You Asked, We Answered: Why Do the Salem Witch Trials Get So Much Attention? (Part 3)

Nov 14, 2019

Selling witchcraft is a business where historical tragedy, the spectacle of Halloween, and modern magic all coexist. And nowhere is that more true than in Salem, Massachusetts.

This is the third and final installment of the Real Witches of New Hampshire, a collaboration between NHPR and New Hampshire Humanities on the Second Greatest Show on Earth.

But while New England’s largest and most infamous witch trials happened in Salem in 1692, accusations of witchcraft occurred in Maine, Connecticut, and New Hampshire, as well as across Europe and England’s colonies.

Why does Salem get so much attention, and how did it become a destination for haunted tourism?

Listen to the rest of the series:

“I think Salem definitely has a reputation. It's become synonymous with witchcraft really around the world, as well as Halloween,” said Melissa Nierman.

Nierman lives in Salem and identifies as a witch. She’s also the owner of NowAge Travel, which offers tours of the Salem witch trial history through a feminist lens.

Salem is full of contradictions, Nierman explained. 

“The trials were… real violence, and then we have this kind of fictionalized violence that people embody during Halloween,” said Nierman.

According to Destination Salem, 500,000 people visit the city during the month of October, and annually, tourism generates $100 million in spending.

“I’ve never lived anywhere that was basically like Mardi Gras for an entire month. The entire city is taken over,” said Nierman.

Downtown Salem in October 2019
Credit Daniela Allee

Salem’s pedestrian-friendly downtown is flush with metaphysical shops, haunted houses, and Halloween stores. Some sell T-shirts reading “I got stoned in Salem,” a phrase that references Giles Corey’s fate -- he was pressed to death in 1692.

Even on a week day in September, a couple dozen visitors drifted through the 17th-century headstones at the Charter Street Burying Ground, and the smell of fried food mingled with carnival music playing somewhere nearby. 

Nierman is just one of the many people living in Salem practicing witchcraft and working in the tourist economy. 

In fact, Salem’s official nickname is Witch City. Today, the symbol of a broomstick-riding witch, silhouetted against the moon, can be found on police cars, city signs, and even as the high school mascot. 

But the road to Witch City wasn’t exactly straightforward, as evidenced by the architecture of the city itself. 

“There’s not a lot of sites here. People are really kind of shocked. I show them the Witch House, and I’m like, ‘hey, the craziest thing about this house is that it’s literally the only building we have left standing in Salem that has any ties to the trials,’” said Nierman, referring to The Witch House, a building constructed for Jonathan Corwin, a judge during Salem’s witch trials. 

The witch trial memorial at the Charter Street cemetery includes engraved quotes from the trials.
Credit Justine Paradis

The lack of historic sites perhaps reflects the fact that the city didn’t bill itself as the site of witch trials until the mid-1900s.

Like many coastal New England cities, Salem’s 19th-century economy relied on its port and manufacturing industries. But in the 1890s, a few businesses started to experiment with branding: a local fishmonger offered a special “witch city” fish, the Parker Brothers released a game called “Ye Olde Witchcraft,” and Daniel Low & Co. sold the Witch Spoon, one of the first silver souvenir spoons in America.  

Following World War II, Salem went through a turning point. When the city nearly tore down the Witch House to widen the street, a group of citizens made the case to save it.

They argued, in part, that it was important to preserve Salem’s connection to the witch trials. 

Then, several events raised Salem’s profile. In 1953, Arthur Miller published The Crucible, a play inspired by the Salem witch trials. In the 1970s, the TV show Bewitched filmed a few episodes in Salem, around the same time that a media-savvy witch named Laurie Cabot opened Salem’s first witch shop.

So, part of the reason Salem gets so much attention for the witch trials is kind of obvious: marketing. In 1982, Salem’s Chamber of Commerce and the Salem Witch Museum created an October weekend event called Haunted Happenings, which now lasts the entire month.

“It’s just growing… as Halloween grows, it’s just the perfect place. People want to go there, and they go there in October,” said JW Ocker, author of Season with the Witch: The Magic and Mayhem of Halloween in Salem, MA. 

