Has Salem sold its Soul?

One last Halloween-related post (I promise!) on this All Souls Day:  since it is a recurring theme of mine, I feel compelled to feature the Huffington Post columnist Greig Lamont’s stinging critique of the Witch City:  “Selling your Soul in Salem”. I’ve read it before, heard it before, said it before, but I welcome Lamont’s compelling indictment. You would think he had more at stake, because he contrasts the bygone grandeur of Salem with its wholesale descent into tacky revelry in a particularly passionate way, beginning with soul-searching and ending with soul-selling: Once the house of New World glory, Arthur Miller discovered inspiration in Salem’s story. Today, there’s nothing to be found but a soul-selling despair in this home of American kitsch.

My favorite line, because it describes scenes I see again and again, even in my sleep it seems, comes in the middle of the piece, when Lamont contrasts the city’s glorious past with its vacuous present: today Salem has been reduced to prostituting itself to oddballs in costumes who gawk at gravestones and hanker formuseums” filled with broomsticks and bricabrac. For all its magnificent past, today it degrades itself by pandering to those whose zenith is having their photograph taken with a transvestite Dracula next to a guitarplaying zombie — and whose nadir would be to actually learn something new.

Calm Descends 450

What does this have to do with what happened in 1692?

14 responses to “Has Salem sold its Soul?

  • ggirlforevah

    It has everything to do with what happened and if you don’t understand that, you missed the whole lesson.

    • daseger

      Ok, enlighten me!

      • ggirlforevah

        It is so apropos that you challenged me to “enlighten” you. In fact, the ‘age’ of enlightenment took place in the 2 centuries immediately following the time of the Salem witch trials. The Enlightenment movement questioned blind acceptance of tradition and encouraged individual thought and action; it was what eventually led to the present day ‘free to be you and me’ mindset. The mindset which resulted in the witch trials here and in Europe, was the antithesis of enlightenment. Modern day Salem is the personification of enlightenment. And the picture which you singled out for criticism evokes that enlightenment better than all of the historic monuments (as beautiful and important as they may be) combined.

      • daseger

        Well, first of all, we generally confine the “age” of Enlightenment to the 18th century, although it certainly started in Britain at about the same time that the Salem witch trials occured. And I’m sorry–I don’t mix past and present quite so easily as you do–what you see as “Enlightenment” I see as the commercialization and trivialization of tragedy. Not quite sure what historical monuments you are referring to–the Samantha statue? In any case, obviously the Lamont article inspired lively debate, here and elsewhere, which is always good in my opinion.

  • informationforager

    It is what it is. It’s tough to be locked in time. It’s hard to break into something new. I don’t begrudge a city or people for playing to its history. If I go to Mackinaw City or New Orleans I myself am looking for a story, a value, a meaning of that place.

    It amuses me when I return to old stomping grounds and find unexpectedly that it is now an “historic site.” I realize that every place is historic and important and has a story to tell. I wish people could have a serious discovery and discussion of “the special place” but they probably won’t. So there isn’t an answer, however, we should look at ourselves and realize that right now, today, this very instant we are creating history. I think that Arthur Miller’s work was an excellent example of bringing history forward to reveal the then present times(1950’s). Anyway, I like this blog and it has shown me more of Salam and I really like that. Thanks.

    P.S. I found a new spot today to see something else new, interesting, historical, and novel.

  • Brian Bixby

    I’m not so persuaded. Lamont’s piece contrasts the “glories” of Salem’s past to its tacky present. Was the past really all that glorious? Or is his view of the past no more real than that of Salem’s Halloween revellers?

    And what of Salem’s more recent past or present? When one’s Salem ends with Hawthorne sitting in the custom house, then the only past one is willing to accept is a dead and distant one.

    If one is going to support “The Crucible” as valid historic reinterpretation, then one is giving the present license to reuse and rework the past, which the present is going to take anyhow! I could quibble with how Salem reuses the witch trials (“could” nothing, DO!), but then I have to wonder how most of the people who flock to Salem would enjoy a reconstruction of the period’s actual superstitions. The debate on spectral evidence will lose most of them in under five minutes.

    I’m not going to begrudge the goth crew their day in the sun, or night in the moon, or whatever. I’ll even smile at the statue of Elizabeth Montgomery. I WILL deplore the prevalence of occult-themed shops whose historical connection to what happened in Salem in 1692 is minimal, and whose products are bunk. However, I’ll also recognize that they ARE part of Salem’s present-day soul.

  • thesalemgarden

    This post by Lamont was floating around in Salem circles on Facebook yesterday and I thought then, and still do now, that it must be very sad and exhausting to be him. He has no idea of what our city is really like… a wonderful, supportive community full of history and beauty that is celebrated every single day. I agree with Brian’s point that present day Salem with the shops and tourist attractions may seem silly but they have become a significant part of our city and it’s fun and vibrant nature. I choose to just relax and enjoy watching so many people from near and far enjoying themselves.

    • daseger

      I think that’s great, Michele. I really wish I could do the same. But I can’t: it all just seems so exploitative and tacky to me. I think Salem deserves better. And to follow up on your excellent point, Lamont does not know what our city is really like because Haunted Happenings–with all that entails–is the face that we choose to present to the world.

      • thesalemgarden

        I understand your perspective Donna. I think I pretty much shared it ten or so years ago when my young kids were terrified of it, Haunted Happenings wasn’t as well managed and we lived near the Common. It’s easier to enjoy it when my daily routines aren’t affected because I live up here on the hill, lol. I think I’m also able to see benefits now too, to places like our elementary school, many student groups at the high school, neighborhood associations, even our church. As you said. Lamont doesn’t know what Salem is really like, and it frustrates me that he wrote something so disparaging when he didn’t even know the name of the Peabody Essex Museum. It seems like no matter how hard the city tries to present the other side of our history it’s the Witch history that we’re known for. To me the Halloween celebration is almost separate from even that. Hope this makes sense, it’s been a busy day today!

      • daseger

        It makes perfect sense, Michele–I completely understand your perspective and do wish I could lighten up a bit. Maybe I should move a bit farther away from downtown……….

  • learnearnandreturn

    I guess it’s inevitable that Salem will be full of witches at Halloween, but it is sad if they take over the place all year. You may be interested in a post I wrote last July comparing Salem and Transylvania, and the way both have rather sold out, here – http://learnearnandreturn.wordpress.com/2013/07/16/dracula-and-the-witches/

    • daseger

      Hi Marion, it’s a really interesting topic–I have noticed that witchcraft tourism is really picking up at sites associated with trials in Britain as well. We must have passed right by each other at the WHA–that was the first conference that our department sponsored and it was certainly a lot of work!

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