A pack of zombies infiltrated Salem on this past Saturday, “landing” at Collins Cove and making their way through downtown, along the Common and Essex Street, into Derby Square to Derby Wharf. It wasn’t quite an invasion, but more of a parade: they had a police escort (as well as a hearse and banner) and did not really proceed in that distinct zombie shuffle (?): I suppose that would have taken too long, so they just walked. I really don’t mind zombies: even though they are often disgusting, at least they are creative, and they’re not out to make a quick buck like all the witches around town (of course they have no zombie “forbears”–that we know of–on whom to capitalize). One little stroll on a sunny Saturday and they’re gone, although a few will, no doubt, linger until the end of the month.
A little scuffle at the corner of the Common, but most of the zombies were peaceful paraders, like the lovely family above. Derby Square in the clear.
As tonight marks the beginning of the month-long “Haunted Happenings” in Salem, a true celebration, so it also begins my annual (and perennial) consternation over “Witch City”, Salem as mecca for all things Halloween. City authorities, merchants, restaurant owners, and yes, even museum directors, will say that Haunted Happenings is not trading on Salem’s notoriety as the site of the nation’s most notorious witch trials but such a statement is impossible to defend: there is no other compelling reason why Salem, Massachusetts would evolve into the Halloween destination aside from its dark history. Even those who acknowledge the darkness and the connection victimize the accused “witches” yet again: they are of course well-intentioned, but those who seek to turn 1692 into a mere lesson about the necessities of toleration and social justice are distorting the historical reality, just like modern witches identifying with “ancestors”.
So opportunism reigns in Salem, but it has done so for a very long time. Even though the festivities have really intensified over the last 33 years (Haunted Happenings commenced as a one-day affair back in 1982), Witch City evolved over a long time and as a result of many forces and contributors, both deliberate and unintentional. Several people have written about this evolution before (and I’ve devoted quite a bit of time and space to it myself), so I’m going to constrain myself to a veritable laundry list of these factors, all appearing after about 1867, the year of the publication of the first serious study of the 1692 Trials, Charles W. Upham’s Salem Witchcraft, With an Account of Salem Village and a History of Opinions on Witchcraft and Kindred Subjects. This book itself is influential, as is its abstract, along with the succession of guide books for Salem and the North Shore published from the 1870s until the first World War, “romantic” histories and fictional works featuring Salem issued in this same period, the bicentennial of the Trials in 1892 and everything it inspired, including the famous Daniel Low witch spoon and other witch wares, postcards, Salem’s own Tercentenary in 1926, branding (of goods, ships, trains, companies, public services, schools, neighborhoods), films and television shows, from Maid of Salem (1937) to Bewitched to Salem, The Crucible in all versions, The Salem Witch Museum, Salem’s Chamber of Commerce, and the initiation of Haunted Happenings, the arrival of Laurie Cabot, the “official” witch of Salem who “claimed” the victims of 1692 as fellow witches and the emergence of an influential and entrepreneurial Wiccan community, the Tercentenary of the Witch Trials in 1992, and the increasing national (global?) popularity of Halloween. In many ways, Witch City is a simple product of converging forces of supply and demand, with all that opportunism thrown in.
“Witch’s Parade”, n.d., Dionne Collection of Salem Images, Salem State University Archives and Special Collections.
Boston & Maine RR “Ye Salem Witch” locomotive, operational 1937-53.
Two “witches”, a century and a half apart: Thomas Satterwhite Noble’s Witch Hill (The Salem Martyr), 1869, New York Historical Society, and the “Adult Salem Witch” costume from Party City.
It is important to note that the long evolution of Witch City has been marked by resistance and criticism at nearly every phase of its escalation. She was probably just as ineffectual as I, but I share most of the sentiments of Caroline Howard King, a Salem native who returned to the city to write her memoir (WhenILivedinSalem, 1822-66) just when witchcraft tourism was really heating up in the 1890s. She recalls being taken on the same route on which the “witches” were led to the gallows by her father when she was a child, and observes that it may be the influence of those early days which make it so impossible for me to look with toleration on the witch spoons and witch symbols which are so much sought after now. The whole witch episode seems to me a blot and disgrace upon the history of Salem, an awful tragedy to be regretted and mourned, instead of a thing to be gloried in and perpetuated, and I should be glad if Gallows Hill could be leveled and forgotten.
