Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Salem Massachusetts: Don’t Get Spooked (Unless You Want)

By Jeff Burns

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I visited Salem Massachusetts for the day.  Of course, I have seen the episodes of “Bewitched” (There is a statue in town  of actress Elizabeth Montgomery as witch Samantha Stevens.), and I knew Salem was the only city in America with an official witch (Laurie Cabot, proclaimed so by Governor Michael Dukakis in the 1970s).  I’ve also read several books about the Salem Witch Trials of the 1690s, and there are a couple of titles on my “to-read” list as I write this blog. While vacationing in Massachusetts, I knew that I had to see for myself whether I’d find the historic or the cheesy.

Long story short:  I found both. Let’s get the cheesy out of the way first. Yes, there are numerous psychics, tarot readers, and self-proclaimed witches who have set up shop, many along Pickering Wharf, a quaint and picturesque shopping and dining area.  (Cabot herself opened the first such shop in the early 1970s but has recently retired.) There are also haunted houses and “witches’ dungeons”  where live and wax figures frighten tourists.   Then, there’s the Salem Witch Museum, which probably attracts most tourists to Salem.  Located in a former church on Salem Common, the museum purports to present the story of the hysteria and trials.  The sanctuary has been converted into a theater-in-the-rectangle for the presentation.  Above the visitors’ heads, there are 10 or so 3D scenes recreating elements of the story with mannequins, narration, and sound and lighting effects.  While much of the history is sound, you get the sense that the melodramatic (one scene depicts the devil) script hasn’t changed in fifty years.  When the show is over, visitors go to a small exhibit area for a superficial docent talk about witchcraft trials and then the gift shop which has a decent selection of books and an extensive collection of every cheesy witch and magic related item of merchandise imaginable.  Honestly, I’m not sure if I can recommend the Salem Witch Museum; I kind of wish we had used that time elsewhere.

At Pickering Wharf

For example, we could have visited the House of Seven Gables, the 17th century museum that inspired Nathaniel Hawthorne’s work by the same name.  It’s one of many house tours in Salem, representing different eras in Salem’s long history. The Phillips House dates to the 1800s. You might also see the Pickering House or the Ropes Mansion, just to name a few.  There are also guided and self-guided walking tours available, focusing on the trials, Hawthorne, ghosts and spirits, and other facets of Salem’s history.

If you’re interested in maritime history, be sure to go to the National Park Service Visitors Center for great information.  You can visit the Customs House, and Salem also boasts the New England Pirate Museum.

The highlight of our day in Salem, however, was the Peabody Essex Museum, which we didn’t even know existed.  The Peabody Essex is a fantastic art and cultural history museum that got its start in the collections of objects brought home by Salem’s sea captains and sailors who sailed the world.  The collection of Asian, African, and Native American artifacts is amazing. Asian export art is a key part of the exhibits, and visitors can see the result of the meeting of East and West.  There is much to see, and a visitor can easily spend hours here.  The PEM also oversees 22 of the historic houses and structures open for visits in Salem.

We only saw a small bit of Salem, but we definitely fell under its spell and hope to get back there someday.

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