Three Days in Salem, Massachusetts: A Halloween Pilgrimage
The young witch pulled her black velvet hood around her face, green eyes flashing in the late October afternoon. The crowds pushed around and past us, many of them clad similarly, as Halloween costumes. But my witch sister, youngest in a long line of Eastern European followers of the old ways, was the least costumed in the crowd. In her flowing black robe with red spider detailing, she was dressed as her true self.
The hoards of Beetlejuices, superheroes, and princesses, scanning passersby for other impressive costumes, gave us not a second look. But every now and then, usually an older woman in a pointed hat, orange lipstick curled into a knowing grin, would murmur, “Happy Halloween!” as she passed.
“They’re hee-ere…” I teased my friend, the witch priestess, my supreme.
We arrived at 31 Foster Street on October 30th, having already heard about the Disneyland-ification of Salem’s gruesome legend, the exploitation of tragedy for an annual economic boost. Our host, a stranger until the day we arrived, said he’d grown up in Danvers, about five miles north of Salem. The name of the original Salem Village had been changed to Danvers because no one wanted to live in a town with that name. What is now known as Salem is the tourist destination, featuring the Witch’s Dungeon, the Witch House, and a bunch of tours through graveyards. But with limited time and considering the inevitable crowds, we opted to poke around on a self-guided tour. Our host, a welding artist, told us we were the first witches he’d ever met.
We had come, we told him, to see and feel this place. We wanted to feel the friction between carnival levity and the objects associated with this old story. Is the kitsch a healing balm for tragedy, we wondered, or its voyeuristic revival?
Thanks to Arthur Miller’s influence, American society has come to regard the Salem witch trials as an example of failed justice, the effect of mass hysteria, adolescent boredom and spite. There’s the theory that hallucinogenic mold affecting wheat harvests brought about the symptoms of the so-called possessions, and increased the feelings of paranoia in the town, especially in children. In any case, it is commonly accepted that the accused were not practicing witches at all, but victims of these circumstances. And so the question remains: was there ever any true magic being practiced in this Puritan town?
Magic is an ancient craft, having been passed down through generations to those who feel and acknowledge the presence of another realm close to our own, with energies that protect, guide, or threaten. We gather elements from the earth for their recognized metaphysical attributes, bundle them with our earnest intentions, and send them outward to influence the fabric of our reality. Many of us have been performing rituals like these in private, inspired by fantasy, folklore, or a faith in the occult. It is hard to believe that there have never been any witches in Salem, or anywhere else. But even if there had been, it is easier to imagine that those who did would have gone great lengths to hide all trace of these practices once those fingers started pointing.
In popular culture, Salem is associated with witchcraft. But in coming to learn the secrets of the old ways, I realized what is known popularly as “magic” is often black magic, that which violates the most important tenet of the practice: harm to none. The infamy of Salem’s witch trials contained the necessary ingredients of a black magic that may still be haunting some of its wayward residents.
We arrived too late to get a slice of pizza near the Hawthorne Hotel, where a Halloween ball had just ended. Salem’s upper crust residents were pouring out in their pricey historical costumes (“Salem Royalty,” our host called them). An eighteenth century nobleman sent us to the all-night Pilgrim Diner. Behind the counter, two beefy cooks sweated over the grill and bantered with us. They switched on competing heavy metal on two different speaker sets to welcome us spooky Baltimoreans to their town.
At noon on October 31st the streets of downtown Salem were clogged with tourists. A tiny Strawberry Shortcake negotiated fried dough with her parents, a group of little steampunk girls awaited a table for lunch, and a statuesque Maleficent in drag gladly indulged our request for a photo.
“Stay evil,” she advised us, in the same tone used earlier by the witch elder.
A couple of superheroes, The Hulk Dad, Black Widow Mom, sat eating barbecue with their little Frankenstein in Harry Potter glasses while Black Sabbath played overhead. A crew of beady-eyed Christians harangued the masses through megaphone, advising us of the death of our souls. A devil walked past and flicked his tail playfully at them.
We came prepared to meet the spirits. Sharing a tab of acid between us, we wandered toward the sounds of screaming and machinery. A carnival had been erected across the street from tourist shops and candlelight cemetery tours. A barker called out to us to throw rubber frogs at witch dolls with green faces and hooked, warty noses. A carousel of demented white horses churned around and around, the top furling and unfurling red and gold stripes. We stepped onto a glittery car on the Ferris wheel, and were swept up into the air where we rubbed cheeks with the golden autumn sun. As we dangled at the top of the wheel, we realized we were across the street from Salem’s oldest cemetery where the most notable members of the community were buried: Mayflower passengers, and the wife of Giles Correy, who at eighty was the oldest to have been killed in the trials, pressed to death for refusing to submit to a trial. This is where Colonel John Hathorne, the witchcraft judge, rests fitfully, trampled upon yearly by disaster tourists.
And the victims? They are somewhere in the earth, in unmarked graves, where they rest peacefully after their horrific end.
As she passed him, a man clad in black from head to toe, feathers in his hat, addressed my witch sister as “Priestess.” She turned upon hearing her name, and we gave him audience. He played us a song on a cheap guitar with a supermarket gift card as a pick, and told us he was born in the house now marked as 10 Liberty Street, the actual former home of Joseph Smith, founder of Mormonism. He told us about having recorded with Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, and soon, he said, Gloria Estefan. His companion, an elderly lady in a pink sweat suit and balancing on a walker, offered us some of their Tostitos and cheese lunch. Then they bid us a reluctant goodbye.
