Tag Archives: Halloween

Liberation Day

November 1 is Liberation Day in Salem: the long Halloween is over, quite suddenly it always seems, and the city is returned to its residents. I’m in much better spirits than last year because of my boyc0tt of downtown Salem: the image of the Witch Trials Memorial turned into a food hall is somewhat faded from my mind. It’s comforting to know that in this month, and the months leading up to next September and October, civic resources and energies will be liberated from propping up the seasonal Halloween industry and thus enabled to focus on promoting Salem’s less-ephemeral attributes. As usual trick-or-treating generally mollifies my feelings about Halloween as the kids are so cute, but still, I’m glad it’s over (again).

My favorite trick-or-treaters (or costumed people who walked past my door–sorry, the pictures of an entire Game of Thrones crew and the Swiss Family Robinson (I think?) did not come out well).

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My feelings today, illustrated : “Liberty Triumphant” (against oppression) in the Revolutionary war and World War I (Library of Congress) , joyful skipping by Harold Edgerton (© Harold & Esther Edgerton Foundation, courtesy of Palm Press, Inc., Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), My cat Trinity at peace.

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Boston Halloween

Besides living in the self-proclaimed Witch City, yet another aspect of my tortured relationship with Halloween is my birthday, which falls a few days before and inevitably gets colored (darkened) by the proximity. It’s not quite as bad as having a Christmas birthday, but close, especially for me. There’s generally a big storm on my big day too–but not this year, thank goodness. This year we have family in town to celebrate their first Salem Halloween, but there was no way I was going to be their guide, so I left them to my husband and fled to Boston for the day. I went to the Museum of Fine Arts for the William Merritt Chase and Della Robbia exhibitions (the women!), then to the Antiquarian Book Show  (the prices!) at the Hynes Convention Center, and then I just walked around the Back Bay and Beacon Hill, as the weather got progressively warmer over the day. Oddly enough, I found myself enjoying the Halloween decorations on the stately brownstones and townhouses: very creative and such a contrast to the architecture! Maybe I like Halloween after all (just not in Salem).

Back Bay:

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Just one book from the show at the Hynes in keeping with the theme: next post I’m going to write about a beautiful ($45,000) incunabulum I had never heard of before (if I can find out enough about it).

Beacon Hill: who knew that Louisburg Square was Halloween central? This first house was amazing.

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Seasonal Spider (webs)

Well, Halloween is less than a week away so I suppose I should post on something seasonal: my October avoidance of downtown Salem has actually made me less aware of this holiday, although yesterday it dawned on me that I was not prepared for trick-or-treating and should start accumulating all of the candy I will need. It seems as if I always run out, no matter how much I buy. In my neighborhood there is a range of Halloween/Fall decorations:  some completely over the top, others more subtle. My favorite seasonal decoration preferences run more to the natural than the macabre: I’ve always thought that bats are wonderful, and I have developed a healthy appreciation for spiders over the last few years. There are quite a few spiders, with webs and without, around Salem these days, but today’s post is really more inspired by interior decoration than exterior embellishment, and specifically by a New York Times article from a few weeks ago about the restoration/redecoration of two historic “literary shrines”: the Connecticut houses of Mark Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe. In the parlor of Twain’s house, workers are installing a reproduction 1880s wallpaper with spiderwebs designed by Candace Wheeler, an absolutely amazing artist who, along with her design colleagues in her firm Associated Artists, was primarily responsible for the original decoration of the house. Just one look at the wallpaper started me down both a Candace Wheeler path and a spider/web path–so here’s the latter, beginning with the Mark Twain’s parlor paper and proceeding back and forth through the ages and back to Salem.

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Candace Wheeler wallpaper, Metropolitan Museum of Art: Contemporary spiderweb wallpaper in two tones, Walls Republic; Japanese silk embroidered spiderweb textile, early Meijii era, William Sturgis Bigelow Collection, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; English “Spider Print” Textile Length, 2004, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the best “natural” Halloween vignette ever: Bat and a Spider Web, 1782, Philadelphia Museum of Art; my favorite medieval spider, British Library MS Sloane 4016; a Salem spider.


Two Nights in Salem

As you might imagine, my teenage stepson is not at all sympathetic to my I don’t want to see tacky & exploitative witchcraft “attractions” attitude in October so we have ventured downtown for the last couple of nights.The weather has been warm but rainy so there weren’t that many people milling about but we did avoid the more commercial sites. I think I first took him to the Salem Witch “Museum” when he was six or seven and he thought it was ridiculous then; so he has no desire to return now, thankfully. On Thursday night we went to a few shops on the way to one of the Peabody Essex Museum’s monthly themed PEM/PM evenings, which are always great.This month’s theme was “Moon Landing”, in reference to their brand new exhibition “Lunar Attraction”, which is just the kind of multi-media, multi-genre, multi-era, and multi-perspective presentation that I always enjoy. We spent a lot of time watching the colorized version of Georges Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon (1902) that was playing continuously, but I found many of the exhibit items almost as captivating.

