If you don't enjoy this time of year, pity the thinking folk of Salem, Massachusetts, where's it's Halloween every day. I wrote this piece a month ago during a trip to the town from just across Boston Bay. It is impossible to avoid witches in Salem - they are big business. There is a street called Witch Way, an elementary school called Witch Heights and a football team called The Witches. There are goulish waxworks and pumpkin paraphernalia on every corner. There are talking pointy hats and rubber pumpkins which produce "vomit bubbles" when you squeeze them. Misogyny, albeit of a cuddlier variety than that associated with the seventeenth century accusations, still exists. Tea towels and oven gloves declare "the witch is home!"
The dreadful events of 1692, retold in Arthur Miller's The Crucible, are used as a strange commercial hook for a plethora of New Age Boutiques offering everything from the usual crystal nonsense to gothic skull jewellery. You cannot walk down a street the town without meeting a middle aged lady in a long lycra dress and dyed black hair offering Tarot readings.
It's making a mint but not everyone in Salem likes it. "There's more to us than witch trials!" pleads the very informative film in the Essex County visitors' centre. And of course they are correct. The elegant New England town has much to recommend it besides being a byword for persecution, hysteria and religious mania...It was the home of Nathaniel Hawthorne, one of the country's first novelists and author of The Scarlet Letter and The House of the Seven Gables (the inspiration for which still stands in Salem today).
For a few heady years, it was the premier centre of shipping in the New World and, indeed, anywhere in the world. So lucrative was the trade that Salem Ship merchants provided much of the financial backing for the American revolution. After the colonies declared independence and Britain barred overseas trade with them, Salem merchants opened up new markets in the Far East bringing incredible treasures back to New England. One of the finest collections of Chinese art in the world is housed in the Peabody Gallery in Salem. The wealthy merchants built beautiful mansions with the profits from the cargoes of cloves, tea, sugar, ivory and pepper, all of which are still occupied in the graceful "MacIntire Historic District."
The area is beautiful, especially in The Fall. But my daughter was spooked by the town, which retains some 17th century buildings including a "witch house" where some of the first victims were detained. Altogether 19 people, mainly women, were executed for alleged witchcraft after a group of teenage girls claimed to be hallucinating. There is a poignant memorial to them now. The Salem Witch Museum offers an interactive but accurate reconstruction of the hysteria that Miller used as a metaphor for McCarthyism in the 1950s. It's populist, but tells the story well. I was impressed with the young tour guide who pointed out that every society has its scapegoats..."today" he said "these might be people of Middle Eastern origin." The historical horrors may haunt Salem to this day, but now it is at the heart of Liberal America.