much for sitting down with us to talk about Frightworld this year. Ghost and WhataWitch are dying to know….

What new things can we expect this year? 

 With our transition from the Northtowns to Depew, our customers can expect all BRAND NEW floor plans as well as a brand new attraction: INSANITY.

Frightworld is in a different location this year. What advantages do you see in the new space? 

 We are really excited about the new location! We are back in Depew in a 70,000 square ft building. It’s a great area! We have more space to make our attractions larger than before and more space to bring fear to our customers. Its been a great year thus far!

Your haunted houses are huge, and massively detailed. Eerie Asylum alone is so intricately detailed. When do you start planning for your setup each year?

 That’s a great question! We spend all year brainstorming different ideas and concepts that will intrigue our fans. We are constantly trying to impress our fans, as well as ourselves! We are really excited because we were able to expand our floor plans for each attraction this year! Some haunts are 50% larger than they were last year!

How long does it take you to build the houses, and how much help do you have in putting it together? 

 Our build crew and set dressing crew are extremely talented! Depending on the length and size of the attractions depends on how much time. Of course, we would love to spend months detailing an attraction, but that’s not feasible. Generally a house will take 2-3 weeks for build and 2-3 weeks for set dressing.

It seems like every few years another haunted house attraction pops up in WNY. How do you stay ahead of the competition and what do you think sets your attraction apart from the others? 

 I am confident in saying that we uphold a reputation of a very detail oriented event and our fans expect that every year. Making sure that our event holds up to that reputation is our main focus, and making sure that our scares and fears are current and up to date! Like I've said before, it takes months of preparation and research to understand what works and what doesn’t work. Congrats to the new comers to the industry and we always wish them best of luck in business!

Do you frequent haunted house conventions or attractions in other states to keep up on trends in the industry? 

  Absolutely. One of the biggest conventions for the haunted attraction industry is held in St. Louis every year. Transworld Haunt Show brings vendors from all over, bringing the newest sets, props, costumes, and technology. We always try to attend other haunted attractions but generally, we do not get the time as our favorite Halloween season is making sure our event is the best experience for our fans.

What is the creepiest or favorite acquisition you have made for your screampark? 

  We like to give the persona to our fans that once they walk through our doors, they forget that there is a real world out there, and they are now consumed in Frightworld. Once our fans walk through the door, it’s a whole different world. From the main floor to our bathrooms, you will be engulfed in fear and the unknown.

What kind of training are your actors given each year? 

  Each year, our actors attend a 4 hour "Boo School" where they are put through a rigorous training seminar. They partake in hands on training within the attractions. They understand Fear, the underlining reason why society gets scared. Different techniques, different movements, customer and actor safety, and customer flow within the attractions.

Frightworld’s reach extends beyond WNY, having notably been featured on the Travel Channel. Where are some of the furthest locations your guests have come from?

 Our furthest fans have come from as far as Hong Kong and Taiwan, CRAZY, I KNOW! Majority of our customers are from the Buffalo area, Syracuse, Rochester, Canada, and Pennsylvania. We have been lucky enough to be voted #1 haunted attraction in the Northeast and #1 in Buffalo, NY. Our Eerie State Asylum was actually voted #1 best attraction maze as well!!!! As well as being featured on the Travel Channel we were also voted many other awards! It feels GREAT to see all of our hard work, pay off.

Like many people, we were wrapped up in the hysteria that was HBO’s “True Detective” earlier this year. The show was a modern horror and crime mystery that drew largely from Robert Chambers’ 1895 horror book “The King in Yellow.”  So, let’s talk about Carcosa from the show. The moment we saw the creepy underground lair in the show’s finale, we thought it would make for a spectacular haunted house experience. Any chance we will ever see this—or something like it’s ruins-- in the future?  

 That’s a touchy subject. We would LOVE to mimic some of these great shows/movies that are coming out, but we also want to make sure we are original in everything that we do! Our fans love our work, and we want to make sure we withhold that reputation! Generally, we stay aware from mimicking shows and movies!