Ocker’s writing falls into the category of “paranormal tourism.” He considers graveyards to be wonderful places to visit for the art, history, and community connection, but he knows there is a tension there. 

“In the end, I am stomping on dead people,” he said. “Cemeteries are places of respect. But the problem with places of respect is they can become dead places… and cemeteries shouldn’t be that way.”

He doesn’t think respect means not going or always acting somber. But sometimes, Ocker wonders where the lines are between history, education, and entertainment -- or even exploitation of tragedy.

“I go to a lot of tragedy markers. I go to a lot of serial killer sites,” he said. “These days, murder stories are huge... and that is also really conflicting. I mean, I’ve stood above the Boston Strangler’s grave, and been like, ‘Why am I here again? Is this too far? Did you finally go too far?’”

Tragedy and Theatre

One of the places that walks the line between education and entertainment is the Salem Witch Museum, founded in 1972.

“The big thing about Salem's tourism industry is there are people who deal with the trial story appropriately, and then there are people who deal with it extremely inappropriately,” said Rachel Christ, the museum’s director of education.

One of the problems of creating a museum around the historic witch trials is the lack of artifacts left from 1692. So, the Salem Witch Museum turns on a presentation: audience members are seated on benches in the center of a large auditorium, and the story is recounted by a recorded booming voice over a loudspeaker while a spotlight shines on dioramas depicting scenes of the trials.

Rachel Christ in her office at the Salem Witch Museum
Credit Justine Paradis

“The first thing you see is an image of the devil… it’s definitely one of the most theatrical parts of the presentation. It’s supposed to get you thinking about how frightened people would have been of the Devil, and how terrifying that figure was in the 17th century,” said Rachel Christ, the director of education at the Salem Witch Museum. 

The narrative touches on many aspects of the trials, but some people have noticed that it does place particular focus on the men of the story, especially John Proctor, framing them as heroes standing up to mob mentality. 

“We've definitely had that criticism over time, and it’s warranted, because this is women's history. Witchcraft is something that mostly impacts women,” said Christ. 

Christ explained that the presentation is almost half a century old, and based on The Devil in Massachusetts by Marion L. Starkey, published in 1949. She also pointed to the fact that the museum’s presentation was written following the publication of The Crucible, which also centered on Proctor. 

“The scholarship of Salem witch trials has changed quite dramatically since 1972,” said Christ.

She is involved in writing a new presentation with witch trial historian Marilynne Roach, which they plan to finish by the Museum’s 50th anniversary in 2022.

The Salem Witch Museum also includes a second room that breaks down different witch stereotypes. It features an analysis of the Wicked Witch of the West from the Wizard of Oz, a historic timeline of witchcraft over the course of many centuries, and a display exploring different examples of scapegoating and mob mentality.

But at the end of a visit to the Salem Witch Museum, audience members inevitably end up in the gift shop, where they can still buy, among other things, a pointy witch hat and a broomstick.

“This is Salem, Massachusetts, and people come here wanting to wear pointed witch hats and run around on broomsticks,” said Christ. 

“The reason why I feel like it's appropriate for us to have things like that in our museum store is because in second presentation we dissect the image of a witch and where it came from, so if people are going to buy witch hats, which they are, at least they’ll understand where they came from.”

The Salem Witch Museum runs tours every half hour, and can accommodate 120 people in the main auditorium. Christ said that in October, almost every tour is sold out, sometimes hours in advance. 

The number of tourists coming to Salem does take a toll on parts of the city. The 17th-century graveyard on Charter Street, one of the oldest in the country, where the 300th anniversary memorial is located, was roped off for the month of October this year because the heavy traffic was hard on the historic headstones. 

But there is a place, just a little bit outside of Salem’s downtown, where something new might be happening. 

Public Memorials 

With the awareness of this huge amount of tourism coming to Salem, the city is exploring a different approach in a new memorial.

Inscription at the Proctor's Ledge memorial
Credit Daniela Allee

“I hoped that this would mark a new chapter in Salem's relationship to the witch trials, and that maybe there would be a little less fried dough and vampire fangs in October, and maybe a little more sober reflection on the events of 1692 year round,” said historian Emerson Baker, a professor at Salem State University and author of A Storm of Witchcraft: The Salem Trials and the American Experience.