I am sorry to drag out this hackneyed phrase, but Halloween morning in Salem really is the calm before the storm. I’m pretty calm myself, having managed to avoid most of the things that annoy me (the Salem Witch Museum–the most egregious trader on tragedy by far, Essex and New Derby Streets, tour guides–walking founts of misinformation) about this prolonged “holiday” for most of the month of October. I’m looking forward to November 1st (tomorrow!!!), but a bit concerned that I don’t have enough candy to get me through the night, as this is a Friday Halloween with projected good weather. I was praying for rain this morning as I took a walk under the clouds (that’s how much of a Halloween grinch I have become) but then the sun broke out, casting Salem in a beautiful light. Of course it will be even more beautiful tomorrow, or perhaps on Monday, when all of the porta-potties, motorcycles, and demons have left.
Big pumpkins and Big candy: there are big pumpkins on River Street every year, and every year I complain to my students about having to spend so much money on candy–so this year one of them (Samantha Ferraro) drew me with my very full shopping cart.
In honor of Halloween and the ongoing harvest season, as well as my continuous fascination with anthropomorphism, today I have a portfolio of images which I have labeled “scary vegetables”, some of which are scary because of the human-like characteristics assigned to them (in both the mandrake and pumpkin-head traditions) and others which are simply scary. I’ve featured this topic before, but this variation is a bit more creepy and much more focused on vegetables in general and root vegetables in particular. There’s nothing particularly modern about these images: the aforementioned mandrake with its humanoid roots was a medieval forerunner, and Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s whimsical portraits definitely made plants-in-human-form the embodiment of grotesque in the Renaissance and influenced surrealistic expressions centuries later. Some plants are scary just on their own–especially their roots–but others require a bit of artistic embellishment. I’m not quite sure why Diego Rivera’s radishes are so very menacing, but they certainly are!
The most telling–and troubling–details about an incident this past weekend in which a young homeless man started digging up an 18th-century grave in Salem’s oldest cemetery were the comments from “a large group” of onlookers, who thought the act might be part of a performance. Given the proximity of the Old Burying Point on Charter Street (and the Salem Witch Trial Memorial) to the fogged-in alley of the Salem Witch Village, who could blame them? Indeed the Village advertises graveyard tours on its website, since “We are fortunate to have on our premises the Charter Street Burying Point or Old Salem Burying Point, America’s second oldest cemetery”. I guess it is their cemetery–who knew?
I did a little bit of genealogical research so I could return a modicum of humanity/dignity to those whose graves were desecrated–apparently the digger (armed with “archeological tools”) believed they were his ancestors. Nathaniel Silsbee, Jr. was a member of the third generation of a Salem family that became quite wealthy and notable after his death. He was a housewright and joiner who lived near the wharves and also held land in North Fields and was married twice over his long life, first to Hannah Pickering and then to Martha, who survived him. I hope they rest in peace from now on.
Everything is seasonal, and for those of us that live in Salem the Witching Season begins on October 1st. You can feel everyone getting ready, getting on guard, as our city turns into Witch City. Tomorrow night is the grand Haunted Happenings parade, sponsored by the Salem Chamber of Commerce, of course. The carnivalesque atmosphere is apparently good for business, so we’re all supposed to forget that we are trading on a tragedy. I can never do that, so I’m kind of annoying to be around in October: this is my fair warning for new readers not yet exposed to my October rants. Despite the fact that I disdain absolutely everything about Halloween in Salem, I do like all the other seasons, and I also have an intellectual interest in the creation of Witch City, which definitely took some time–at least a century, maybe more. I’ve explored many of the contributing ingredients here before (including witch spoons, German witches, witch postcards, witch plates, and the Witch House), but there is a lot more that can be added to the mix. Casting witches in a celebratory environment is really nothing new: in the late medieval and the early modern periods they were stereotypically depicted in a hedonistic way: partying and dancing and whirling in wild abandon. One of the most graphic texts on early modern witchcraft, Francesco Maria Guazzo’s Compendium Maleficarum (1608) presents dancing as a key ritual of demonic homage, as do many other contemporary texts. Witches dance with the Devil.
