In Salem, Massachusetts, the witch-on-a-broomstick image is everywhere—it even appears on the badges of the town's police officers. Indeed, this site of colonial-era witch hysteria is a modern-day magnet for all things Halloween, all year long. Psychics and tarot card readers flock to the town, and there are numerous ghost tours and haunted houses. Not to mention the practitioners of Wicca. Witches are ubiquitous, and never more so than during the month of October.
But when it comes to Halloween, Salem has a divided soul: How should the town portray the infamous witch trials of 1692?Are they to be memorialized cheerfully in the haunted houses, or pondered earnestly in quiet museums?The unveiling of a $125 million expansion of the Peabody Essex Museum drew me to Salem to see how the development might be altering the fabric of the town. I had a personal interest as well, being a descendant of Winifred Benham, who was accused (and acquitted) of practicing witchcraft in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1692. How much space, I wondered, would the crown jewel of Salem's tourist attractions devote to the witch trials? Was Salem ready to embrace a new, more grown-up identity?
The sleek new wing at the Peabody Essex, designed by Israel-based architect Moshe Safdie, has doubled the museum's exhibition space. The Peabody Essex's 27 new halls showcase a first-class collection of Asian and Native American art, maritime and decorative works, and photography. But there is nothing on the trials.
"From our perspective, the witchcraft trials of 1692, while a seminal event in American history, really tell only a small part of the broader and richer story of Salem," museum spokesman Gregory Liakos says. Some observers criticize this relative lack of interest in the witch-trial legacy—particularly since the museum is the custodian of the original trial documents. "The Peabody Essex has the responsibility to be the social guardian of that heritage," notes Frances Hill, historian and author of several books about the Salem trials, including The Salem Witch Trials Reader. "They're not doing that. Unfortunately, the vacuum is filled by commercial enterprises."
In 1982, Salem (which calls itself the Witch City, or alternatively, the Bewitching Seaport) launched "Haunted Happenings," a series of events that has turned the town into a popular Halloween destination. The town even has an Official Witch, Laurie Cabot, who runs a shop called The Cat, the Crow and the Crown, in Pickering Wharf, a waterfront shopping area.
To explain how Salem came to be so closely identified with witches, Alison D'Amario, education director of the Salem Witch Museum, points to the "very dramatic" witch-trial history. "It has great human appeal," she says.
And she's right: this is, after all, the story that inspired Arthur Miller's play The Crucible. In the winter of 1692, a group of girls began exhibiting a range of symptoms—fits, babblings, and visions—that led a local doctor to declare them "under the evil hand." They began to name names: Tituba. Sarah Good. Sarah Osborne. These women were witches, the girls said. The suspected witches were arrested, and that unleashed a series of accusations that spread to much of surrounding Essex County. Sarah Good was hanged on July 19, 1692. Her unnamed infant died in prison, as did Sarah Osborne. Tituba, the Native American slave of local minister Samuel Parris, was released after confessing to witchcraft. By the time the trials were over, a total of 20 people had been executed and 150 others had been imprisoned, five of whom died awaiting trial.
The goal of the Witch Museum is to portray these events in both a respectful and accessible manner, according to D'Amario. "There are documents to be read," she says, referring to the original papers at the Peabody Essex. "What the average visitor wants is something more immediate." The Witch Museum offers a narrated show on 12 stages, depicting scenes from the trials. Life-sized figures in period costumes represent the main characters. After the lights dim, a deep-voiced, piped-in narrator intones, "Do you believe in witches?" Eerie music plays in the background. "Fear was the climate," goes the narration. "The devil was the prince of darkness, and he was everywhere." And so on, melodramatically.
The theme-park atmosphere is maintained at the Salem Wax Museum of Witches & Seafarers, where a statue of a decapitated man holding his bloody head greets visitors through October (although the scenes inside are surprisingly realistic) and at the Witch Dungeon Museum, with its sound track of howling winds.
In contrast to all this theatricality, the display cases at the Peabody Essex's Phillips Library—in keeping with the museum's general approach—offer a dry and scholarly treatment of the trials, displaying original documents and artifacts. The nearby Salem Witch House is the only building in Salem with direct ties to the trials. This is where a magistrate examined some of the accusers for "spectral evidence"—physical markings allegedly made by the devil, such as blemishes, scratches, or scars. Similarly low-key is the reverential and dignified Salem Witch Trials Memorial. Adjacent to the Old Burying Point, Salem's oldest cemetery, the memorial was built for the tercentenary of the trials, in 1992. Its minimalist design, by architects Maggie Smith and James Cutler, is reminiscent of Maya Lin's Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. The names of the dead are engraved on individual stone benches, each with the date of execution. At the memorial's entrance, the pleas of the innocent are engraved along the walkway. "For my life lies now in your hands." "I am wholly innocent of such wickedness." "I am no witch." Suddenly, the full human import of Salem's dark history hits home. More than 300 years ago, my own relative survived, but others died. And why?For no other reason than a chance encounter between teenage hysteria and prosecutorial puritanism. A poisonous alchemy.
Around town these days, there's a sense of change. "The city is trying to be less witchy," says Joan Brennan, proprietor of a T-shirt store in downtown Salem called Witch Tee's. "They don't want hocus-pocus stores all over the place." Others challenge the idea that things are changing in any deliberate fashion. "I don't know how you could legislate it," D'Amario of the Witch Museum says. Salem, she points out, is not like Williamsburg, Virginia, the colonial town that was restored with the help of John D. Rockefeller Jr. in the 1920's. Salem is a thriving city. The place that Arthur Miller first visited in 1952 to do research for his play ("a side-tracked town then, with abandoned factories and vacant stores" is how he later described it) is no more. It's bustling with traffic and tourists and, thanks to the Peabody Essex, a new sense of expanded possibilities.
BARBARA BENHAM is a frequent contributor to Travel + Leisure.