History and Horror in Salem, MA

Travel

Halloween is my favorite holiday. My costume of choice is derived from societal mockery infused with insanity plea, an attempt to indulge in how crazy I feel sometimes. Clown make-up optional.

It’s strangely consistent with the dynamics of horror and history in our commodified cultures. Horror stories are inspired and fueled by historical tragedies from which we hail the terror despite the sad realities that come with it. It becomes difficult to distinguish right from wrong, treat from trick, history from fantasy.

I decided to visit Salem, Massachusetts to break up my Boston trip for a Raw Artists show. After weeks of decidedly depressed endeavors, I needed an escape from the daily grind and familiar surroundings of a modern suburban poet. Gratefully, my art show coincided with the best month of the season, and I jumped at the opportunity to visit the site of the 1692 Salem Witch Trials.

Salem street with spire building, trees, and cars

Salem.org says “Make your own magic” in a seemingly light-hearted tone against a periwinkle background. None of the links work. There is no downloadable guide to Salem here. Simple icons state friendly topics like “Modern Witch”, “Literature Nut”, and “Halloween Enthusiast” and lead to nowhere.

Whether this website is obsolete or the city of Salem would rather not indulge in their fascinating yet horrible Salem Witch Trials history, you will not get the information you need here. The place to explore the Halloween capital is HauntedHappenings.org.

After a one-hour ferry ride from Boston, I was walking among hanging apparitions, distorted faces and bodies, and haunted or not burial sites.

Today, it’s a small town where modern witches, history nerds, and Halloween enthusiasts wander. I was there about four hours in the afternoon, not nearly enough time to enjoy events like Carrie: The Musical at the Neal Rantoul Black Box Theater, the Legacy of the Hanging Judge at the House of the Seven Gables, or An Evening with Edgar Allan Poe at the Remix Church. 

My goal was to pay homage to the innocent murdered women and men of the Salem Witch Trials, and my first stop was the Witch Trials Memorial. This is free to the public in an outdoor space surrounded by trees and lined with benches engraved with the names of those hanged and killed for the crime of witchcraft. Etched into the stones bordering the space, there are quotes from the accused during the trials.

I do plead not guilty.

Oh lord, help me.

I am wholly innocent of such wickedness.

He knows I am innocent.

It is alongside the Old Burying Point Cemetery, where Judge Hathorne, who led the convictions and deaths of the accused witches, lay and where all the accused innocent were forbidden to be buried. You must pass the food vendors and the Wax Museum to get here.

Shortly after, I stood outside the Salem Visitor Center peering over at the man in black, complete with headset microphone, handlebar mustache, and top hat adorned with bones and shrunken head. This will be interesting, I thought, slowly easing into my fascination of the horrors of Salem history by focusing on our tour guide, Dr. Vitka.

Dr. Vitka, tour guide for Spellbound Tours, stands in front of several visitors sitting down on curb. Dr. Vitka wears all black holding a staff/cane topped with a grimacing skull. Background is a red building encompassing the scene.
Dr. Vitka, Spellbound Tours

The Salem Voodoo Vampires and Ghosts Walking Tour is run by Spellbound Tours, described on TripAdvisor as “the only tour company in Salem that has actually done paranormal investigation in all the sites they visit”. I had booked my ticket immediately.

Before starting the 2:00 pm tour, Dr. Vitka explained that supernatural occurrences relate to the life or death of the deceased. So, don’t get too comfortable. We would be visiting actual haunted sites, verified through several accounts by locals and visitors, and should be ready to photograph and document our experiences even in the midday sun. He suggested that if any of us were spiritual, now would be a great time to protect ourselves by reciting any prayers or mantras. A flashback of my own experiences with spirits made me freeze, and I quickly prayed for protection from evil energies that may try to follow me home.

I repeated this prayer a few minutes later as we stood over the final resting place of Giles Corey. Is it still a “resting place” if he was pressed to death while cursing the community of Salem? At that time, the law did not allow a person who did not plead to be tried in court, and the punishment for not pleading was the process of placing boards, followed by heavy rocks and boulders, on the accused. Corey was killed in this manner, refusing to shout out in pain and demanding more weight before eventually dying in the third day. His last words: “I curse you and Salem!”

According to Dr. Vitka, the curse came true. There are records of Sheriff George Corwin, who killed Corey, and succeeding sheriffs dying suddenly with no prior health issues. A more recent example is from the early 2000s when a security guard working with Dr. Vitka began to feel chest pains and shortness of breath while standing at Corey’s death place. A couple months later, that security guard died suddenly, again with no prior health issues.

Another story that caught my attention was that of the first woman to be accused and hanged during the Salem Witch Trials. Bridget Bishop was considered a tramp, hoe, slut, enter any derogatory word for a woman who developed a promiscuous and flamboyant reputation. Accused of bewitching married men, Bishop was also found with small dolls in her room and a third nipple. The dolls convinced the public she was practicing voodoo, and the third nipple was then a sure-tell sign of witchery. She was hanged on June 1692, kicking off the subsequent executions of 13 more women and six men.

In Salem, anyone who accused another person of witchcraft was rewarded the estate and all belongings of the accused if they were found guilty. For the cases of Giles Corey, a notoriously hateful and violent man, and Bridget Bishop, an orchard-owner and three-times married woman, the townspeople jumped at the opportunity to accuse these social outcasts and ultimately condemn them to their deaths.

At 3:45 pm, I rushed away from Salem’s center and speed-walked 10 minutes to catch my 4:00 pm ferry. Snapping last-minute photos of creepy decorations bordering niche souvenir shops and rustic homes, I wondered how Salem’s history impacts us today.

I love Halloween and the paradoxical lightheartedness attached to the fucked-up realities found in human nature – there’s little time to consider the lack of seriousness or severity while crafting the perfect costume or reading the greatest horror novel.

As I sat on the wet and white benches on the Boston Harbor Ferry gaining speed and taking me further away from Salem back to the throws of modern-day city, I thought about the similarities between then and now. Human nature doesn’t change, though individuals can seek to grow. Witchcraft is back, but in a different light. And lastly, history tends to repeat itself, though it may not be so familiar at first.

Happy Halloween.

A flock of birds flying in a straight line above the ocean between grey clouds and the ferry railing. To the right, there is a small red sailboat.
A shadow of the blog writer as she walks down Salem's asphalt street.

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