Most people stopped believing in witchcraft in the nineteenth century but yet still witches danced, in more of an entertaining (as opposed to threatening) way. The best example of the “romantic” dancing witch is of course Niccolò Paganini’s Le streghe (‘Witches’ Dance’), composed about 1813. The subject matter, combine with Paganini’s seemingly “unnatural” skills on stage, created another variation on the Dance with the Devil: perhaps his virtuosity was the result of a Faustian pact! When the Witches’ Dance was published in the middle of the century, Paganini actually assumes the traditional position of the Devil on several sheet music covers. The popularity of Paganini and his Witches’ Dance inspired many variations on the theme, musical and otherwise, including one by Salem’s famed band leader, Jean Marie Missud (1852-1941), the (very) long-time director of the Salem Cadet Band: March of the Salem Witches (1896). Appropriately for Salem, which by that time had marshaled witchcraft as a marketing tool, and for the March’s commissioner, the Winslow Lewis Commandery, Knights Templar, Salem witches marched rather than danced to this particular tune.
The Celebrated Witches’ Dance transcribed for the Piana Forte by Wm. Vincent Wallace, William Hall and Son, New York, 1852, Library of Congress; J. DeLancey, Witches’ Dance. Grand Galop de Concert, 1909, New York Public Library Digital Gallery; Jean M. Missud, “March of the Salem Witches” Sheet Music, Journal of Antiques and Collectibles and Digital Library of America.
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: todaySalemhasbeenreducedtoprostitutingitselftooddballsincostumeswhogawkatgravestonesandhankerfor “museums” filled withbroomsticksandbric–a–brac. Forallitsmagnificentpast, todayitdegradesitselfbypanderingtothosewhosezenithishavingtheirphotographtakenwithatransvestiteDraculanexttoaguitar–playingzombie— andwhose nadir wouldbetoactuallylearn something new.
What does this have to do with what happened in 1692?
If I could set aside the whole capitalizing-on-the-deaths-of-innocents thing, I might like Halloween in Salem a bit more if the costumes were more creative. I buy a cartload of candy, and have to jump up every minute, and what do I see? The same old witches, princesses and superheroes. Very few DIY costumes that display any sort of imagination or creativity. You do see some interesting adult outfits in the second wave that takes over after 8:30 or 9 (standing out in a sea of slutty costumes) but these people are walking right by my door (Thank God!) on their way to downtown. If we have to be the Halloween capital of the world I think we should have higher sartorial standards.
I was looking around for some inspiration from the past, as usual, and most of the bespoke Halloween costumes I came across were a little creepy—bags over the head with slits for the eyes and mouth: ghost, scarecrow or Klansman? So I went to the treasure chest that is our university archives and found the cutest costumes ever–these kids are not dressed up for Halloween, but rather for some sort of cultural awareness educational activity at their school. I think they look adorable, though I imagine that dressing your kid up as an Eskimo today might be considered a bit politically incorrect–still, these are visual reminders that children in the past had to create and animate, rather than purchase or plug in.
Children in costume at Salem State’s Horace Mann Laboratory School in the early 20th Century: an Eskimo, a little Dutch girl, Red Riding Hood, and characters from Alice in Wonderland, Salem State University Archives Flikr. Pretty imaginative backdrops too.
The modern secular holiday that is Halloween has evolved in so many ways over the twentieth century that its “customs” would have been unrecognizable even a century ago. At that time, the focus was much more on divination than on horror: pumpkins, black cats, and witches were in the margins but for grown-ups, fortune-telling was in the forefront. There’s a long process of assimilation that creates Halloween–from harvest to Samhain to the eves of All Saints’ and All Souls days–but the evolving traditions of the harvest holiday converged most vividly in Scotland, and Scotch-Irish emigres transferred them to the New World, where they were subject to yet another process of assimilation. In his 1785 poem Hallowe’en, Robert Burns presents and annotates the customs of western Scotland: its longer title, The Merry Diversions of Halloween, encompasses an account of the Kale stalks–burning nuts–Catching sweethearts in the Stalk Yard–Pulling the corn–winding the Blue Clue–Winnowing the Corn–Sowing the Hemp Seed–And the Cutting of the Apple, with the Conclusion of these Merry Meetings, by telling Wonderful Stories about Witches and Fairies. Written in Scots and English, the poem requires some translation, but as the title relates, it all begins with cabbages, witches only come in at the end, and Halloween is more merry than scary. Over a century later, one of Ellen Clapsaddle’s most sought after Halloween postcards illustrates the Scottish/cabbage connection.