The sun gave one last brilliant performance, lighting the sky filled with clouds like crumpled velvet. We shivered our way back to the house, the witching hour drawing close, the veil between the dimensions at its thinnest. Our host put on his VCR of Night of the Living Dead 2 while I whited-out my face, drawing an inverted cross over my third eye. We filled our pockets with crystals and herbs, amethyst and jet, cinnamon and black pepper for protection before venturing back out into the night.
Under the glare of stadium lighting, we pushed through the hoards gathered before platforms where bands made their booties shake, and street-clothed Boston bros called at girls in sexy costumes. Children bounced atop their parents’ shoulders, wide-eyed or in tears. Our host reached back for us frequently to make sure we wouldn’t be lost. He was our guide, our resourceful and protective magician of the weekend. We were lucky that we had drawn his card.
Our companions were two girls who had been on the road together on a friendship tour for two weeks. One was dressed as Connie Marbles, the “Filthiest Woman Alive” from our Baltimorean patron saint of filth, John Waters’ Pink Flamingos. The other had handmade a vulture mask from electric tape, glass bottles filled with paint dangling from her neck. These travelers of the road, reflecting one another in the form of endless playful banter, were our sun and moon. We were likewise lucky to have drawn them.
We walked down a cobblestoned alley filled with vomiting and repentant Teletubbies and crashed a party. Souls wandered from kitchen to backyard carrying bottles and lighting thin white paper cones. A Pris in drag from Blade Runner staggered in fishnets, wrapping her leopard coat around her neck. A gore-stained giant white bunny stood below a pine tree before accidentally outing himself by removing his head when he thought he’d heard his name. A tall, thin man on crutches, a native of Danvers, locked onto me and begged me to explain my love for my hometown of Baltimore City.
“You say you love it…but are you in love with it?” He repeated, leaning desperately towards me. I was about to ask him who had recently broken his heart, but each time I opened my mouth to answer he interrupted, rephrasing the same question. Some people are not interested in conversation. Some people just need to be heard. This man had broken his right foot in an accident at his factory job where he felt suspended and miserable, working with others even more suspended and miserable than he. His left foot remained unbroken, I pointed out, and represented the opportunity for mobility after this temporary suspension of activity.
“You are the Hanged Man,” I told him, and he moved away from me.
As I floated around and confused these well-meaning partygoers with my mystic psychobabble, my witch sister sat alone by a small fire we’d made with pine needles. I joined her, Death sitting with the Hermit by the fires of the underworld.
Then an extraordinary new visitor arrived at the gate. The host of the party had a big, beautiful black dog, a hell hound who greeted each new arrival and barked incessantly whenever any of us came too close to leaving. Upon the arrival of a new guest, he ran to the gate which opened, and then, as the first dog turned around, there was a new black dog behind him. This second dog ran after the first. Then they both turned around, returned to the gate, and suddenly there were three.
“Cerberus,” the Hermit whispered to me.
At midnight, a circle of strangers, new friends, and my dear witch sister toasted to my birth, All Soul’s Day. We danced, our bodies shaking off the dark shards of last year’s completed lessons, creating shapes and patterns to welcome the challenges of the new year.
We walked back to our host’s house shortly after three, the streets abandoned and fluttering with trash. Street sweepers crept along the curbside collecting beer cans and costume debris.
The haloed moon glowed down on the empty parking lot we used as a shortcut. At the entrance to a footbridge crossing the North River, a young man jumped in our path, whirling a toy sword. Emboldened by the insightful glow of the drug in my spinal cord, I stepped forward.
“Are you the bridge troll?” I asked him. He kept whirling.
“I was a ninja,” he said, “But a dog pulled off most of my costume.”
“Maybe it was a hell hound,” said my witch sister.
“You girls like music?” he asked us, ignoring our guide. I was about to introduce myself as a lifelong musician when he pulled out his phone and said, “I work with all these producers in Boston. I rap and I write all the lyrics.”
He played us a heavy beat, distorted from his phone’s speaker, and rapped along with the recording. We nodded along politely. He quickly switched to another song.
“That one’s old,” he apologized. “This one’s better, I promise.”
Meanwhile, the sun and moon girls were twirling a roll of industrial toilet paper they’d found around our guide. My witch sister and I smiled and indulged our minstrel as he serenaded us.
Reading our polite expressions he said, “If this were playing on big speakers right now, you girls would be like, hayyy!”
We offered our admiration, encouragement, and wished him all the best of luck as we stepped past him.
The next day, muted gray sunlight fell on our path to Gallows Hill, supposedly the site to which the accused practitioners of the dark arts were dragged and hanged. This park rests a comfortable five miles south from the original village, now Danvers, and just outside Salem proper.
Dusk fell on a peaceful New England suburban street as we gathered our materials. We walked to the mouth of the park, not daring to go further. We held the moment and then lit our white sage. The wind lifted up and carried the smoke into the leaves of the shivering trees. What other language could possibly reach the kind of darkness created when a town turns upon its own? What substance, ground into the dirt, could sink deep enough to reach that kind of pain? We could offer only our attention—thin, wavering strands of white light lifting from the core and out through the breath. We stood in silence, hoping the meager presence of two young witches, hung over and otherwise exhausted, but willing to share this collective grief, could somehow contribute blessings upon the soil and the spirits of this place.
Juliana Converse is a fiction writer from Baltimore, Md. In her travels around the world she has encountered her share of demons, angels, shape-shifters, prophets, liars, and fair folk. She enjoys brunching with the ladies of her coven, dancing with the devil in the pale moonlight, and communing with literature, flanked by two ginger feline familiars. You can follow her on Twitter.