Frightworld seems to always fit the right balance of different kinds of horror. Unlike a number of horror attractions, you seem to understand that one cannot live on shock and gore alone, and feature a balance of more modern horror and the appeal of the seemingly older, as with the creepy old asylum. Is this intentional? 

 Yes, and very good observation! We have 5 differently themed attractions! We want to make sure that our fans are scared. Sometimes, an asylum may not scare a customer, but I can guarantee you that they fear something in one of our other attractions! We want to make sure that we have the ability to appeal to a wide array of fans. Like you said, we need to make sure we have balance.

Many people perceive people in your industry as being “dark” or “morbid.” What response do you give people who say such things, other than “Thank you”? 

 Many of us are just as normal as the person who is saying that. With normal day time jobs, graduate and undergraduate students as well as very talented industry professionals. There is a business side to this event that takes an extensive amount of time and expertise, between marketing and advertising to managing over 60 employees as well as our digital and media designs, commercials, both TV and radio production.

We often read in the paper about attractions like this- combined with the raging hormones from groups of teens and preteens- causing a bit of a disturbance of the non-paranormal kind. What kind of security measures do you have in place to keep your demons…errr…customers…exercised? 

  Customer safety is our main focus! The whole event is designed around making sure our fans are safe. We employee Cheektowaga uniformed police officers to patrol our event.

We are both dying to know if those claustrophobic balloon passages are part of your exhibit this year. They scare the living daylights out of us in a good way and WhataWitch is eager to experience them again… we all know its bad luck to disappoint a witch, Stephen. 

  Well I am glad to say that they ARE BACK. No bad luck for me this year with disappointing any witches :)

All Photos Copyright 2014 Frightworld Screampark. 

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Exploring the Dark Side of Western New York: The Buffalo and Erie County Naval Park

   Tonight, we begin a reoccuring new series, "Exploring the Dark Side of Western NY,"  where the Ghost and his haunted friend What a Witch will visit an area, place or attraction in western NY that has a dark, spooky past or lends itself to the darkness we long to explore. 

Exploring the Dark Side of Western New York: The Buffalo and Erie County Naval Park 

     The Second World War was a time of unimaginable human loss, the kind no generation since will ever be able to fully understand. While every war is a time of darkness, impossible sacrifice and tragedy, the second great war-- in terms of loss, destruction and the stakes which were on the line, fought for and defended-- has become a nearly legendary time in world history. Unlike Europe, Asia and the Pacific, where the destruction of World War II is still seen in so many buildings and throughout the land, the United States is not so physically marked. However. Some of the remnants of this horrific moment in time have come home, and some lie here in western New York, in the Buffalo and Erie County Naval Park.

     The Naval Park is home to three retired battle ships: the USS Croaker, USS The Sullivans, and USS Little Rock. These floating cities, where men lived, died, killed and fought lie in the waters off the Buffalo harbor, having become one of a kind floating museums to that dark time, a part of our past. Stepping from the vibrant, busy Buffalo waterfront and onto these ships is a feeling unlike any other; stepping from one world into the next; onto a ghost ship, a museum, a place of such history.

     It should come as no surprise that all three ships are reported to be haunted.

     Unexplained things have been happening on these ships since they were brought to the Buffalo waterfront. Tourists, naval park staff and western New Yorkers alike will tell you, yes, they believe the ships to be haunted. The stories, reports and local mythology built around the ships have attracted tourists and the likes of the Syfy Channel's "Ghost Hunters" program. 

     The first ship, the USS The Sullivans, is a World War II Destroyer named for the five Sullivan brothers from Iowa who lost their lives in the Guadalcanal Campaign. Although the Sullivan brothers never served on this ship, reports that George Sullivan, suspected to be the last brother to die, haunts the ship. Like many ghosts, there are several stories about how George died. One account says a very emotionally distraught George dove into the water and frantically tried to find his brothers in the water when their boat was sunk, and George was drowned as the ship went down. A second story sees George desperately searching for his brothers, only to be attacked by a shark. A third account says he became delirious after several days at sea, waiting to be rescued, and that he swam away from the other floating survivors, never to be seen again. However George may have died, in story and spirit, the ghost of George Sullivan has made it home to the USS The Sullivans to live. 

