SALEM, Massachusetts — It is nightfall in Salem, the week before Halloween. A woman who looks to be in her 70s sits in the bar of the Hawthorne Hotel sporting a novelty witch hat. Her male companion wears a spiderweb tie. Along the lawn at Washington Square, another tourist tugs at her companion’s sleeve as she considers another destination for their week. “But it’s not spooky like this place, right?” she asks.
At Pastime 32, a vintage-inspired craft shop just off Essex Street, a shopkeeper in velvet gives visitors advice about practicing magic. “Witchcraft is more of a lifestyle now than a religion,” she says. She recommends that they read a BuzzFeed article to that effect. “So if a spell works it works.” In the old days, she tells them, you might have had to resort to the formal magic kept in some arcane spell book. But now, she adds brightly, you can just check out Witch Instagram for ideas.
Along the narrow, red brick street in the pedestrianized heart of town, T-shirt stalls alternate with New Age storefronts selling herbs, tinctures, and Tarot cards.
Two girls fixate on the shirts. “Look! I got stoned in Salem.” One pauses for a second. “Get it? Stoned?” She rolls her eyes, and explains to her friend what it means to stone somebody in order to execute them.
These tourists are just some of the million-odd who come to Salem each year. Destination Salem’s Stacia Cooper says these tourists come to visit sites and museums associated with the Salem Witch Trials, where 20 people, mostly women, were executed on suspicion of witchcraft after an outbreak of mass hysteria in 1692 through 1693. Some visitors come for the “spooky” atmosphere. Others come, often with school groups, to learn more about a particularly brutal time in American history. And others still come because they identify as witches or practitioners of magic to pay tribute to a place that, for some, has become a source of spiritual pilgrimage.
The difference in their approach, and the myriad differing narratives around the trials available across town, reveal how powerful — and how diffuse — the story of the Salem Witch Trials really is. Is it a story about the dangers of superstition? About what happens when people let fear take over their lives? About misogyny and men policing women’s identities? The different ways in which Salem’s residents tell and retell the Salem narrative can tell us as much about 20th and 21st century America as they can about New England in 1693.
A range of political and social groups have interpreted Salem differently
For Salem’s 40,000 residents, particularly those who make their living through witch-related tourism, it can be a challenge to balance the historic narrative of the Salem Witch Trials with the powerful mythology that has surrounded it.
Between 1692 and 1693, 19 people were hanged, and one crushed to death, ostensibly for the civil crime of practicing malevolent witchcraft, after an outbreak of mass hysteria. Chances are, none of those 20 people were witches — they all maintained their innocence, with the exception of Tituba, a local enslaved woman, whose confession may have been tortured out of her.
The majority of the Salem Witch Trials didn’t even happen in Salem Town — what is known as Salem today — but in Salem Village, an inland hamlet that was renamed Danvers in 1752. And on top of all this, none of the accused witches were stoned or burned at the stake in Salem, either.
According to Smithsonian’s Danny Lewis, the witch trials were, historically, a taboo subject within Salem; a reminder of a horrific aberration. But in the 20th century, interest in the Salem Witch trials as a pop culture phenomenon was renewed. Much of this began with Arthur Miller’s 1953 play The Crucible. A retelling of the trials, the play was a coded indictment of the anti-communist hysteria of the 1940s and 1950s. Miller heavily implied that the accusers and magistrates of Salem were motivated by a combination of fear and greed, including a desire to seize the lands of the accused. The story of Salem, for Miller, was the story of any mass panic — how self-interested human use fear and panic to stoke “witch hunts” for personal gain.
Then came Bewitched. When the popular, proto-feminist supernatural sitcom filmed a portion of its seventh season here in 1970, the protagonist, Samantha, seemed to uphold this dominant narrative. Samantha, a “real” witch who has magically time-traveled back to 17th-century Salem, uses her powers to prove that the other accused witches were innocent, condemning the prejudices of those who thought otherwise.
