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A Spell in Salem

New Zealand Herald

8 Nov 2023

“Salem has 400 years of history, yet all people want to talk about was the single worst year we ever had”. Our gregarious Witch City Walking Tour guide, Sean, with tongue firmly planted in cheek, introduced us to what put this Massachusetts town on the map – the Salem Witch Trials.

The source material for numerous movies, novels and articles, most Kiwis first heard of Salem from the pages of The Crucible. While Arthur Millar’s play was an allegory for the 1950s communist witch-hunt in the United States, the book firmly positioned Puritan New England as a place of division, suspicion, and hysteria.

Sean continued as the rain softly started to fall, his booming historian voice describing the paranoia of the times. “From February 1692 to May 1693 the trials took place, as children having fits and contortions accused those around them of doing the Devil’s work.” Leading us by lantern light, he paused outside the Salem Witch Trials Memorial.

The memorial, dedicated in 1992 to mark the 300th anniversary of the trials, comprises granite slabs etched with the names, dates, and execution of each of the innocent victims. By the end, 19 people were found guilty and hung, and a further 5 died in prison including the infant daughter of one of the accused. 71-year-old Giles Corey who refused to enter a plea was pressed to death by heavy stones placed on him until his organs could no longer work.

Salem has come a long way since the mass hysteria of the 17th century. Where once people lived in fear of spells, today they welcome them: the town is a magnet for modern-day Witches, Warlocks and Wiccans. Leanne Marrama is one of them.

Co-owner of Pentagram Shoppe – “offering powerful witchcraft supplies, spell kits, and divination tools” – Leanne was happy to share what it’s like being a witch in Salem. “It all started in the 1970s with the arrival of Laurie Cabot. She was the first witch here, and we’ve been coming ever since!”

Leanne’s shop was brimming with everything a good occultist needs: double-edged athame for ritualistic offerings, trithemius table of practice to conjure spirits, and the Fourth Pentacle of Mercury (best dedicated to use on Wednesdays within the first hour after sunrise).

71-year-old Giles Corey who refused to enter a plea was pressed to death by heavy stones placed on him until his organs could no longer work.

“People think we’re weird and go home and make sacrifices every night,” Leanne opined. “But we’re not. We’re normal people who have families and kids and drive to work just like anyone else. It’s just that we follow a different religion and magickal (with a ‘k’) traditions.” Witches don’t worship Satan, they don’t do evil, but they do cast spells which are more like manifestations.

The queue for Leanne’s shop was now out the door. As a registered psychic – all physics in Salem are required to be licensed – her shop was one of the busier ones in town. “I do up to 30 readings a day, sometimes it can be exhausting, especially in October”.

Ahhh October, when Salem becomes more kitschy than witchy. Last year over 1 million people visited in the ‘Haunted Happenings’ month of Halloween alone, posing beside the Bewitched statue, buying t-shirts with dubious slogans, and going on one of the many tours on offer. Travel tip: put your name down as early as you can for a restaurant – the wait times are up to 2 hours long.

Beyond the hustle and bustle of Essex Street and the gentle waft of legalised marijuana, another witch-adjacent business is leaving its mark on Salem. Black Veil Shoppe of Drear & Wonder is the town’s most famous tattoo parlour, co-owned by identical twins Ryan and Matt Murray.

Hidden within Black Veil’s ivy-covered brick walls and beyond the darkened windows lies a world of thick smoke, dripping candles, and Poe-inspired prints. Macabre t-shirts of cats missing eyes hung under a neon ‘Lose Your Soul’ sign.

A figure eerily appeared dressed in black: twin Matt. “Being here in Salem, we describe our style as ‘black & grey for the grim-hearted’”. Matt had been tattooing for over a decade, initially under the tutorship of his brother, and had appeared on the TV show Ink Masters. “You’ll see lots of death and mourning in our designs with a New England Victorian inspiration.”

Matt and Ryan do all their image printing in the attic above and were preparing for the Salem Night Faire, an annual event “beyond the darkened pines in the haunting pioneer village.” Not wanting to hold him up any longer we bade farewell and stepped out once more into the light.

For a town that dwells in the darkness, Salem’s non-witchy history is often overlooked: it used to be one of America’s wealthiest seaports, the Parker Brothers of Monopoly fame got their start here, and it’s the birthplace of the United States National Guard.

But there is only one real reason to visit Salem: the single worst year they ever had.


Original publication: New Zealand Herald

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