     We began our tour of the Naval Park on this ship. The first room entered has photos of the ill-fated brothers lining the walls. Local legend has it the photos taken of and by George's picture come out distorted. Adding to the suspense of the room where ghosts may appear were tourists, who had the misfortune of misstating World War II history within ear shot of WhataWitch. That day, and all days, she is sure to correct you.  

     Our self-guided tour took us through of the living quarters and mess hall of the ship where we were made to truly understand the feeling of what it was like to live, work and serve aboard this ship. There are countless exhibits along the way: Marine Corps Memorabilia from World War I to the present, Ex-POW Memorabilia and Contributions of Women in the Military, among them. 

     The second ship we visited was the USS Little Rock, which once allegedly was used as a hospital to care for men injured in battle on another ship. Many of those men died on the ship, taking their last breaths in the mess hall. The day we made our tour was a hot, early autumn day. When we boarded the ships, the sun was shining, beating down heat. When we emerged from one of the rooms on the Little Rock-- having spent an unknown amount of time wandering the halls and rooms rumored to house ghosts-- we noticed the skies had darkened. Almost immediately-- while we walked from a control room at the front of the vessel-- the skies opened with torrential, wind-swept downpours. Seeking shelter in random crevices and rooms on the ship as we progressed, running from the rain and further into the small abandoned city where so many people once lived, we saw the ship in an entirely new, eerie light. Another popular legend about the ship is that, in the mess hall during open hours, you can hear recordings of the faint, long-ago whistle that would proceed announcements. More than once we stopped, unsure if we had heard something. Was it the wind, the rain? Or the sound of the whistle lasting, being heard across the years. 

     In one of the rooms near the mess hall, we stopped to watch a TV playing the episode of "Ghost Hunters" featuring the Naval Park. Reacquainting ourselves with the known ghosts and reportedly haunted areas of the ship, we sought them out, looking for a feeling, a photograph that might show something. Whether it was a room where a man died, a hallway we knew nothing about or descending into the brig, the ghosts of so many years ago were there, though they may not have been photographed or seen. 

     Our tour ended on the USS Croaker submarine. Sent to the Pacific theater in World War II to fight against Japan's Merchant Marine and Navy, the Croaker boasts six World War II Pacific war patrols and three battle stars. Going down into the submarine, you are instantly thrust into the world the men who once staffed these vessels lived in, even more intimately than the first two ships. As you walk the length of the submarine, ducking and watching your head as you fit yourself through a door, and further lose yourself in a world of metal and cramped quarters, you feel a sense of unknown anxiety, as you wonder what it could possibly have been like to live in these walls, so far under the water, in an endlessly dangerous war. In a sense, you feel the ghosts of all the men who must have gone through so much, so many years ago. Additionally, submarines are creepy. Period.

     Leaving the ships and looking back at them, you are struck with the awesome feeling that in such a space, that you can see from the dock, so much history happened, so much of it so painful, difficult and noble. Like a cemetery the vessels stand, testaments to those who once lived, and who-- in stories of heroism, tragedy and ghosts-- live on. All in the Buffalo harbor. 

-by Ghost and WhataWitch

Thursday, October 2, 2014

A World Where There Are Octobers

     Welcome back, October. How I have missed you. The weather, the cool, the colors begin. The harvest, the abundance, the peak of life. Is there a better way to ring the month where autumn takes full hold, than in a pumpkin patch?

     I don't believe so. This past Sunday, a visit to Kelkenberg Farms in Akron, New York. A warm morning, a quiet farm of several acres. Fourteen dollars allows one a ticket to the corn maze and the pumpkin patch. We wandered around the farm before the horse-drawn ride out to the pumpkin patch. We saw a charming old dog blind in one eye, the chickens, the goats, the horses. We walked through rows and rows of mums, past corn stalks for sale and into a country store that smelled of candle wax and pumpkin spice.

