Bobbie Wayne's Blog
Things that go "bump"
I await the first cool days of fall the way little kids anticipate Christmas morn. But since Dan and I moved to Marblehead, MA six years ago, the first of October fills me with a degree of agita. I walk out on the porch, inhale deeply, spreading my arms and tilting my face towards the sky. “Aahh…I sigh, closing my eyes, breathing in the sweet, earthy smell of decay. An orange leaf gently hits my face; harbinger of cooler weather. After a long summer of heat and humidity, it has become…comfortable! Even the sun laps my skin as gently as a kitten’s tongue. So, why this foreboding? In a word, SALEM.
Look at a map of Eastern Massachusetts. Marblehead is the bump sticking out into the Atlantic below Gloucester and above Boston. To drive from Marblehead north or west, one must pass through Salem, and South Salem. The town has a population of 44,280 souls. But not in October. Last year, over 990,000 tourists clogged Salem’s sidewalks, stores and parking garages. Every weekend in October, Salem closes roads (with unannounced rolling closures as needed.) Near Halloween, all downtown roads are closed to cars after 4 p.m.
Marbleheaders on a schedule must drive south through Swampscott or travel to Peabody to leave. These are little hilly suburban streets, already filled with people trying to avoid Salem. Last year’s daytime photos of Salem’s crowded streets look like Times Square on New Year’s Eve. At night, if you dare to try driving through the town, the side-streets are not well-lit. Throngs of people wearing black costumes push their black baby strollers in front of your car, assuming that since they see your car, you can see them.
With its narrow, historic streets and a dearth of parking garages, Salem is running shuttles this year from Salem State College, bussing in witches, ghosts, monsters and little fairy princesses by the thousands. It looks like central casting for “Ghost Busters.”Why the hoopla? According to Salem’s mayor, Kim Driscoll, when near-by Danvers opened a mall in 1958, the thriving town of Salem went bust. Salem’s comeback was effected by “Bewitched,”a popular tv show that filmed several episodes in Salem around the same time the Witch Museum opened. After the filming of the 1993 movie, Hocus-Pocus in Salem, the income from October tourism began markedly rising.
But the real reason people celebrate Halloween in Salem rather than in Cleveland, Ohio or Eugene, Oregon is Salem’s association with the witch trials of 1692, which still fascinate us. Many residents of Salem and Danvers, formerly Salem Village where many of the accused lived, were happy to forget that shameful past where twenty-five innocent people died. It wasn’t until 1992 that a witch trials memorial was erected in Salem proper. The actual site of the murders had been forgotten.
These days, modern witches or Wiccans, live in Salem, sharing their belief in the Goddess, healing and psychic skills with each other as well as the tourists. Several own stores that do a thriving business. Some people assume modern witches worship the devil. Satan worship has nothing to do with the Wiccan faith, the Salem witch trials, nor, for that matter, Halloween.
Halloween borrowed the day, October 31, (and the ghostliness) from the old Gaelic festival of Samhain (pronounced: sow-in). Samhain celebrates the end of harvesting and the start of winter. It was the night when the veil separating the living from the dead grew permeable. Halloween, originally All Hallow’s Eve, was the day Christians honored their dead, especially martyrs and saints.
Post World War II parents encouraged a holiday where their children could dress up, ask neighbors for candy and go to parties. In Salem Massachusetts, the partying lasts all month and the adults are the ones who wear capes and wigs, horns and tails, witch hats, body paint tutus and pajamas. Residents of Salem and surrounding towns have been pretty accommodating. After all, who doesn’t love a big costume party? However, as one beleaguered resident was quoted in the news, “Just try to remember, Salem isn’t a theme park. Try to be respectful of those who live here.”
I am very happy to see the role Peabody Essex Museum and the town of Salem has increasingly taken in educating people about the actual events of 1692. It is a good thing for Americans to better understand what can happen when “innocent until proven guilty” is ignored due to religious hysteria. I think everyone should visit Salem, but please, don’t all come at once!
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