I just finished reading J. W. Ocker's latest book A Season With The Witch: The Magic and Mayhem of Halloween in Salem, Massachusetts
(2016). I have posted about several of Ocker's other books and greatly admire his blog Odd Things I've Seen
. I have nothing bad to say about this book; I liked it very much in fact. However, it has taken me several days to work up the courage to write about it because I'm still not sure how I feel about Salem after reading it.
Let me begin with this: I first visited Salem about 12 years ago one beautiful Sunday during October. I don't know what I was expecting, but I came away disappointed. Sure, we visited The House of Seven Gables and I enjoyed the tour, we ate at a cute, witch-themed restaurant, we browsed in a shop full of herbs (most likely Artemisia Botanicals) which was really cool, and wandered (and wandered) the streets searching for a museum about the actual witch trials <insert that horrible error noise your computer makes here>. We didn't find the museum because there isn't one. What I did find was people trampling a cemetery dropping bits of caramel corn and used wrappers on the graves. That did it. That set me off. Just ask my husband what happens when I get set off. It's not pretty and that is what colored my view of Salem.
Jump forward to about eight months ago when I had the opportunity to visit Salem once again on a cold and windy Tuesday in March. I was there for my job, but took the opportunity to sneak downtown at lunch for a second look. The streets were empty (it was bitterly cold) and I stumbled, literally, onto the memorial for the Salem Witches by accident. Had I not previously written about it in the blog, I probably would have passed it by thinking it was a nice little pocket park. In fact, I had to tell the person I was with what it was. I found a gift shop that was open and went in to get warm and found the usual witch trinkets. My mistake was looking for more. I went into the Peabody Essex Museum gift shop hoping to find something more authentic about the witches and though it was a lovely gift shop, there was nothing on witches. I had lunch at a nice brewpub and enjoyed a decent witchy brew. The restaurant had one other table of people.
So, you can see why I wanted to read Ocker's book about Salem. I wanted to know what I was missing. I wanted to rediscover a love for Witch City. Ocker spent a month in Salem with his family to see the city from an insider's view during October. He talked to people who loved Witch City for everything it is and to people who loved living there, but hated the month of October. My experience in Salem apparently is one that other have experienced.
I loved following Ocker vicariously through Salem. He visits nearly every fortune teller, drinks crazy cocktails, talks to real witches, and visits every site that is connected to the witch trials of 1692. He faces the problems head-on, full-steam-ahead. He interviews a curator at the Peabody Essex Museum about the lack of witchery there and to the owners of the side-show style attractions. He doesn't hide the fact that people are celebrating a tragedy and are having a really good time doing it.
I think Ocker's conclusion is that people and the City of Salem aren't really celebrating the tragedy or real witches at all. He feels people are celebrating their idea of Halloween and in doing so creating jobs and bringing money into the small town that has lost it's seafaring and industrial job base. Almost by accident, they're keeping the names of the people innocently put to death for a crime (that shouldn't be a crime) that they didn't commit. If Salem didn't promote the witch trials, no one would remember their names.
I think there is a bigger lesson to learn in Salem that isn't being brought to the front. The city isn't so much celebrating the accused as they are mocking the people who ever considered witchcraft a crime. By dressing as a witch or a vampire or a super hero we're showing those who would judge people for being different that there is nothing scary here. Behind the costumes or unfamiliar religion people are just people. That is something I can celebrate.
Thanks for reading this far. I meant for this to be a short post, but I had to talk it through for myself. Did Ocker convince me to visit Salem next October? In the end, I think that he did. Will I visit all the kitschy, out-of-date monster and witch exhibits that I avoided before? I think I will. This time I'll go to Salem with the understanding that I'm part of a group of people who want to face the darkness with humor and compassion, not hate. That is a lesson I can get behind.
Read this book.