Kale or cabbage-pulling was a particular type of divination tied to one’s marital future: unmarried men and women would go out to the patch and pull up a cabbage, and then bring it back to the farm to uncover its stalk–and the characteristics of their future mate: old or young, tall or short, strong (straight) or weak (crooked). Then the stalks would be hung up in a public place to determine exactly who you would marry: if yours was placed third in line you would marry the third man who walked beneath it. Corn (wheat), nuts, apples—all the fruits of the earth–could reveal all sorts of things if you knew the rituals to tease out their secrets, but Halloween rituals definitely seem to focus on relationships. The cabbage patch customs do cross over the Atlantic (with variations) but the most popular crossover was definitely scrying, or mirror magic. In the modern era, scrying usually involves a crystal ball, but centuries ago it was more generally a process that involved water, glass and/or mirrors. Burns’ poem contains a line where a “wee” lass says I’ll eat an apple at the glass which refers to the custom of gazing into a looking glass in candlelight while eating an apple, which will bring forth the visage of your future conjugal companion, peering over your shoulder. There were lots of variations on this ritual, including one which incorporates three bowls of water (clean, dirty, empty) and a blindfold, and another which calls for the seeker to descend backward down the stairs with mirror in hand (sometimes referred to as “Bloody Mary’s Curse”), and yet another in which the maiden flips an apple peel over her shoulder to see her future mate. All of these customs crossed over, but mirrors definitely dominated in modern America.
Mezzotint, 1830s, British Museum: “Place three Plates or other Dishes on the Table, one containing clean water _ another foul _ and the ghird empty _ If the lass [who is / blin]dfolded, put her hand into the clean water, she will soon get a young husband _ If into the foul water, she will […] / either an old man or a widower _ If into the empty dish, she will die an old maid. // Painted by Alexander Barron. // Engraved by E. Radclyffe.”; 1910 postcard, New York Public Library.
In America, there are fewer visual and literary references to the harvest (except for thoroughly-American pumpkins, of course, as well as apples) and encroaching witches–but all is still relatively merry in the world of turn-of-the century postcards. Things are changing though; the last young woman below looks scared–whether by the sight of the shadowy witch or her future husband, I do not know.
Of course the World Wars will change everything, but the more macabre and ghoulish nature of modern Halloween is hard to imagine when looking at these early 20th century postcards, which portray the holiday in either a whimsical or slightly sarcastic light (see below). But once traditions are torn from their geographical and cultural context and plunged into brave new worlds, their transformation can be frightful.
Good and bad husbands for Halloween: Rose Company postcards, c. 1900-1909, the New York Public Library Digital Gallery.
The end of Haunted Happenings, that is: the month-long Halloween “celebration” of Salem’s apparently fortuitous role as the site of one of the most notorious witch trials in history. For many, Salem is Witch City all year round, but that becomes its exclusive identity in October. There’s a constant stream of traffic into and around the downtown for most of the month, especially on the weekends, and people troop around, many in costume, looking for things to do and see: they are clearly not interested in architecture (my neighborhood is packed with cars, not people), or real history (the Salem Witch “Museum” and the Salem Witch History “Museum”, among others, can meet the demand for simple narratives and mythology), nor serious food (stands selling fried dough and sausages line Essex Street). I’ve never understood the allure of Haunted Happenings, either from the perspective of the city or the tourists, but Salem has been selling itself as the Witch City for more than a century now (the witch below is on the cover of a 1904 guide book) and it is not going to stop, so if you love the other side of Salem you just hunker down and get through it–and now the end is in sight.
I could show you lots of more pictures of crowds and cars, along with people taking their pictures with the various grotesque creatures that line the streets—or the Samantha from Bewitched statue–and the long lines in front of psychic parlors, but another way to convey what it’s like to live in Salem during October is through news headlines: these three (from the Salem Patch) caught my attention in the past few weeks:
Salem Psychic Studio Accused of Taking $16K to Remove Curse (October 16)
Help Find Sick [Black] Kitten Stolen from Salem Animal Shelter (October 18)
and my favorite:
Salem Police Look for Axe-wielding Man Wearing Gas Mask (October 23)