      And then we boarded the cart. The horses take you a distance from the main farm, and out to the pumpkin patch. Having not been in such a pumpkin patch for many years, the childlike glee that filled my Halloween haunted soul was almost too much to take. Unlike many farms and places where pumpkins are sold, Kelkenberg allows you to pick any pumpkin, regardless of size. We walked amongst the rows of pumpkin vines, bright orange decaying pumpkins, perfectly shaped pumpkins, enormous pumpkins. In search of the great pumpkin, the one I would take home.

      In the end, I decided on the largest pumpkin I'd ever brought home. Not the biggest one from the patch of so many, but the largest one the best for carving that I could find. This decision I regretted almost instantly on the walk back through the patch, to where the horses would pick us up and take us back to the farm; I persevered. Stopping more than once to rest. And am glad I did. Finding our pumpkins, washing off the mud in a basin with a pump. Exploring the corn maze, with friends, a candy apple and cider in hand. The perfect way to welcome the season of the witch, the month of the orange glow.

     Welcome, October.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Leaving Salem

     In Salem, when we weren't in cemeteries, we were walking around the city. Visiting the magic shops, the mystical places that offered stones to help with stress, love and other things in life. We saw the shops selling Halloween goods, and museums dedicated to the trials. And we saw the statue of Elizabeth Montgomery, the actress who played the witch character of Samantha on the 1960s-1970s TV series.

      We saw the other side of Salem, the histroy unrelated-- directly-- to the witch trials. The places of Nathaniel Hawthorne, starting with the Customs House. At the Customs House, we were given an incredible tour by a US Parks Ranger who wore his interest for the writer Hawthorne on his sleeve. We saw the original, striking and initimdating eagle statue famously described in Hawthorne's novel "The Scarlett Letter," and we toured a ship outside the Customs House at the Salem Maritime Musuem. We then saw the real House of the Seven Gables, which is famously the setting of Hawthorne's ghost story. Photos were not allow in the House, but there was a cat who lived there. And the tour was taken up a concealed staircase to an attic room where enslaved people slept. The air in this attic was, to say the absolute least, heavy, and hard.

     From there we saw the Witch House, the only building still standing with an actual connection to the Witch Trials. The House of Judge Jonathan Corwin, aside from providing a look at how a home was kept at the time of the trials, also gave us an opportunity to see a spoon believed to have been owned by trial victim John Proctor.

     But leaving Salem, we made the most meaningful stop of all. Before we left, to begin the drive home, we drove to a street in Danvers, and drove down a narrow driveway in between two houses and properties to some woods. A Massachusetts historical sign proclaimed this the "Samuel Parris Archealogical Site." Just in the first few trees in these woods, there is a stone foundation left from what appears a small home. This foundation belong to Samuel Parris, and it was here in his house where the hysteria was born; where Tituba entertained the girls who would go on to accuse women and men of witchcraft with her fantastical stories. Being on the quiet grounds is deeply moving, bringing the magnitude of the tragedy so great it has become a tourist attraction because of its history and the lore it produces home to a place where you know, so clearly, this was all so real.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Salem's Howard Street Cemetery

     There was no one else in the next cemetery we visited. The Howard Street Cemetery lies away from the Old Burying Point, the magic shops and the majoirty of the tourist attractions in Salem. We followed our map down a residential street, and crossed over to another.

     We followed the cemetery's fence for about half a block before we found an open gate. Around 5 or 6 o'clock in the evening, the day was just beginning to set, but there was plent of light in the cemetery. Like the Burying Point, the Howard Street Cemetery has many graves going back hundreds of years, but unlike the first burial ground we visited, many graves are more recent: from the 1800s through the early 1900s are present. 

      The land felt strange. Bordered by a Catholic church and school on one side, a municipal building on the other, city streets to the foot of the cemetery and the street of mid-century homes we walked up on the other. But in the midst of this city, this simple, long stretch of land with the occasional tree, and the graves of so many years, there was a much different feeling that the city's older cemetery. 

