Salem: America's Halloween City

On the coast of Massachusetts, the location of the US's most notorious witch hunts is heartily embracing its past

By David Whitley
Published 25 Oct 2016, 17:30 BST, Updated 7 Jul 2021, 17:09 BST
Salem Witch Museum.

Salem Witch Museum. Image: Alamy

Photograph by Alamy

On the stand, Bridget Bishop is doing herself no favours. She's failing to hide her contempt for all concerned, and her claims not to know any of the people testifying against her don't ring true.

Colonel John Hathorne, also played by an actor, presides over proceedings, reminding the courtroom that "it's not about deciding guilt — it's about deciding whether there's enough evidence to go to trial". Men of the church — and women who've already confessed — gang up to do their part in implicating Bishop. The barrage of spurious evidence from each individual somehow combines to make a compelling whole.

Cry Innocent: The People vs Bridget Bishop is an interactive theatre experience — the audience is jury and can ask questions of the characters, as if to step back in time. The aim is to give an idea of that the hysteria the Salem witch trials whipped up.

In 1692, Salem, Massachusetts was a hotbed of squabbling families and prissy Puritans. When children started acting disturbingly — speaking in strange voices, contorting themselves and generally giving the impression that they were possessed — witchcraft was quickly diagnosed as the source of the problem. From that point on, people were accused of being witches left, right and centre. Scores were settled, distrust of outsiders turned into blame. Those already accused, or convicted, soon clocked that dragging out proceedings by implicating others could keep them from the gallows for a bit longer.

In all, 20 people were executed — one crushed to death, the others hanged. The madness came to an abrupt end when the colonial governor's wife was accused of being a witch, and the trials were stopped.

It was a dark period that has become symbolic of witch-hunts in general — Arthur Miller used it as a metaphor for the McCarthyist witch-hunts in his 1953 play The Crucible. But what's fascinating about Salem, today, is how the small coastal city has owned its past and, in many ways, embraced it. There's a memorial, where the victims are commemorated simply and effectively as stone benches. And attractions and museums that riff off the word 'witch' abound.

The Salem Witch Museum is the best of these. A recorded narration dramatizes events with visuals and sound effects and then the exhibition takes visitors through a history of witchcraft and witch-hunts.

Other tourist offerings in the town grasp for any vaguely scary theme. There are ghost walks, a waxwork museum, there's a gallery devoted to creatures from horror movies — in some respects, Salem is an all-out, unashamed spooky take Disneyland.

This is particularly the case during the build-up to Halloween, when the American enthusiasm for pumpkins, plastic spiders and black cats gets turned up to 11. Salem happily becomes the Halloween dress-up capital of the world.

But in among this witch kitsch is something rather unexpected. In the city where people were falsely called witches and then put to death, real witches have moved in. Shops supplying self-styled witches have set up, and there's a sizable Wiccan community. Luckily, the other residents aren't quite as puritan as they once were.


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