Friday, October 31, 2008

Halloween Reflections on Salem

When I moved to Massachusetts in the late 80s I lived on Lafayette Street in Salem for awhile. I loved living in Salem with its rich history. I'd spend hours and hours walking around the streets surrounding the Common and Derby Wharf. It was the history I loved, particularly the literary history. The House of the Seven Gables soon became the focal point of my fascinations and I spent many hours in the garden there reading Hawthorne and reveling in the sheer gorgeousness of the trees overhanging the harbor as autumn approached.

I knew about the Salem Witch Trials and had noticed a number of witch-related businesses around town with witchy signs and trappings but it wasn't until mid-October that it dawned on me that something strange was going on here. Laurie Cabot's Crows Haven Corner was right down the street from the Peabody-Essex Museum and I'd stopped in there a couple of times but not having a big need for herbs and amulets I never bought much of anything. Actually I had met Laurie, the Official Witch of Salem, however under non-witchy circumstances.

I had a friend who had just completed her training as an Estee Lauder consultant and was working at the North Shore Mall. She invited me to stop by for a “makeover”, something I had severe trepidations about. But I went. So there I am perched on a stool, wrapped in a flowered drape and she scrapes my hair back and removes every vestige of makeup from my face. Then her phone rings. Great. So there I was wrapped in flowers, bare-faced and slathered in some gunk, sitting in the middle of the aisle for everyone to see when who should come strolling down the aisle but Laurie Cabot in her long black gown and long black hair. As she passed she looked at me and said, with a lovely smile, “Oh, you look just fabulous.” And off she went. My friend, who had just returned from her call, and I stared at her. “Well,” my friend said, “she's a witch. She knows how you are going to look.” OK.

But Salem, beautiful bewitching Salem on the harbor, turns into something of a circus as Halloween approaches. It's sort of amazing. People start arriving from all over the country. Big purple tour buses show up disgorging folks wearing black and backpacks who pile into Fatima's Psychic Studio and Crow's Haven Corner, and all the various witch museums. I remember sitting in Brother's Deli one Halloween morning with a couple of friends. We watched the lengthening queue outside Pyramid Books as we ate scrambled eggs and toast. “What do you suppose they come here for?” someone asked. “I don't know,” I said. “But I think I'll go home and wait a few days before going out again.”

Which is what I did. But as the weeks passed and the leaves fell and the frosts came I spent dusky evenings walking around downtown and wondering what it is that draws us to these places where something once happened. I can't explain my beliefs but I do believe that the end of October and the beginning of November hold a few mysterious days when the walls between the worlds grow thin and it is possible to hold very still and listen and slip into an awareness of other lives and other realities. It is not a thing that can be forced but it is a thing one can open oneself to.

The Salem Witch Trials have been written about endlessly and analyzed endlessly and the truth is, they had very little to do with anything metaphysical at all. But they serve as a reminder that when we close ourselves off to other possibilities we invite bad things into our lives. Insular thinking breeds intolerance, and intolerance breeds bigotry and demonization, and demonization breeds atrocity. In 1992 I attended the dedication of the Witch Trials Memorial in Salem and Elie Weisel was the speaker. He is someone I had long admired and I mostly went just to see him. When he arrived he stood a few feet from me until it was time for him to speak. He is a small man and I was pleased to see how healthy and well he looked. He spoke, as only he could, about intolerance. And he said the thing that none of us dare ever to forget, is that keeping silent in the face of evil is complicity with evil.

So it is Halloween and tonight the streets of Gloucester will be filled with little ghosts and princess and pirates and dragons begging for treats. And in the old cemetery behind my house all will be quiet. And in Salem heaven only knows what craziness will be going on. And all of that is fine. We all have our own ways and we need only accept that and let one another be.

Thanks for reading.


  1. I love Halloween. Tonight we will make a stop at our neighborhood's full out practicing witch and warlock's house. They go all out for this holiday, and coincidentally run the lovely pagan daycare where I sent my child.

  2. I just went to Salem for the first time in September. I've driven through to Marblehead but never stopped. How quaint and unique! I saw alot of "witches", which is new for me. But the restaurants and shops are great! Likes the feeling. The book store you talk about is the one with the books piles high to the ceiling, right? TOTALLY scared me. But my guy video taped me walking through (and panicking a little). What an experience.


If you enjoyed this post, please comment and leave contact information if you would like a response. Commenting rewards the authors/artists and pretty much makes our day!