But Bewitched also heralded a change in how people saw Salem. It became “Witch City.” Witches were now in fashion, after all — in part because of Bewitched — and Salem’s witch history could be monetized. And Salem could use the money. After centuries as a prosperous shipping port, Salem’s fortunes were in decline. The “Witch Tourism” boom revitalized Salem. (In 2005, in commemoration of that boom, Salem erected a controversial statue of Samantha in the town’s main square, raising more debates about the degree to which “pro-witch” aesthetics had coopted Salem’s legacy).
By the ’70s, after all, feminist and New Age movements alike had reappropriated elements of the Salem narrative as part of a wider interest in women’s spirituality. For many, the so-called witches of Salem were victims of a male conspiracy. The Salem story was the story of earth-centered, “natural” female spirituality dominated by a group of misogynist men who sought to control them. Witchcraft was something to celebrate.
In 1970, witch Laurie Cabot opened Salem’s first New Age shop and several others followed suit. The accused of 1692 may not have been witches, but they were nevertheless celebrated as martyrs: foremothers of a modern movement they themselves would almost certainly have disavowed.
Those two strands of historical narrative — Salem as a site of mass panic, and Salem as witch city — are factually opposed to each other. Kristina Stevick, artistic director of the Cry Innocent project, which lets people experience a mock witch trial, thinks it’s utterly illogical. “A person can’t both be innocent and a martyr. That narrative really puzzles me.”
And both narratives are also at odds with the generic “spookiness” that makes up much of the town’s touristic appeal, particularly in Halloween season. (Of Salem’s 40,000 residents, between 800 and 1,600 identify as witches, with many working in or through the town’s witch shops, or in witch-related tourism industries, such as the city’s myriad magic-themed walking tours.
The economics of Salem witchery is often a sore subject for many. Sources speaking on background spoke of “witch wars” between rival shop proprietors as well as price-fixing of services like Tarot readings, while some sources I contacted for this article would only agree to be interviewed on the condition certain proprietors be excluded from my reporting. (I have not quoted any of them.)
In Salem, accused “witches” are both innocents and martyrs
Yet many of Salem’s tourist attractions try to have it both ways.
Nowhere is that difficult balance more evident than at the Salem Witch Museum, which opened in 1972 — soon after Bewitched put the show on the map. Located in a converted church off Salem Common, the Museum tells the story of the trials through a combination of life-size wax statues, eerie sound effects, and a narrator who seems to have taken his delivery from Vincent Price.
He speculates about the devil “howling in the wind” (there’s a menacing-looking statue of Satan himself), reports Puritan superstitions about witches’ bacchanals, and captures each gory execution of the accused with thoroughly macabre sound effects. He walks us through a grisly narrative that combines kitschy “spookiness” with a somewhat reductionist view of the trials, portraying them purely as the result of ignorant superstition, even as he uses the tropes of magic for dramatic effect. While the narrator reminds us that the mass panic was anything but supernatural, he leaves us with a distinctly Gothic ending, asking us to reflect on who the “real demons are” and “on whose side they are still working today.”
The museum’s second exhibit likewise tells us as much about 1970s New Age feminism as it does about the Salem Witch trials. Dedicated to the history of the witch from the pre-Christian era to the modern day, the museum (and its docents) tell a very clear-cut, if simplistic, narrative. Women, particularly midwives, were once “in touch with” the earth. They worshipped a pre-Christian Goddess. Once Christianity came to power, evil Christian men — “the Church” — were afraid of female power and tried to stamp it out. More wax figures present different visions of the witch: the angelic, beaming midwife, the green-faced crone we recognize from The Wizard of Oz’s Wicked Witch of the West.
A timeline on one wall elides world history: We move swiftly from “Jesus Christ is crucified” to witch panics in 16th-century Scotland, with an implicit link between the two. A final tableau of two modern Wiccans invites us to learn more about this “ancient religion” and speak to its peace-loving practitioners. While the odd mention is made of the fact that Salem’s witches were innocent, a less-careful viewer could easily come away with the idea that the accused of Salem did practice wholesome, nature-based magical traditions and worship a Goddess in secret, and that this is, in fact, a good thing.