      Later that night, we would go on a nighttime walking tour, part histocial, part ghost, and the man who led the tour-- a wealth of knowledge I could have stayed and talked with all night (wearing a stove-top hat)-- told us a somewhat popular, albeit not well known belief that, among sensitive and spiritual people, there is a specific tree, now in the cemetery, that was the site of Giles Corey's horrific death. Accused of witchcraft while defending his wife Martha, Giles Corey refused to admit his guilt or deny the accusation. He was then crushed to death, while being tortured by having 32 boulders and rocks placed on his stomach. Earlier in the day, our wanderings had taken us in search of the address of the old jails, where the victims had been housed. If street numbers were even roughly what they were in 1692, the site would have been on a block housing apartments and a current municipal building-- just acorss the street from the Howard Street Cemetery. And while more than one source gives the cemetery as the land where the Giles Corey was killed, there is apparently no documentation on where in the cemetery that is. According to our tour guide, the spot is by a tree, to a corner of the cemetery now by a Catholic Church. And looking across from the site where the jails once where, one can see him being led out of the buidling and onto the land of the cemetery, to be tortured. 

     When we found this bit of information out, my feeling of the cemetery made more sense-- mostly. We wandered around the stones, taking pictures and finding the opposite end of the cemetery, where there is a steep drop-off on a hill. And we moved on, to take in what else in Salem there was to see.

Monday, September 15, 2014

The Old Salem Burying Ground

      We came next to the Old Salem Burying Ground. The land in the middle of the city isn't big, and it isn't small. Following along the street, I first thought we might not be walking in the right direction for the cemetery. Past houses and buildings and storefronts it lies, simply there. The cemetery, and the souls, that have laid there for so many years.

      We walked into the cemetery when it was empty. The stores and shops and attractions had been full as we passed them, and it seemed somehow odd, a kind of wrong that those who lived this history that put Salem on the map lay silent, univisited. My ignorance on exactly who is interred in the Old Salem Burying Ground quickly faded when my friend remarked that the victims of the trials were not here, but the judges were. Why weren't the victims here, I asked? Because they were convicted witches, and could not be buried in afforded a Christian burial in hollowed ground, I found.

      None of the famous victims-- Rebecca Nurse, Giles Corey, Mary Eastey, John Proctor-- are buried in the Old Salem Burying ground. Most of their final resting places remain unknown, with the notable exception of Rebecca Nurse, who had family who removed her body from the shallow grave where she was buried with other victims near the gallows, and brought her back to the family homestead to be properly buried. The Rebecca Nurse Homestead, in present day Danvers, MA, allows you to visit the historical Nurse family homestead, and pay your respects at Rebecca's grave. We did not make it over to the Homestead this trip, which I regret. Perhaps on a future return trip.

     While none of the victims are within the old burying ground, there is an honest and moving memorial to the victims on the outer edge of the cemetery. Stone benches with each victim's name are placed around a rectangular area with an open entryway resembling an unbarred prison, adorned with quotes inscribed on the ground from the victims' proclaiming their innocence. Without graves, walking from stone to stone, from John  Proctor to Sarah Good, I was left with the feeling that I had visited them, and laid my respects.

     Laying just outside the memorial is Judge John Hawthorne, who is buried in the ground of the Old Burying Point. His gravestone, old and from another time, has been preserved in the way many others in the cemetery have been, and reinforced. The judge who had such a direct hand in the murder of the victims has been sentenced, in death, to lie beside the memorial to the injustice he carried out, and the bold poetry of that circumstance is-- if not just-- fitting.

      While gravestones like Judge Hawthorne's have been aided in the quest to last through time, others have not. Stones from over 300 years ago stand tall, still upright, many clearly marked up by visitors attempting to read them. White lines made with stones highlight names and dates on grave markers that have stood so long they are decaying their self. The inscriptions for Giles Corey's, the victim who was sentenced to be crushed to death, first wife-- and others-- have been marked this way.

     And the stones are beautiful. The level and style of simple, direct decoration used going back what is now a few hundred years are all their own, and standing in that cemetery, in Salem, you understand it. The crudely drawn skeletons with wings, perched atop a stone, the simple designs of intertwined hearts. You understand something about these people. What they believed, and what death looked like to them.

