One of my favorite memories of Massachusetts is wandering the pedestrian walkway in the middle of Salem. The coastal town is known as the Witch City—complete with a witch on a broom insignia on everything. Most everyone knows its claim to fame is the Salem Witch Trials and the town does everything to capitalize on this historical lesson in mass hysteria. Even though the true events of the witch trials are a scar on our national psyche, the town keeps it alive and well to draw in thousands of tourists each year. There are witch shops selling spells, tours of replica witch dungeons, tours of the gallows where innocents lost their lives, tours of homes involved in the trails, and the most popular attraction of all—the Salem Witch Museum.
The Salem Witch Museum tells of the injustice and tragedy behind that period in time and warns of history repeating itself when people fear what they don’t or can’t understand. When the tour begins, visitors are ushered into a large room complete with a massive red pentagram on the center of the floor. The lights go out and the eerie pitch black sets in as the pentagram lights up. The story is then told in high drama through scenes arranged above the visitors’ heads. The impact of the story is chilling and enlightening. However, when you are sitting there with a two year old in your lap and the lights go out, enlightening is the last word you would use to describe the experience. Once that pentagram lit up and the voice boomed through the dark room on his first visit, my son bolted towards the door in a panic and I had to take him outside until it was all over. But, at two years old it is okay to be afraid of what you don’t or can’t understand.
The shops that dot the brick streets were my favorite places to visit in the center of town. You could buy spells, complete with ground up bat tongue, eye of newts, dried blood, and sea salt. While I bought some for the souvenir aspect of having them, others truly used them and relied on the accessibility of the ingredients for various concoctions. Crystals, capes, and even mortars and pestles for proper mixing and grinding were everywhere. Psychics and tarot card readers were on every corner. I picked up a few treasures that I still love to this day, including crystals of course. One of my favorite things is a beautiful handmade broom bought at a place called The Broom Closet. I also have witch balls made of glass that you are supposed to hang in windows to keep evil out of your home. A stone sign with the Wiccan greeting “Blessed Be” hangs above my door and I have a kitchen witch to protect my home also. Sea salt from Salem has been sprinkled along our doorways a time or two. Each store smelled of sage or another type of incense. To this day, when my daughter smells these smells, she always says “It smells like Salem in here”, and she is absolutely right.
While these places were fascinating and played into the association with the occult, the practicing Wiccan population of Salem, many of whom operated these shops, hated the stereotype of the witch we all know. In fact, some shops would have signs saying no entrance or candy for children dressed as witches on Halloween. They found it offensive for obvious reasons and felt the witch depictions misrepresented what real “witches” are. Wiccan is centered on a worship of nature and elements essentially. The perception of being “wicked” or even satanic was something they openly battled against in that town. They would invite the public to coven meetings and ceremonies just to share what they really do and believe. But, with that being said, the town would go overboard to play into the stereotypes in October and relish in the flood of tourists dollars each year. These very shop owners would try desperately to dispel misconceptions and teach the truth about the Wiccan religion. Then, the next shop over would sell witch hats and bumper stickers saying “My other car is a broom”. It was a contradiction I never understood, but in Salem, the occult sells and money talks in any tourist town.
Aside from the witch trials, Salem was the site of so many beautiful sea captains homes as it was the most important port in the world at one time. It was also the site of the House of Seven Gables, made famous by the Nathanial Hawthorne novel of the same name. Walking down to Salem Wharf to glance at the shore, see a few sail boats, and relish in the views of these grand homes always made me wonder how anyone could tear themselves away from living there. The smell of the saltwater mixing with the encroaching herb gardens at the House of Seven Gables made me breathe deeper and drink it all in anytime I had the chance. Each historical home had a small plaque outside by the door. The year it was built and the captain or family who owned it years ago would be delicately painted in black. I was fascinated by the ages and names. Those are still the oldest and most beautiful homes I ever laid eyes on.
Each trip to Salem was not complete until we had eaten at our favorite place. While there were plenty of seafood restaurants right on the water, the kids and I would always walk the few blocks back to the center of town, to the pedestrian walkway where Sean’s recruiting office was located. Inside the little plaza was a place called Essex Pizza. For some reason, we all still say that little pizza shop in the middle of so much history had the best pizza in the world. No one in our house mentions Salem without someone saying “I miss Essex Pizza.” That Witch City put a spell on us and we can’t wait to wander around those brick streets again. Until the day comes when we can go back and order a few slices, my “Blessed Be” sign will always be above my door, no matter where I live between now and then.