Historicity, in this exhibition, seems less important than symbolism, celebrating the witch as a symbol of maligned womanhood. Wicca, far from being an “ancient religion,” only dates back to the 1950s, which the museum never mentions. And although the “green-skinned witch” as a trope only dates back to 1939’s Wizard of Oz, when dyeing Margaret Hamilton’s skin was a novel special effect to capitalize on the then-new use of Technicolor, my docent presents several other options as equally valid. Were witches green-skinned because of their use of herbs, she asks aloud? A witch who visited the exhibition, she tells us, sees the green as important symbolism: It is the bruises left upon her by intolerant Christian men who beat her for her independent thought.
It’s a powerful exhibit, to be sure, but one with an agenda. And it raises questions about more than just what happened in 1692. Rather, it challenges us to think about whether history can or should be rewritten, or reimagined, if the myths it presents to us can inspire positive change. Does a woman’s personal reaction to a figure of a witch — her intuitive feeling that her face is the color of bruises — belong in a museum alongside, say, actual documents of the trials themselves?
For others, Salem is about learning to think historically — and critically — about challenging narratives
Stevick, at least, has her doubts. Her Cry Innocent project is an immersive theatre experience that challenges audience members to participate in a mock witch trial. It is designed to help audiences understand the mentality of the witch trials, ideally without projecting a contemporary narrative upon it. The project plays an exceedingly necessary role in Salem, since, Stevick says, the trials have become a lightning rod for different, often ahistorical, interpretations of what happened in 1693.
She counts off the most popular misconceptions: “That it’s all about land-grabbing, that it’s just about misdirected misogyny [against accused women], that Puritans were just stupid and superstitious, that those who died were the spiritual foremothers of the Wicca movement…”
Stevick says she sympathizes with such interpretations up to a point. But, ultimately, each narrative fails to appreciate the “cocktail of factors” that made Salem a lightning rod for hysteria in the late 17th century. The dangers of foreign invasion, tensions within the community over religious observance, the adversarial relationship between the insular Salem Village and the wealthier Salem Town, tensions over the use of folk magic, and various waves of outbreak of illness all contributed to an incident that was about so much more than mere superstition or mere misogyny or mere anything.
Often, Stevick says, people are reluctant to abandon their preconceived narratives about the trials. She recalls an incident that happened the previous week with a middle school group that had booked a Cry Innocent show.
“They had a reductionist idea of what the witch hunt hysteria was about and thought that this was their opportunity to bring down the magistrate,” Stevick said. Rather than looking through the historical evidence presented during the show, she said, the students derailed the show with unrelated questions and preconceived judgments, making the show “a little bit distressing” for the actors.
She recalls the students’ teacher was taken aback by the complexity with which the Cry Innocent cast wanted to approach the 17th-century Puritan mindset. "She wanted this to be an opportunity for the students to take down the patriarchy, which I could relate to, but it’s not what’s happening here.”
It’s a shame, says Stevick, because ultimately developing a more complex understanding of history is necessary if one is to avoid repeating it. “What I would hope is that a person who has had 45 minutes to flirt with a 17th-century English mindset … would understand why a person might accuse somebody of witchcraft.”
It is that, she says, rather than a preconceived narrative, that has the most power to inspire change.
Only once audience members learn to empathize with people from the past whose attitudes and preconceptions might be different from their own, she says, audience members can ask themselves: “How can I use this newfound imagination … to try and look into my current political situation? … Our country is in a fragile dangerous place [right now] and we need to be extremely careful that a great tragedy doesn’t happen.” She corrects herself. "Another great tragedy."
For contemporary witches, Salem’s magic is still “mysterious”
Among Salem’s practicing witches, the place’s magic transcends its history. Margaret McGilvray, who runs The Witchery, equal parts magic shop and experimental performance art space, says that — despite the innocence of Salem’s original “witches” — she’s always felt a preternatural connection to the place. Visiting the Salem Witch Museum as a child, McGilvray says, she found herself identifying with the accused.