     Apart from the Judge, the other famous residents of the old burying ground are those who came close to the history that makes Salem famous. Mary Corey, first wife of victim Giles Corey, lies far and to the back of the cemetery. And in a section covered by a few trees, over to the side, lies Nathaniel Mather, brother of Puritan and witchcraft expert Cotton Mather. In his writings, Cotton Mathew documented the witch trials, and in many ways fueled beliefs that led to the hysteria-- to the point where his writings are even mentioned as something the fictional Ichabod Crane-- superstitious believer in witchcraft and all things occult-- reads in Washington Irving's "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." Standing in front of Nathaniel's grave, his brother Cotton Mather-- who was almost a character in the tale of the Headless Horseman, and certainly a player in the witch trials-- became more real to me, the fears and superstitions and prejudices of the trials stepping out of their graves and into the light.

     Walking out of the cemetery, we watched a bus of people on some type of senior citizen's tour disembark, and begin to file into the victims' memorial. And then, several other tourists began to wander in. We had, we found, caught the old burying point during a rare quiet time.

View my whole album of the first day in the Old Burying Point here.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Witchcraft, Alive and Well in Salem

 After the Witch Museum, we decided to walk through Salem. The town, the city, is so beautiful. Being populated does not stop this New England community from appearing moderately sleepy, easily laid down and back-- but full of activity and life. So many people have come to Salem, to stay and to see, and because of this there are so many things to do while you are there.

 The trend begun with the witch museum, where the legitimately historical (the Roger Conant statue) stand aside the melting pot which Salem has become (the museum) continues. On our walk to what would become our first official stop, the Old Salem Burying Ground, took us to a statue of  actress Elizabeth Montgomery, who for years played a fictional witch on the television show "Bewitched." 

We turned a corner and walked by storefronts of businesses belonging to witches, those who practice and or believe in magic, psychics, fortune tellers and every type of belief and person in between. Walking along the water, we found this desk-- which I so dearly would love to have taken home, at the curb on the boardwalk. Only in Salem. And this is what makes this place so special. I wish we could have seen more of the side of Salem, where those who practice the arts of telling fortunes, magic and Witchcraft are. Whenever the subject came up around locals, we were met with testimonials as to who was the real deal, who was not and which ones spent their time in between. The closest we came was stopping in two shops to buy crystals and stones, which were said to help those who carry them on their person with stress and anxiety in life. A post detailing their results will come soon.

 The witchcraft in Salem that is alive and well is no one witch. It is the victims of the witchcraft hysteria, it is the modern day people who practice the religion Wicca, it is Elizabeth Montgomery playing Samantha on "Bewitched," it is the burying ground in the middle of the city, it is the crystals and stones, the witch hat made of a plate and ice cream cones in the coffee shop. The witchcraft of Salem is everything the term has ever meant at once-- and the way the people, streets and places of Salem embrace this destination as a constant season of the witch is a wonderful thing.

Monday, August 18, 2014

The Salem Witch Museum

We decided to go see "The Salem Witch Museum" first. For all Salem has become known to be, the Witch Museum is very much a tourist attraction, billed as one of the city's quintessential stops. I had no idea what to expect.

 On an island in a crosswalk just in front of the Witch Museum, stands a stern, cloaked figure from the past. With his tall hat and dress, one believes this grave figure long since faded to history to be a statue of someone from the Witch Trials. One of the judges, perhaps, who sent the innocent accused to their deaths. This man, standing just across from the door of the Salem Witch Museum, is so much the city, if you look the right way you might see the fearful, ignorant, extreme suspicion that fueled so much of the witch hysteria on his face. The man whose likeness the statue bears is Roger Conant, the credited founder of Salem. Conant died in 1679, years before the start of the witchcraft trials, and is oft-referred to as having nothing to do with Salem's witch history. Whether intentional or not, the likeness he bears here is very much of the times. Those dark, desolate years in a new world when so many were so uncertain of their survival. On the statue's face, you can see the time from which the trials were birthed.