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The Peabody Essex Museum on Thursday evening past: atrium and “Lunar Attraction” exhibits, including screen shots from A Trip to the Moon; Beth Hoeckel’s “Campground” collage from her ongoing series “Point of View”; Scott Listfield’s “To the Moon”, 2004, a Japanese moon rabit, and Edward Holyoke’s ink illustration of a solar eclipse, 1713.

On our way over to the Museum we stopped in at the Salem Arts Association, where there were works both timeless and ephemeral and seasonal-macabre, some more witty than others. I liked these little coffins in the window and a “Vampire Test”mirror; my stepson liked a map of the United States divided into regions which have Waffle Houses and regions which do not.That came home with us.

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On Friday night, before the deluge we had later and the PBS documentary on the making of Hamilton, we went to the House of the Seven Gables for one of their seasonal experiences, “Legend of the Hanging Judge”, in which actors play out different roles relating to the witch trials in the rooms of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s birthplace: the author himself was in residence, consumed with guilt, as his ancestor is the title character. The one good thing about Salem’s crass commercial Halloween tourism is that it gets tourists through the doors of real museums like the Gables, although I fear out-of-town sausage sellers make more money.

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The Gables at Night. I can never get a good night shot–was trying for the contrast of garden and house and this is the best I could do!


Greetings from Witch City

I really tried to give Salem Halloween a chance this year. I kept telling myself to forget that this celebration is based completely on the tragic death of innocent people over 300 years ago and that there is no connection between Halloween and the Salem Witch Trials other than a manufactured one that has to be based on the completely unfounded assumption that these people WERE witches. People just don’t want to hear that, and my persistent haranguing has made me into a bit of a pest to my family and friends. A lighthearted attitude towards the month-long Haunted Happenings “celebration” is completely impossible for me to adopt, so instead I went for detached, either in time or of place: concentrate on the past (this always works for me) and avoid downtown at all costs. But yesterday I just put myself right into the fray, for you, dear readers, who have also been exposed to my Halloween snarkiness for years. I tried to adopt an objective attitude as I mingled among the huge crowds, but I couldn’t really maintain it and then I lost it altogether! So here are my observations, both in words and pictures–that latter a bit more objective than the former–I actually think they are a fair representation of what Salem looks like on Halloween. From my street-level perspective, however, I couldn’t quite capture the immensity of the crowd: estimated at 100,000 people, more or less.

What I observed (words):

  1. Huge crowds, very international in nature: I heard Spanish, French, German, Japanese, and (I think) Polish.
  2. Mostly they just mill about, taking pictures of themselves and others.
  3. There were some great costumes, but also a sea of generic witches and zombies. Lots of ghoulish brides, for some reason. My favorites were a pair of tarot cards, which I didn’t quite catch (see below). People really seemed to enjoy dressing up (humiliating) their dogs–this is just one reason I am a cat person.
  4. Long lines at all the schlocky businesses (the Salem Witch Museum, the Salem Witch History Museum, all the witch and “horror” shops). The Peabody Essex Museum was completely empty, but I was glad to see the House of the Seven Gables doing a brisk business. Kudos to the PEM and the National Park Service for keeping the Ropes Mansion and the Customs House open and free. These were the only real historical sites available to people, apart from the Witch House and the Gables.
  5. Good for business? This is the major reason people think Haunted Happenings is good for Salem. I suppose it is, but I’m really not sure. It seemed to me that the seasonal businesses were bustling while many of the more permanent ones were relatively empty, or even closed altogether. All the restaurants were packed, with long lines, but don’t all those sausage and fried dough stands eat into their business?
  6. Tours: one business that is obviously profiting big time from Haunted Happenings is that of walking tours, which seem to have multiplied exponentially from previous years. Both former and current students of mine were giving tours while I walked about, and I tried not to get too close so that I might hear what they were saying……
  7. Comments overheard during the crush. There are so many people packed together, that you can’t help but hear what they are saying (unfortunately). Most common comments/questions: where were the witches burned? what does that [building] have to do with the witches? Look at that dog!
  8. Crowd control: there is a huge police presence downtown, which is very necessary but must also be very costly.
  9. Trash: everywhere. Salem gets trashed during Haunted Happenings. The city was definitely on top of the trash situation, but again, at what cost?
  10. Desecration: the two most sacred sites downtown, the Old Burying Point on Charter Street and the adjacent Witch Trials Memorial were completely desecrated yesterday. There is no word more appropriate: desecration. The cemetery is simply fodder for tour groups and photo shoots, and the Memorial was reduced to a place where people could sit down and eat their fried dough or text. Drunken clowns (literally) sat on the stones representing the victims of 1692 while smiling tourists took their pictures. I ran home and poured myself a stiff drink.

What I observed (pictures):

Crowds converge around the Witch House and towards downtown; the requisite “sea of heads” shot, on Washington Street.

