I’m sure there will be at least one witch among the trick-or-treaters at our door on Saturday night, something for which I will be grateful. It will mean that there will be one costume I’ll be able to identify among the movie, TV, video game and other current characters reaching their hands into the candy tray. “Great costumes, guys,” I say, not wanting to display my senior citizen ignorance by asking what their costumes represent and worse, who or what on earth that is.
What brought witches to mind as Halloween approaches is a new book by Stacy Schiff, The Witches: Salem, 1692, reviewed in The Atlantic by Adam Goodheart and highlighted by Schiff herself in a Sunday New York Times article last week. Headlined “First, Kill the Witches. Then, Celebrate Them,” it traced the trajectory Salem, Massachusetts experienced as it moved from a prosperous Massachusetts Bay Colony settlement to one in which a fit of hysteria brought about accusations of witchcraft and trials that resulted in 20 women and men being executed (hanged, according to Goodheart, none burned at the stake as popular mythology has it). “Then,” as Goodheart writes, “suddenly, as 1692 turned into 1693, the executions stopped, the accusers fell silent, the jails emptied…For the next 300 years and more, people were left wondering exactly what had happened.”
In those intervening years, Schiff writes in The Times, “Salem had many claims to fame. It preferred not to count the witchcraft delusions among them; no one cared to record even where the town had hanged 19 innocents. It addressed the unpleasantness the New England way: silently.” [Nineteen people were hanged; one man died pressed by heavy stones in a failed attempt to elicit a confession.] In 1952, Schiff writes, Arthur Miller visited Salem researching for his play “The Crucible” and found the subject was taboo; no one would talk to him about it.
Schiff credits “a different kind of enchantment in the form of the ABC sitcom ‘Bewitched’ to helping Salem reconnect with its past and “transmit its secret shame into its saving grace. In 1982 it introduced ‘Haunted Happenings,’ later extending it into a four-week festival.” The Boston Globe has written “Salem owns Halloween like the North Pole owns Christmas.” In Salem’s case the ownership is considerably more commercially successful.
Ed and I took our two young daughters to Salem during a trip through New England, visiting the Witch House and other attractions and buying them tiny witches for their charm bracelets. Some years later, when Ed’s sister in New Mexico said she sure would like to see New England sometime, we planned a whirlwind trip from our home in New Jersey, driving through New York and then into the six states of New England over 10 days. A stop in Salem was on that agenda was well.
Having two daughters four years apart in age gave our Halloween costumes a chance for double duty – and me a respite from having to make two each time. But my ploy was undermined the year the younger one declared she had no interest in being a colonial lady on Halloween. What did she want to be? “I want to be a cowgirl,” she said.
Well, there’s another costume I could identify if it shows up at our door.