Passing Roger Conant, you come to the door of the Salem Witch Museum. Housed in an old church, the Witch Museum keeps you guessing about what it will be. And a many things the museum is. There's something fitting about the main attraction being in a former church, the most vocal record of what this somewhat religiously-fueled hysteria became. When you buy your ticket for the museum after having walked through the large church front doors, you settle yourself in for an undoubtedly touristy experience. On goes the yellow sticker which sets you into groups to go in and see the show of the museum. The sticker bears the museum logo- a stereotyped witch, with a pointed hat, black cat and broom. Comically Gothic lights adorn the dark hall, while you wait with your group to go into the auditorium for the initial show. At this point, you are allowed no photos, and so there are no pictures I have of the historical and informational panels that line the front hall. Reading them quickly in the dim light, I was struck by the depth put into the writing on the wall, which seemed far more than I had expected until this point.

 The auditorium is large, and rectangular. There are seats all along the walls, and when you sit in them you look up to a series of stages-- also as long as the walls-- with darkened scenes. When everyone is in a seat or standing against the wall, the show starts.

 I don't know how long ago the narration was recorded, or how old the equipment used to play it on is, but the sound would-- just almost-- be at home on an old album crinkling from my childhood record player. Spooky sound effects start, and a gravely-toned description of what the residents of Salem believed as far as witches, spirits, devils and ghosts is read. And I was surprised. As each scene lights up, showing mannequins and dummies depicting John Proctor, the accusing girls and Tituba telling these girls fantastical stories on dark winter nights-- the museum paints a far more balanced description of the past than I was expecting. While the Salem Witch Museum may have gotten you in based on the depictions of the traditional, stereotypical witch, they waste no time in discussing how the accused were treated and abused, by ignorant people who were foolish and or terrified enough to believe in witches.

 The museum exhibit after the main show is even more enlightening. The rooms in the back depict a well-researched and presented exhibition of what the "witch" has meant historically, in the past and present of society. Beginning with early people who worshiped or regarded nature, moving into women who presented a threat to practiced medicine by using herbs and cleaning people, problems and wounds with things like water-- the museum shows how the marginalized other has so often been accused of witchcraft. The presentation even touches on McCarthyism in the United States in the 1950s, and the demonization of gay men at the height of the HIV/AIDs crisis. I was impressed.

 The gift shop at the Salem Witch Museum is a candy store for children of the night like myself. One of everything, yes, please. I believe I came back with prints, a Dia de los Muertos mug and Christmas ornaments, a mood ring, a witch sun catcher, several books, magnets, pens and other such witchy goodies.

 With the balance of confronting the past and the trials in a balanced way, and the embracing of the modern day witch culture, and the cultural meaning the the stereotype of a witch has come to mean, the Salem Witch Museum is highly recommend, and a highly recommend gateway into the experience of the city.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Entering Salem

     Last fall, when the wind was just starting to cool down, and the leaves were just short days from beginning to curl up and die, I made it to Salem, Massachusetts. Upon hearing the word-- Salem-- images are insantly conjured up out of the fall leaves, of one of the darker chapters in the history of the land and communitites we now know as America.

Artist's rendering of Tituba telling tales to the Salem girls

     From February 1692 through May 1693, in the community of Salem Village, 19 people were hanged, 1 pressed to death, as many as 13 people died in prison and at least 3 dogs were killed at the hands of a government fueled by hysteria began by young girls. Betty Parris, Abigail Williams, Ann Putnam Jr. and Elizabeth Hubbard, aged 9 to 12, began to have fits and go into agitated states. The girls would go on to accuse residents in and around Salem Village of engaging in the practice of witchcraft, which either directly or indirectly caused the girls' hysterical afflictions, so they said. The images of what happened because of these girls-- women and men being hanged for crimes of the occult with no physical evidence-- have exploded on the legacy of American popular culture, and been reinvented and used throughout the years as a cultural touchstone of injustice and the evils Americans-- and humans, the world over-- can inflict on each other. The words "Salem," "witchcraft," hangings" and "witch trials" all come together to create the Salem experience known to the world-- for better, worse and indifferent; for truth, and for myth.

