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Something Wicked This Way Comes

Road Trip USA

There was a time back in the early noughties when I was slightly obsessed with the occult. Not in a devil worshipping way I just wanted to be a witch. As I wasn’t actually able to cast spells (cough, muggle, cough) I became fascinated with astrology, tarot and considered becoming a Wiccan only it seemed like too much work to have a religion while I was trying juggle high school and getting up early on weekends to tape my video clips from Rage to VHS.

Given the family penchant for all things historical this fascination with witchcraft included a lot of detailed reading as a 15-year old on the Salem Witch Trials in Salem, Massachusetts. I found the whole period fascinating. I then read Arthur Miller’s The Crucible and had always wanted to go to this small town north of Boston to see what was left of this early settlement and its witchy inhabitants.

In 1692 nineteen “witches” were hanged and one stoned to death in the small puritan settlement of Salem. The staunchly religious settlers in New England were shaken by some young girls’ sudden flights of uncharacteristic fancy. A Caribbean slave named Tituba had been sharing stories with the girls. They had been captivated and its believed began acting out the stories. Doing normal things that kids do. To the puritans suddenly the girls started acting very peculiar as puritan children were to be seen and not heard so obviously the only explanation to such behaviour was that they were in fact possessed by the devil. It became a big game and before long it was believed witches were at fault possessing the young girls and they started pointing fingers with dire consequences. The hysteria became so widespread people were accusing their neighbours and their foes for monetary gain. At its peak it is believed 150 people were in the tiny dungeons of Salem awaiting trials in a time when the area only housed 200 families. The drama was eventually shut down after the governor’s wife was accused. By then 19 had been hanged in the gallows, more specifically from the branches of a tree and left to rot.

While it was by no means the only instance of witch burnings it became a shameful scar on the history of America. A period of such shame, the nearby towns of Danvers and Peabody changed their names and distanced themselves from the events. Salem on the other hand has wholly embraced their past, their spooky witchy connections and every October is Haunted Happenings, a town wide Halloween festival.

Salem lives for Halloween. In fact many things don’t even bother opening the rest of the year until all the autumn fun. Modern day witches have been drawn to the town by its history and its now openly tolerant acceptance of the supernatural and particularly of modern day Wiccans. You can get your aura photographed, your tarot cards thrown or your palm read. Kitschy museums and specialty shops entertain the tourists as do the haunted houses and anything else spooky they can cash in on, Frankenstein and pirates. You can have a witch photo shoot where you get dressed up and pose in front of witchy backdrops. You can get witch themed everything, a witch hat and matching apron for cooking, jack’o’lantern chocolates, pumpkin ale even hot chocolate that turns orange. You couldn’t live in Salem if you thought Halloween was just another over-commercialised holiday. Samantha Stevens is even cast in bronze and watches over the town from the square.

While the windows are full of ghoulish decorations and pumpkins sit on the doorsteps what gives Salem its real spook factor is of course its wicked history. Were they actually witches hanged for their devilish ways? Had they actually caught real life witches? All sorts of people were accused, particularly poorer people, your everyday cat ladies were a target, anyone who skipped church for a lie in as well as mid-wives who were blamed for still births. There was even a book written by Cotton Mather’s about how to spot a witch. Red hair and freckles were a dead giveaway. A birthmark of any description would have got you in trouble. There was no rhyme or reason. In fact scientists today have even thought that it may have been a bacteria, or a mold on the seasons harvest that may have caused the weird behaviour and hallucinations which were mistaken for being a sign of being possessed.

Hysteria is usually the term thrown around as young girls were testifying in courts that women had made them ride with them on broomsticks and all sorts of nonsense. Sheer fear allowed it to escalate. In the town now a memorial to the victims of the Witch trials sits by a real 17th century cemetery. The real colonial houses associated with the trial are of course haunted as are many other sites around town making it the perfect place to scare the wits out of yourself on night tours.

Salem, like much of New England is at its most beautiful in the autumn, not only for Halloween but traditionally it was the harvest so pumpkins sit on the porches of the houses. Fresh apples are sold by the side of the road, as well as turned in to pies and cider. Corn mazes pop up for some harvest season fun. The leaves are falling and there is a crisp chill in the air of the coming winter.

A few days before our arrival a couple got so lost in the corn maze in Danvers they called the police and there was a big search operation to get the fools out. May I emphasise “corn” maze, the walls are made of stalks of corn. Bendable, push throughable corn. Beside the maze is a pumpkin patch where you can pick your own pumpkin to take home. Fun for the whole family.

The fall season comes alive in Salem. All the trademark Halloween tack, a novel slice of the occult and a splash of historic spook make it a wicked concoction of fun. Plus it is the only place where you can walk the streets in a cape and not get a second glance.

Posted by The Tipsy Gipsy 15:55 Archived in USA Tagged fall halloween autumn witches salem pumpkins witch_trials

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