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The center of the storm, Lappin Park, at Washington and Essex Streets. Here Samantha, evangelical preachers, tourists, and fried dough converge. It’s really hard to convey how odd this juxtaposition of elements is.

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Some of the more creative costumes I spotted…..and uncreative: the last ladies were all sporting the super tacky “Salem Witch” costume I featured in a post a month ago.

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The Business of Witch City.

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A few random shots. Overheard in front of both the Derby House and the Ropes Mansion: did a witch live here?

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The Burying Point on Charter Street and Witch Trials Memorial. No comment.

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End note: Things did pick up after I went home and had a drink and received my trick-or-treaters, who were cute and gracious. There were the usual pirates and princesses, but one costume, worn by a boy about 10 years old, I found quite perplexing: a black, inflated, puffer suit of sorts, rendering him quite round. No mask, no graphics. I asked him what he was supposed to be, and he shrugged while his sister answered for him: America. Morbid Obesity.


Season of Contrasts

I have some free time on Saturday, so I’m going to walk around and take pictures so that I can present Salem’s Halloween to you in its full glory, but today I have prettier, and for the most part, calmer pictures of Salem and Essex County that I’ve taken over the last few weeks. When looking through my picture files, I was struck by how many contrasts were depicted:  between city and country, Salem in its Witch City mode and the county in its luxuriant fall mode, a lot of energy in Salem and a lot of tranquility on its outskirts. But everywhere there is color at this time of year, contrasting color: bright, dark, golden. October is such a beautiful month, but I really do prefer the slightly starker, Halloween-free November: just a few more days.

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My back yard at night–the mansard tower of the building on Broad Street that was the original Salem State Normal School and is now condos is always lit of with purple flashing light during October. It looks cool but I can never take good night pictures.

Ipswich, Newbury, Newburyport:

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Cakes for Souls and Spouses

Some day, some night, I swear I am going to offer the hordes of Halloween trick-or-treaters that darken my door traditional soulcakes rather than Kit Kats or Butterfingers: now that would be asking for a trick! I think about doing this every year but never follow through: I’m too scared of the consequences, I think, or lacking in confidence in my ability to produce some decent looking cakes. I have already purchased my requisite 1400 pieces of candy so I’ll probably chicken out this year too. Soul cakes are often described as a cross between a biscuit (in the English sense, or an American cookie) and a scone, and sometimes as shortbread: there are lots of recipes available on the web, many adopted from early modern cookbooks. If I were going to go for it, I would probably go with one of the two recipes available here, my go-to source for food history. I suppose that the cakes are more appropriately distributed on All Saints or Souls Day (November 1 and 2), but no one will be coming to my door then: Salem will be returned to its residents! In any case, my Halloween cakes would be perfectly respectable with recognition of the pre-modern Hallow-Tide, which covers all three Hallowed days: from All-Hallows Eve or Halloween on 31 October through All Saints and All Souls Days. These Christian days were superimposed upon earlier Pagan holidays and traditions, creating a period in which the dead and the living were particularly close, and could affect one another’s fate. The medieval Christian view was that this was a time that the living should be working to get the dead out of purgatory, so bells were run, prayers were said, and gifts were given–in the form of cakes disbursed to bands of “soulers” who went from house to house singing ancient souling songs and offering prayers for the dearly departed. After the Reformation and the disappearance of a soul-packed Purgatory in most of Protestant Britain, souling evolved into outright begging, and eventually (jumping the Atlantic) into trick-or-treating. If there was no English Reformation, I wonder if we would all still be giving out soul cakes? Probably not.

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Seventeenth-century Souls, simply existing and ascending directly to Heaven without stopping at Purgatory–they don’t need any prayers or cakes! (Karel van Mallery after Jan van der Straet, Antwerp, 1609 and Johannes Amos Comenius, Orbis sesualium pictus, Nuremburg, 1658 , both Wellcome Library Images); Shropshire Soul Cakes, from a recipe available here, and a more modern Halloween cake on an early 20th century postcard.

Another cake long associated with Halloween in parts of the British Isles, most particularly western Scotland and the Isle of Man, is dumb- cake, very simple, salty grain and water cakes baked in the fire by unmarried women at midnight, with the aim of revealing their future spouses. While holding the pan, they were said to recite an ancient rhyme—Two must make it, two must bake it, and two must break it— and afterwards their future mates would be revealed in their dreams. Presumably the word “dumb” is a variant of “doom”, the Old English word for fate or destiny, although I’ve also read that the girls were supposed to remain mute while they baked the cake (then how would they recite the rhyme?). This kind of “divining for husbands” takes many different forms (cabbage-pulling, mirror-gazing) on both sides of the Atlantic, and survives in the form of various cultural expressions into the twentieth century.

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Title and first page of the play entitled The Dumb-Cake by Arthur Morrison and Richard Pryce, London, 1907, and an early twentieth-century variant of a dumb cake on a postcard from the same era.


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