What a Trip To Witchtown, USA Looks Like In 2021
Around Halloween each year, I share a tradition with the women most closely tied to my spirit — my mother, her twin sister, my cousin, and my young daughters. We take a trip to Salem, Massachusetts.
You likely know the history of Salem. In 1692, young girls in the town became afflicted with a mysterious condition that caused them to have outbursts and contort their bodies. Scientists have since theorized the episodes may have been caused by ergot, a fungus that grows on rye, but at the time, a hysteria spread, making people believe witches among the populace in Salem had bewitched the girls. Witchcraft was deemed a crime punishable by death. Over the course of about a year, 14 women and five men were hanged, one man was pressed to death by stones for refusing to plead guilty or innocent, and seven people died in prison. About 150 people were imprisoned for suspicion of witchcraft.
Today, Salem is a Halloween-centric tourist destination filled with dichotomies: It is protective of the victims of the hysteria of 1692, acknowledging witchcraft as a fiction used to scapegoat people. Meanwhile, it embraces modern-day witchcraft and celebrates womanhood, spirituality, and the magic at the intersection of the two.
Museums, historical narratives, and walking tours in the town explain and condemn what happened in 1692. I once watched as, during a history tour, a woman dressed in 1692 garb asked a crowd, “How many witches were hanged during the Salem Witch Trials?” A man raised his hand and offered “19” as an answer. The woman shook her head emphatically. “No, 19 people were hanged. No witches were. There were no witches.” The underlying message: The witchcraft wasn’t real; the deaths were senseless.
"Today, Salem is a Halloween-centric tourist destination filled with dichotomies: It is protective of the victims of the hysteria of 1692, acknowledging witchcraft as a fiction used to scapegoat people. Meanwhile, it embraces modern-day witchcraft and celebrates womanhood, spirituality, and the magic at the intersection of the two."
At the same time, Salem today doesn’t at all dismiss the notion of modern-day witchcraft. Among its splashy embrace of Halloween are small, quiet shops that take seriously things such as spells, crystals that boast metaphysical powers, and tarot readings. In one of these shops, I once saw a man confess he was at his wits’ end trying to sell his house. He talked plainly, as one might while reporting a leaky pipe to a hardware store clerk. Before him, a woman dressed in a flowing velvet dress nodded and then she explained to him what he’d need for a spell to sell his home. This wasn’t a show; I was eavesdropping. It was an exchange between someone with a problem and a woman he trusted to intuit his way out of it.
I do not identify as a witch; I have friends who do and participate in pagan traditions in a more formal way than I ever have. I do, however, feel drawn to Salem, and I find a grounding peacefulness in some of its more earthy, energetic offerings. Amethyst to dispel anxiety; sage to cleanse a space of negative energy. As we prepared for this year’s trip, I thought about the gravity that pulls me to Salem, and that grounding energy is important. So, too, is the notion that, to me, Salem is in some ways a microcosm of my journey with femininity. The women of Salem were famously punished for something unknowable. That same unknowable thing is now embraced in quiet, incense-scented, crystals-laden corners of a place that on its face boasts loud, cathartic haunts, and thrills. That’s how I feel about my own femininity sometimes. It’s a magic I interrogate quietly, amid a loud world that sometimes drowns it out. My examination of my own womanhood is one laced with past pain and a constant curiosity about how I can wield its power if I learn to embrace it. For me, Salem holds a mirror to those differing forces, necessarily contained in one vessel.
There’s something else, though. Something hidden in the crevices of what the experience is for my family. Getting lost in the car, deciding what to have for lunch, negotiating what to watch on the TV in our motel room. A pilgrimage to Salem is an energetic reset for me, yes, but those smaller moments are a different kind of reset — a pause, an annual reminder to lean on these particular women in my life as sources of joy, strength, support, and wisdom. And to teach my daughters to do the same.
On this point, my 5-year-old daughter, who does not yet relate to the world in terms of things like the healing properties of amethyst or feminist history, put it best. Before our most recent trip, her excitement was uncontainable. As she bounced around, deciding what to put in her suitcase, I asked her what she was most excited about. She shrugged: “I just can’t wait to be with the girls.”