"Where are you going?" she asked cheerfully when we gave her the address of a car rental outfit.

"Salem," we said. With all the dynamic, world-class entertainment available in the city, driving 204 miles to a place in history that was resonant with terror, sorrow, and insanity seemed like a fun weekend.

"Is that where the witch thing happened?" asked Chatty Cabbie. Yes, we said. "Do you think any of those people were really practicing the black arts?" No, we said.

But I liked how she said "the black arts." It made it so cinematic, like there might have been puritan women, Goody Gumdrops and Goody Two-Shoes, who churned butter and knitted Bibles by day, but lurked around their neighbors' barns by night shooting fire and typhoid from their long green fingertips.

But given this conversational diving board, Chatty sprung off the deep end into a pool of ideas about how there are people called Wiccas that her friends say worship nature, but some people believe in the black arts and some people think just wishing bad things can make them happen.

"Well," she summarized, "Those people must have been doing something if they were accused of things like that."

It was a good introduction to Salem. The girl had the makings of a witch trial judge.

Our rented Kia rolled into Salem, Massachusetts at dusk, the perfect time to hit "The Witch City," as it is described on a 1912 postcard depicting a hag on a broom. We parked and wandered into the night. I expected to hear "Night on Bald Mountain," playing from unseen speakers and for the branches of gnarled, black oak trees, planted perhaps by Tim Burton, to turn into grasping hands before our very eyes.

The first figure that greets you in Salem is Roger Conant, or at least an outsized bronze statue of him. Conant founded Salem in 1626, about 70 years before circumstance and wackanuts would make his town synonymous with mass hysteria, false accusation and fear. Noting the era's fashion, it's a wonder people didn't hide under a table just from catching sight of themselves in a mirror: Conant's swirling cape, sharp features and conical wide-brimmed pilgrim hat make him sharply resemble Margaret Hamilton in the Wizard of Oz. Fashion or not, if I saw people swooping down the street dressed like this I'd be wigged out all the time, too.

Despite this creepy centerpiece, there wasn't anything scary about downtown Salem at night because — and I say this with the disclaimer that we were on a 24-hour-trip to see witchy things and ignore all the lovely Cape Cod houses and maritime blah blah blah — it's quite touristy. Salem has discovered what so many towns and so many individuals already know: it's easier to support yourself by being attractive than by being industrious.

This isn't to demean modern Salem's productivity, it's just a fact of economic life that if, as a location, you have something that will bring tourists and their spending cash to you, you use it. And I know because I live in Orlando, which seems to have produced mostly hotel rooms since Disney arrived in 1971.

So, it isn't strange that Salem is aware of the interest sparked by its history. What's weird is the fact that people gravitate toward a history so fraught with tragedy. Most of us equate Salem with witches, which subconsciously means Halloweenie things, candy and parties. It sounds like fun. Then you get there and realize there you won't get to see Witch Hazel cackling at Bugs Bunny and shooting off in a blaze of hairpins. Instead, you face events that took place in the real world, which means they're going to be a letdown, and in this case, downright stomach-churning.

I didn't realize this until I saw a picture of myself later standing in front of the Witch Dungeon in shorts and sunglasses, grinning like I'd just won a cute baby contest. The Witch Dungeon is an ominous black building that served as a holding pen for the accused. On a tour of the dungeon you learn that the cells were not only frigid, dark and rat-riddled, but that some were the size of coffins. I was standing in front of this building smiling like it was Miami Beach.

Another thing you get treated to here is a presentation, which is as pervasive in Salem as card dealers are in Vegas and drug dealers are in Amsterdam. Every historic site wanted to give us a presentation and my friend Gwen was having none of it. She would say, "Can we pay to go in and not take the tour?" They'd say no and she'd walk away, steamed at the prospect of having to endure live theater. After she turned her nose up at presentations at the Witch Museum and the Witch House, I pleaded with her at the Witch Dungeon, promising, "If it's really bad it will be even better."

We weren't disappointed. The sketch, about a woman accused by her bitch housekeeper, was a community theater experience and one of the featured actresses turned out to be a descendant of a Salem witch trial victim. The best part, though, was the woman who introduced the show. If you have ever seen the movie Pee Wee's Big Adventure, you've seen Jan Hooks portray the archetypal tour guide: pretty, perky and upbeat. This woman was a low-key variation on that theme.

"The people were starving," she would say, in the same voice you might announce, "What a lovely sunset," but she did give some remarkable detail that really brought the period to life, about the deprivation, illness and harshness of colonial life, about the abuse of power by minister Samuel Paris and about the financial reasons you might want to get your neighbor hanged. She provided a massive amount of color and resonance and how she said it didn't much matter.

America's once-bitten-twice-shy determination never ever to be off guard again after 9/11 is a new atmosphere for most of us to be living in, one in which neighbors are suddenly being looked at with suspicion, the gloss of a witch hunt. How do you stay vigilant without becoming a vigilante? A display about witch hunts in the Witch Museum offers this equation: "Fear + trigger = Scapegoat." If Salem serves as reminder of what we don't want to be, then all the mayhem at least served a purpose. Although if you told this to anyone in a coffin cell in 1692 I bet they'd say, "Who cares?"

The Witch buildings orbit around a little souvenir-packed mini-mall in the town center, and truthfully, these little touristy buy-ables offset the dark creepiness of the reason you are there and buying, like comic relief. When the absolute hopelessness of those poor pilgrim and puritan people sets in, it's easy to joy in a T-shirt that says "Absolute Witchcraft," or a cookie jar commemorating the 'Bewitched" TV series, two episodes of which were filmed here.

Modern-day witches aren't left out of the picture either. The Witch Museum showcases a witch timeline: the first "witches," midwives and healers; then the stereotypical broom-straddling hag that early settlers feared; and Wiccas, men and women who have embraced the title of "witch" and turned it back into something gentle and benevolent. The Wiccans I know tend to be big on herbalism and spiritual growth and healing, so maybe the term has come full circle in a sense.

For Gwen's money, the scariest part of our 24 hours in Salem had nothing to do with witches. It was a clown. Early in the morning not a soul was stirring in the little mini-mall, except me, Gwen and a clown. He was slight, donned a blue wig and all the requisite clown gear and he was strolling veeeery slowly through the square, and whistling an ominous-sounding unhurried tune. To Gwen, he seemed like pure, uncut evil, lurking and sinister. In an atmosphere of witch hunts, dungeons and dark history, anything would have seemed that way. It took a solid minute before I realized that what he was whistling was a slow version of "It's a Small World After All."


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