The conclusion to our Halloween and Salem series is here! In this video, we start in the 1970's and come all the way up to the modern day in an effort to answer the question, How did Salem become Halloween-central?
Salem Massachusetts is without a doubt the place to be for Halloween in the United States. But have you ever stopped to ask yourself exactly how that happened? How did a town that was ashamed of its terrible past come to build a massive economy around it?
Salem: Myth, Place, and Memory
Like in the last video, a lot of today’s information came from the book Salem Place Myth and Memory. Specifically Frances Hill’s chapter. If you’re not familiar with Frances Hill, she’s one of the gatekeepers of all things witch city lore, so you’ll definitely want to check her out. You can find a link to the book we’re using today in the description. And, if you buy it, you give us a little financial help, which we would super appreciate. Alright, let’s get spooky witches.
Salem & Halloween
“Halloween in Salem is the equivalent of Mardi Gras in New Orleans, Christmas in Bethlehem, Easter in Rome, or the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca. But in all these cases except Salem’s, ancient pagan or religious traditions link the place with the festival. There is no such link between Halloween and this Massachusetts town.” These are the opening words to Hill’s chapter and I’ve got to say they’re a pretty decent encapsulation of the entire experience of Halloween in Salem.
So let’s begin, as Hill does, by looking at Salem as a modern pagan Mecca. Because that story and the story of how Salem became Halloween-central are one in the same once you get into the 1970’s. Now, it’s important to understand that the cultural linkage between Salem and witchcraft never really disappeared post-1692. The lack of clarity in the aftermath of the trials, due to pretty much everyone except the accused doing their level-best to pretend like none of it ever happened, led many to conclude that there must have actually been witches in 1692’s Salem.
And I’m not just talking Puritan-era America here either. You can draw a straight line between this perception and that run of Bewitched episodes we talked about in Part One of this series. You can draw an even straighter line between the beliefs that led to the trials occurring in the first place and the TV show Salem. Or Sabrina or Hocus Pocus or American Horror Story. Each of these stipulates, or in some cases goes so far as to be narratively dependent on the stipulation, that there were real practitioners of witchcraft in Salem in 1692. This popular perception eventually drew people to the town. They claimed to be practitioners of the Craft and those people would go on to, at the very least commercially, change everything.
Salem Halloween Commercial Links
But the Pagans weren’t the first to seize on the easy commercial link between Salem and witchcraft. Prior to the 1970s, there were a handful of businesses who flirted with the idea of The Witch City monicker. These included companies from varying industries like: fishing, jewelry, a popcorn factory, oil firm, and even the Parker Brothers who created a board game called “Ye Witchcraft,” but got rid of it when the citizens of Salem revolted. If only those same citizens could see Salem now.
Perhaps the first real Witch City Attraction as we’d recognize it today was the home of Judge Jonathan Corwin, more commonly known as, “The Witch House.” Now this is still the only structure in Salem with any direct ties to the Witch Trials as it belonged to one of its judges, Judge Jonathan Corwin.
But it wasn’t really marketed as such until well into the 20th century. Again, quoting from Frances Hill, “In 1944 city plans…necessitated either demolishing or moving the building…they relocated it by a few yeards, restored the house, and opened it to the public…the organization renamed the building “The Witch House” to attract as many tourists as possible.”
And then, roughly two decades later, just as the Bewitched Salem run was gearing up for release, the now-infamous Witch City logo started popping up on merchandise in town.
The Real Salem Halloween Culprit
But, in truth, we can examine a whole host of elements in this fascinating history. We can talk about the witch trials, Bewitched. Attempts to commercialize the tragedy, the rise of Halloween in general. The Crucible. We can examine each of these things in-depth and assign some minimal level of responsibility for the spookifying of Salem Massachusetts. But, at the end of the day, there is one person more responsible than any other for what Salem in October has become. Her name is Laurie Cabot. She’s a practicing witch. And in 1971, she came to Salem, Massachusetts.