“First off, Salem was so conflicted about the events of 1692 that it took them 300 years to build a memorial, and it’s a beautiful memorial, but the memorial has nothing to do with the execution site,” he said. “In fact, Salem had collective amnesia in forgetting where the executions took place.”

In 2010, Baker got involved in the Gallows Hill Project, an effort to locate the site of the executions. The team started with the work of Sydney Perley, an early 20th century historian, and combined it with modeling, old maps, and historical testimony. 

They were able to finally confirm that the executions likely took place on a lower part of Gallows Hill, known as Proctor’s Ledge. It’s located in a residential neighborhood behind what is now a Walgreens. 

The Proctor's Ledge memorial
Credit Daniela Allee

“It had kind of turned into a bit of an urban no-man's land behind a bunch of houses and there was some trash dumped in there and stuff like that,” Baker said. 

“Our job... is to make sure that this site was never, ever, ever lost again.”

Baker recalled that, when the Gallows Hill Project team took the information to Salem’s Mayor Kim Driscoll, she and her aide said, this is on Salem. 

“We need to look after the site and see that it’s properly marked. The city was very sensitive to this turning into a tourist trap.”

Perhaps because it’s not on all the official maps, or perhaps because it’s a longer 15 minute walk from downtown, the scene at Proctor’s Ledge is a little more sedate, a little quieter, and for some, perhaps a little more appropriate or respectful than some of the main downtown attractions.

But JW Ocker thinks its a little more complicated that. He’s been to the Proctor’s Ledge Memorial.

“Those sedate memorials don't make you feel guilty. They make you feel at peace,” said Ocker. 

“We very easily make history mundane. And history is just violence…. but to actually feel that you need something more visceral.”

“The reality of injustice like the witch trials… is awful. It breaks people. The people involved in it get broken,” said Ocker. “Again, I don’t know what the line is between making something respectful and making something exploitative. There’s definitely a line. But disturbed is what we should be.”

Somehow, people still feel connected to the witch trials. Visitors leave flowers and stones on their memorial benches for victims like Bridget Bishop, Rebecca Nurse, and Sarah Good, over 300 years after their deaths.

Many people, including many well-known historians who wrote about witchcraft, are descended from the victims of the Salem witch trials.There are groups dedicated to preserving the memorial and the memories of their ancestors falsely accused of witchcraft.  

Witchcraft and Feminism: Taking Back the Term

Practicing witches like Melissa Nierman in Salem are also exploring this connection between themselves and historical witch trials. Nierman intentionally limits the size of her tour groups to twelve people.

“A lot of people come away from my tour and they’re like, ‘that was a healing. I feel healed.’ And I'm not saying I'm healing people. I think it's healing for people to come face-to-face and talk about the truth of how violent our society is… how much our present day has in common with the tragedies of the past,” said Nierman.

Melissa Nierman in HausWitch Home and Healing, holding a zine she created.
Credit Justine Paradis

Nierman operates NowAge out of HausWitch Home and Healing, a “modern metaphysical lifestyle brand and shop,” which sells housewares, books, herbs, minimalist linen clothing, art, and crystals, including “hex the patriarchy” obsidian points. 

They also make spell kits, priced at $39. The North Wind spell is intended to “blow away evil spirits, weird vibes, and heebie-jeebies,” and includes a candle, sandalwood incense, clear quartz, clay cauldron, and meditation. 

HausWitch also hosts events like tarot salons and workshops. Nierman actually moved to Salem after visiting friends and attending a new moon meditation, where she met Erica Feldmann, her now-wife and owner of HausWitch.

“Before Hauswitch and before I met my wife, I didn't realize how powerful the witch really was,” she said. “The term ‘witch’ is really taking back a term that’s been used by patriarchy to persecute thousands of people, and mostly women, across time.”

Nierman pointed to the link between witchcraft and feminism, a connection that emerged in the late 20th century. 

In New York City in 1968, a group called W.I.T.C.H. (Women’s International Conspiracy from Hell) emerged as a radical feminist protest. A movement continued to grow around feminism and witchcraft in the 70s and 80s. It took a lot of forms but focused on the idea that ancient, prechristian societies were matriarchal and worshipped a goddess, and that early modern witch trials were a persecution of women. 

