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.