She brought with her a small group and opened a witch shop. The buzz around her and her coven was instant. Suddenly, not only were there real witches in Salem, but they were out and proud witches. Cabot went on to open more shops and was even declared the “official witch of Salem” after self-filing a petition. Cabot’s witch style was clearly influenced by her era. It would go on to be foundational stylistically and commercially for every single witch who’s migrated to Salem since. When you pass the fifteenth witch shop in Salem and are wondering how this happened: Laurie Cabot is how.
In 1972, one year after her move, the Salem Witch Museum opened its doors. You can learn more about that by watching this video if you’d like. A decade later, the first Haunted Happenings celebration in Salem was launched by that same museum. With the support and engagement of Cabot and her followers.
Salem in the 70’s and 80’sproved to be the perfect cauldron in which to brew a total industry shift. As we’ve already talked about, the industrial era in Salem was coming to a close. It was a city without identity. And by the time the Haunted Happenings celebrations got extended from one night to a few days to a week to a month-long affair, the Salem that was was no more. And the town’s new masters were covered in Aqua Net and eyeliner.
The Salem Halloween Debate
There was a backlash, of course, to the change in the city. A debate began that still rages to this day. It’s a debate about the value of historical diversity, honoring the lives of the viciously murdered. And the preservation of authentic cultures versus financial expansion, self-expression, and religious freedom. About the nature of witchcraft and how it’s presented to the Puritans, the local pagans, and the tourists of Salem. It’s a debate about outsiders and newcomers. About the very soul of a place. And, apart from the stalwart efforts of a few outstanding institutions, it seems to a fascinated observer that the witches have won.
By many accounts, 1992 was the last time the actual event of the Witch Trials were treated with absolute civic and cultural dignity. It was the tercentenary of the trials. Arthur Miller and Elie Wiesel spoke. Two memorials were erected in somber remembrance. Later, the site of the actual hangings was confirmed and it too was memorialized. By many accounts, 1992 was the last time the actual event of the Witch Trials were treated with absolute civic and cultural dignity. It was the tercentenary of the trials. Arthur Miller and Elie Wiesel spoke. Two memorials were erected in somber remembrance. Later, the site of the actual hangings was confirmed and it too was memorialized.
A New Tone?
But, this new tone didn’t last long. In 1993 a new office of tourism and cultural affairs was founded and, although it initially tried to embrace historical diversity and a more dignified approach, it soon found itself promoting Halloween just as much as it was its more varied counterparts.
The Peabody Essex Museum had largely distanced itself from Halloween and 1692 by this time so other “museums” jumped in to fill the void. Many are still in Salem today as is THe Peabody Essex, still standing against the storm – still insisting Salem is more than what it appears.
If the 70s was the beginning, the 90s was the end of the struggle to embrace Halloween. By the end of that decade, Salem very much resembled what it is today. Streets were crowded with attractions, Haunted Happenings had expanded well beyond its initial scope, and tourism was the central industry in Salem Massachusetts.
The Modern Salem Halloween
Today, Halloween is an absolute free-for-all. Current estimates claim that around half of Salem’s annual tourism comes in the month of October. I know it was the first time I visited the Witch City. And, in truth, it was the entire reason I went. But now that I’ve seen how much there is beneath the surface, I do wish I’d known before that first trip. I’ve been fortunate to go back many times. But I often wonder about the 13 year-old girl from central Illinois who visits Salem with her parents on Halloween. With only a weekend on the Salem streets, what conclusions has she drawn as she winds her way back to the airport? Has she found a place worth returning to or a grotesque amusement as easily discarded as all the rest?
Thanks for watching this video, please do subscribe to the channel if you enjoyed it. You can find articles and whatnot at ToSalem.com. Hey, spread the word about the witchy stuff we’re putting it, it’s incredibly helpful. Stay weird Witches, I’ll see you next time.