     The truth of Salem, the real experience of what happens on the grounds of the village, are less well known. And may never be possibly known. However, to try and gain an understanding of the horror that occured there-- the deadly witchhunt launched by an ignorant, fearful and hysterical community-- to try and grasp that understanding, you have to go to Salem, and see and read and question and experience all you can. 

      At long last, I was able to travel to Salem, with some friends. 
     Salem, Massachusetts is a beautiful place. The kind of beautiful place that only increases with the vibrancy of late summer, and fall. Seated on the water, the city now known as Salem is a melting stew-- which may or may not be contained in a cauldron-- of all the histories, tragedies and beauties the land has experienced. 

     You come into the city and it looks like any other New England town. Sloping hills, winding streets. A more modern, flat and sprawling cemetery greets you before you come into Salem proper-- a hint at things to come. When the Salem Visitors' Center comes into view, you see Saint Peter's Episcopal Church-- founded in 1733, with Sunday services currently at 8AM and 10AM each week-- and see the old stone church still standing, with gravestones standing in a small rock patch, feneced in, on either side of the church's doors-- stones going back to the time of the witch trials. In Salem, the veil between the past and the present, spaces where lie hundreds of years, is so thin you often cannot see it.

     When you go to Salem, go to the National Parks Service's Salem Visitors Center. The eager staff have information you will need to make the most of your hours there. A government service, the Parks' employees cannot promote one attraction over another-- so the overview they give you, much detailed, gives you every option you will need to decide between the tourist attractions, museums, historical sites, attractions and all that is unique to Salem-- both related to the trials and not (and many places somewhere in between.) So much lies in the Visitor's Center alone-- a mapping of the attractions pertainig to the witch trials, to famous resident Nathaniel Hawthorne (who, in some different ways, is related to the happenings of the trials), to the maritime history of this place on the water. Taking it all in, we quickly decided that our first stop would be one of many, and a first stop many make: The Salem Witch Museum. While leaving the Visitor's Center, I noticed these gorgeous glass orbs hanging by a display of ships-- and made a note to come back to look at them. I would soon come to learn what those orbs were, as we walked the streets of Salem.

     Up next: our experience of the Salem Witch Musuem. 

Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Season of the Befana

     I hope you had yourself a scary little Christmas, holiday, solistice or whatever early winter rite
you may or may not celebrate. In seasons past, I have written about the scary ghost stories and things that go bump in the night around Christmas. Be it the four ghosts of Charles Dickens' carol, or the punishing Krampus, the Ghost here remains fascinated by the nightmares of Christmas.
     This year, I started reading about the La Befana, the Italian Christmastime legend. Anyone who knows the story of the Befana will know she is a kind, old woman with a broom who brings good children presents on Christmas. Many will tell you she is a witch. Delving deep into the Italian mythology, however, I have not found enough evidence to convict her of witchcraft. Perhaps the fact that Befana is old, with a broom at her side as a constant was enough for her to become a witch by association while the legend lived on and aged-- or, perhaps, it was the intent of the stories which were told to cast her always a witch. Never the matter; there is something about the legend of the Santa Claus-like woman being a witch which enamours the Halloween heart. And something, too, very true to the part of the witch in legend, where the indiviudal will become labeled a witch, for displaying simple pieces of the archetype.

     More formally, the story of Befana has tried to explain her as an heir to a heathen goddess, or at the least begetting her name from such an earth goddess. Befana is commonly described as a devoted housekeeper, who in the most often told story meets the three Magi on their way to visit the Christ child in Bethlehem, and, after they offer to have Befana join them on their quest, are turned down by her, for she has too much to do. Too many floors to be swept and kept clean, too much to do, to go on such a journey. Befana, on their leaving, regrets her decision, and has since spent the ages looking for the Christ child; finding other children on Christmas, and bearing them gifts, when she realizes she has not found the child she is searching for, yet.

     The Christmas ghosts, the Christmas horned-one, the Christmas witch. It would appear there is enough during the dark months while the snow is falling to keep a Halloween child involved, entertained, interested.

     To further celebrate my Befana Christmas, I attempted cut-out cookies of the old woman, with the help of one of my witch cookie cutters-- to questionable success.