Salem, Massachusetts has a Halloween-based economy: buttressed by Wicca-tourism and eye of newt sales.
Though the city’s slogan is “Still Making History,” Salem is really just hell-bent on conjuring up its spotty past of persecution for prosperity’s sake.
In Salem, the charming clanging of New England church bells is obscured by the cha-chinging of cash registers as hoodoo doodads from China are hawked to unsuspecting families, Hot Topic-clad Tweezards (adolescent wizards), and middle-aged lesbians.
It was kismet, and not good planning, that brought us to Salem in the early days of October – just in time to gain a unique perspective on the city’s apocalyptic emptiness as it revs up for rip-off season.
My take on Salem may seem slightly dark, but I assure you, we delighted in the kitsch as often as it made us nauseous. Also, I don’t want the city elders to put a hex on me.
Our first scary sight wasn’t a scary sight at all – or at least wasn’t intended to be.
We thought this haunting monument of a dark-robed necromancer across the street from the Salem Witch Museum was totally cool. In actuality, the museum has posted information clarifying that the oft-confused sculpture is really a “handsome statue” dedicated to the plucky founder of Salem (He named Salem after the Hebrew word “Shalom” ). We say, “way to capture his essence!”
Nearby we passed a much more congenial remembrance of “Bewitched” star Samantha, America’s first TV personality to struggle on-air with cocaine addiction (she was plagued by violent nose twitching).
Downtown Salem’s main shopping district is an outdoor pedestrian promenade filled with tourism shops dedicated to the proposition that all men are created evil.
Stores ranged from overpriced tacky novelty T-shirt shops to discount tacky novelty T-shirt shops.
While some travelers collect snow globes, emblazoned shot glasses or decorative spoons, I want none of that. Nothing I’ve seen better expresses a sense of place than the T-shirts they hawk.
In Salem, you can take this a step further by ordering your shirt in medium (get it?).
Salem is packed with museums about witches, horror movies and pirates.
But from what we could tell, they’re really souvenir stores with a few educational dioramas and a hefty admission price. Somehow, we didn’t make it to a single one.
Even Count Orlock’s Nightmare Gallery couldn’t tempt us in with their window display of up-lit skulls and styrofoam pumpkins.
Even the empty diner next door was heavily bedecked.
My photo does no justice to the coven of ceiling fan-powered witches ready to smack into customers.
If shameless Salem commercialism had a headquarters, it could have been the Psychic Fair. Imagine an all-things-magical, five-and- slime with the slogan profits over prophets. They tempt you in with the paranormal to sell you a pair of socks.
I know the country desperately needs jobs, but we were bombarded by seasonal workers handing out their fliers a few hundred times too many.
Craving a little pick-me-up, we headed to the cemetery, even if it was just another hole in the ground.
In consulting the cemetery directory I was surprised to find no Baby Gap but delighted to find reference to Giles Corey, my favorite character from Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.
In the play, as in real life, Corey was stoned to death — not as fun as it sounds.
We were bored to death with the cemetery so we walked around the corner and discovered a new level to Salem’s retail tourism:
Witch City Consignment & Thrift Store, for second-hand spooks and hand-me-down hocus pocus.
The window display: Nothing says “come right in” like the ripe stench of death!
I call this “Rest in Centerpiece:”
If you need the perfect bottle for the perfect potion, come here. It’s like a Guitar Center for jug bands.
The pointy hat selection was on point:
We saw some really scary stuff in Salem, but this next thing terrified and bewildered me, shook me to my very core, and has caused anguish that will haunt my dreams forever.
In all fairness, though, I think we might have caught Salem at an odd moment.
After all, who’s fun to hang out with when they’re getting ready for the party?
We saw Salem in her chonies with curlers in her hair.
I bet when the old gal is all gussied up (sometime after October 6th), she can really entertain you, educate you, and if you’re lucky, scare the pants off you.