Salem, Massachusetts at Halloween: How witchcraft took over an American city

The memorial is very simple. Around a small, grassy park are a series of benches built into the walls. Each bench bears an inscription, one for each victim, The first starts with "Bridget Bishop. Hanged. June 10, 1692". And then it goes on through the other names – Sarah Good, Susannah Martin, Rebecca Nurse, Giles Corey and so on.

If the people of Salem in the late 17th century were to be believed, all 20 of those executed, then later commemorated, were witches.

The Salem Witch Trials were a classic example of what happens when suspicion and superstition mix. The absurd, hysterical escalation of often-malicious finger-pointing saw nearly 200 people in and around the small Massachusetts town accused of witchcraft. It only stopped when the Governor's wife got accused, and the trials were shut down pronto.

It is by no means the only place on earth that has become embroiled in a terrifying witch hunt, but Salem has become the best known; the place always reached for when metaphors are required.

This is partly because modern Salem doesn't shy away from its dark past. It could be forgiven for trying to bury the tale and throw itself into the modern world. But instead it hoicks up the hocus pocus to hokum levels that have to be appreciated for their sheer, unstinting bravado.

There are several museums, of varying quality, devoted to witchcraft and the trials. There are ghost walks and supposedly haunted hotels. There are spooky waxworks and there is a gallery entirely devoted to monsters from horror movies.

This is what it is like normally, but during October, this ratchets up several gears as the Haunted Happenings festival takes hold of the town. Where most American towns and cities throw themselves into Halloween with gusto, Salem does so with such full-throated, roaring passion that elsewhere seems prissily tame by comparison.

A stroll through Salem's October streets is a bombardment of carved pumpkins, faux cobwebs, cardboard cutout cats and glow-in-the-dark skulls. By the time you see the 20th person dressed as a witch, it all seems perfectly normal. But it's not all pastiche – Salem's story has, oddly, seen it become a magnet for modern day, self-described witches. A fair few shops in town, selling supplies and potions, are run by them as a sizeable community has established itself.

This, of course, wouldn't have happened quite so openly in 1692. The Salem Witch Museum is the best of a bunch trying to tell the story of the hysteria, using moody audio-visual presentations and actor voice-overs to rattle through the timeline. It all kicked off when children started behaving strangely, then West Indian slave Tituba was accused of using witchcraft and consorting with the devil to possess them.

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After a thorough beating, Tituba confessed. And then under questioning she started to implicate other women – probably as a way of easing the heat on herself. This snowball continued, with accused "witches" realising they could stave off the gallows by slowly leaking out more revelations and pointing fingers at others. A series of existing disputes and festering resentments amongst the people of Salem didn't exactly help keep a lid on things either.

But for a real idea of how easy it would have been to get swept up in the lunacy, Cry Innocent: The People Versus Bridget Bishop does a wonderfully unnerving job. It's essentially a short, interactive play, where Bishop – the first to be executed – is brought in for a preliminary hearing. The audience gets to ask questions of Bishop and the assorted witnesses, then at the end there's a show of hands determining whether there's enough evidence for her to stand trial.

The barrage of evidence against her is fierce, and accompanied by reminders that it's not about whether she's guilty, but whether there's enough evidence to go to trial. Bridget herself is crotchety, and her denials about knowing any of the witnesses simply don't add up. The evidence may often be unprovable nonsense about spirits, but there's so much stacked against her and she's so untrustworthy that even cynics end up raising their hands to have her tried.

It's a worrying insight into how easily people can be swayed into supporting something preposterous and with grave consequences. And it's a rare moment of gravity in the Disneyland gone spooky atmosphere that pervades Salem in full-bore Halloween season. The past hasn't been fully kept under the witch's hat.

Trip Notes

MORE INFORMATION

See salem.org

GETTING THERE

Qantas offers flights to Boston, via Los Angeles, from Sydney and Melbourne. The LA to Boston leg is on an American Airlines flight. From Boston Airport, Salem is approximately a 40 minute drive away – around $50 in a cab. See qantas.com.au.

STAYING THERE

The Salem Waterfront Hotel (www.salemwaterfronthotel.com) has a pool, parking and prime wharf-side location. Prices start at $145.

SEE + DO

The Witch Museum. See salemwitchmuseum.com.

Cry Innocent: The People Versus Bridget Bishop. See cryinnocentsalem.com.

Disclosure: David Whitley was a guest of Destination Salem. For more information on visiting Salem go to salem.org or hauntedhappenings.org

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