"I came home to my mom and said 'Ma, I think I’m a witch.’” She recognizes that the witches of Salem denied being witches up through their last breaths, but nevertheless finds in Salem a kind of spiritual home; a place where she can connect with and collaborate with like-minded practitioners. Part of it, she acknowledges, is “commercialism” — if you’re a witch, Salem is a great place to make a living — but part of it is more profound.
“There is something just mysterious about Salem as a gut level,” McGilvray says.
And Salem’s draw, for other witches, has transcended its witchy history, becoming as much about the present as the past.
As the “witch aesthetic” becomes more popular as a cultural signifier — blending ’70s-era New Age spirituality with left-wing activism and, at times, performative rebellion — Salem has become something of a hipster haven. In 2015, Salem’s more eclectic, cluttered-looking witch shops were joined by the sleek, minimalist HausWitch (which itself started as an Instagram), where activist hours are on the schedule alongside Tarot salons and meditation classes. (Destination Salem’s Cooper describes them as the “millennial” witch store).
These witches are attracted to what HausWitch worker Cheryl Rafuse calls the “good vibes” of Salem — a town whose witch traditions have given rise, in turn, to a thriving counterculture, and the creative community that comes with it — as to its history. So often Rafuse says, people visit out of interest in the “Witch City” only to fall in love with the place and joke about moving. “And then they end up moving here a year later.”
Sure, she admits, she gets frustrated by the gimmicky aesthetic of some of the town’s tourist traps. She points to the Stoned in Salem T-shirts as a particularly egregious example.
“There’s a scene [in Salem] that’s a little uncomfortable considering” the grotesque nature of the trials, Rafuse says.
“A lot uncomfortable,” Erica Feldmann, the shop’s owner, cuts in.
Rafuse continues, “the people we draw tend to be pretty woke, good-vibe-y people, or at least looking for something here [that’s] at least not gimmicky. We have that ‘Witch City' vibe that people love … but [when] people try to make light of history” — mocking or joking about those that died — Rafuse and other shop workers actively work to discourage them.
Feldmann adds, “The world needed a place to celebrate the witch, and that ended up being Salem, and that has nothing to do with the witch trials."
Ultimately, Salem’s history might be less important than its symbolism
The “true history" of Salem, in other words, might be almost irrelevant. A combination of economics and mythology have made Salem a location of pilgrimage for those who identify with the accused of 1693, whether they are witches themselves, feminists drawn to the narrative of wrongly accused women, or just ordinary people drawn to the story of those penalized for being a little bit different. Even Stevick acknowledges that even the more ahistorical elements of Salem’s mythology — that it was all about misogyny, say — might be powerful narratives of support for people who need them most.
She recalls an episode years ago, when she was portraying the character of Bridget Bishop — the woman on trial for witchcraft. A student group had come in, and a shy girl in the audience got up to ask a question in defense of Bishop. Stevick can’t remember precisely what the question was, but "I could tell that she was really nervous to speak in public, she was shaking … I remember it being an intense moment — the air was thick.”
A few years later, when the teacher brought in another group, she and Stevick discussed that day. The teacher told Stevick the girl was famously shy, without many friends.
“It turned out that she was pregnant,” Stevick remembers. “[She was] facing this extra level of slut-shaming and all this stuff at school … [the Cry Innocent experience] had given her the extrovertive oomph to get up and say something. And that moment had been a catharsis for her. And that touched me so deeply and made me think: That’s why I love doing this type of theater. That kind of catharsis is okay. Even while it might not be quite the right narrative, I’m okay with people saying, ‘Yeah Bridget! Go Bridget!’ too.”
There is, in all this, a degree of irony. A town once derided for the damaging aftereffects of religion and superstition has now remade itself in the image of its own new myths.
At Salem’s Witch Museum, the narrator tells us — with more than a little derision — that the Puritans were a superstitious people. They made up stories to explain the world around them, narratives that would make the chaos of their existence make sense. But if Salem can teach us anything, not a lot has changed.