“Even people that are calling themselves witches and don't necessarily see the tie directly to feminism... it's still a feminist act. People are still terrified of witches,” said Nierman.

The witch has been bound up historically with misogyny and fear of women, so for some, identifying as a witch is essentially a political act. 

In 1992, Christian Conservative televangelist Pat Robertson quite famously said: "The feminist agenda is not about equal rights for women. It is about a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians.”

But parts of Robertson’s “feminist agenda,” namely that feminists want women to practice witchcraft and destroy capitalism, is actually pretty aligned with some of HausWitch’s political organizing, for example. 

In addition to moon meditations, HausWitch hosts community events like informational pizza parties before city council meetings. They’re also part of Witch the Vote, a “collective intersectional effort” towards the “witch utopia we all envision and frankly, really, really deserve.”

Intersectional means including not only gender, but also other systems of oppression, like race and class, into feminism. Both feminism and witchcraft have gone through a self-examining process around intersectionality, but at the same time, both have gotten a lot more popular and a lot more commercialized.

For instance, Dior produces a T-shirt printed with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s phrase “We Should All be Feminists,” which sells for $860.

Dior's "We Should All Be Feminists" tee

In 2018, multinational makeup company Sephora advertised their “Pinrose Witch Kit,” which included a Tarot deck, a piece of rose quartz, and a bundle of white sage.

The product sparked controversy because while white sage can be found at stores like Goop and Urban Outfitters as well as smaller occult shops, many Native American tribes consider white sage to be a sacred plant, and use it for smudging ceremonies. 

“White sage has such a signature smoke and smell, and it burns in such a beautiful way,” said herbalist and witch Veronica Light. She runs Spirit Wise Herbs with her business partner Erika Shoukimas.

Light and Shoukimas have grappled with using white sage themselves. 

“As witches, we use smoke and incense as sort of a way to carry your prayers up and out to the universe,” said Light. “But to think of what [white sage] means to the native people... that plant means so much more than that.”

But plenty of vendors make no mention of that context or the long history of abuse of native people by the US government. So when sage is used as part of a spiritual cleansing that anyone can use, in any tradition, it can be seen as cultural appropriation

As for Sephora’s Witch Kit, the company ended up pulling the product after the controversy. In their own practice, Light and Shoukimas use alternatives like lavender, cedar, or mugwort, or garden sage.

“We can use plants that mean more to us, that grow in our yard… we can grow [garden sage] ourselves and you can make up the difference with your intention with most things. I really believe the universe responds to that,” said Light.

Veronica Light and producer/reporter Justine Paradis at Erika Shoukimas' home in East Hampstead, NH.
Credit Tricia Peone

HausWitch once included white sage in their Open Window spell kit for “clearing + refreshing,” but a couple years ago, they replaced it with a ceramic clearing bell. Manager Paige Curtin explained that they now encourage different “ancestral traditions,” like ringing bells, clapping, or burning cedar and rosemary. 

Community and Empowerment

Nierman says that, at first, she’d questioned whether she wanted to take on the label of “witch” herself. 

“As I’ve been talking about it more and more with people, I’ve seen how important it is to really be brave enough to identify myself as a magical person,” said Nierman.

When she spoke about being a witch, Nierman spoke about society, community, and connection.

“I don't mean I'm any more magical than anyone else. Everyone is magical. I think the biggest lie of society is that magic is somehow separate from our everyday realities… it has left us really disempowered and disconnected.”

For Nierman, being a witch is about reconnection to magic and the earth, which, she said, “doesn't sound so weird or crazy or demonic.” 

She hosts a monthly tarot salon at HausWitch, where people get together and read cards for each other. She says not everyone who comes to the salons identifies as a witch, but they are often seeking spiritual growth and connection.

“It’s so easy to get stuck in our own little realities and think, ‘I’m the only person that's depressed... I’m the only person struggling with what's happening in the world.’ And you’re like, no! We're all sensitive beings. We're all feeling it. And just to know that other people are having the same experience is really a healing in itself.”

That’s a sentiment echoed by Light. 

“I think one of the best things about living your life as a witch is knowing that you do have power… we don't live just like this singular isolated life,” said Light.