Just the other day I took a day trip to Salem Massachusetts. I spend a lot of time in Massachusetts this time of year, mainly on Cape Cod. There is something so appealing to me about the bleakness, the quiet and the melancholy. It makes certain to me the concept that my personality was at least informed before my birth. My attraction to the eerie and the dark came with me into this world.
Salem is an interesting place, known today almost exclusively for a period of madness that overtook its citizens in the late 17th century. Devils danced in its woods, witches walked its streets, all manner of spectres invaded the sleep of every brain. For a period of time, it seems, the entire region went mad.
That is what we say today. Actually, that is what t hey thought pretty quickly then as well. It was a "fever of the brain", perhaps brought on by the Devil, perhaps by mushrooms or boredom or garden variety maliciousness, but it was most definitely not witchcraft.
Yet, today when you walk the streets of Salem, Ma. (Salem Towne, it should be noted and not Salem Village where a lot of the action happened) witches are everywhere. Witches are on the police cars of the town, embroidered into the very fabric of Salem. Witches are on every corner. There are witch museums, wax works, diners, books stores, wand shops, anything and everything there is seems to be tied to the horrific events of Salem in 1692-1693.
Something about this rankles me at the same time that it attracts me. These women and men, the ones who died at the hands of insanity or cruelty or both, went to their deaths with their innocence on their lips and that innocence said, "I am no witch". It is not that they were witches and that prejudice against witches took their lives. They were not witches. The mere idea of being called or thought a witch was profoundly upsetting and distrurbing to them. One of the disturbing truths of the Salem Witch Hysteria is that those who admitted to being witches generally escaped the hangman, while those who held firm to their innocence were hung.
I do not mean to imply that wicca or the craft is in anyway deserving of fear or that either is dangerous or negative in any way. I do not believe that and never did. Wicca is a peaceful faith by its very nature and does not resemble the "devil worship" it is often lumped in with.
However, these people, the victims of the Salem Witch Hysteria would not be comforted nor would they feel respected by the embracing of the witch hag by Salem. Certainly, there is something ...distasteful?... about the tourism trade that Salem now embraces. Yet, should there be? I do not know.
Salem also has a stunning Memorial to those who lost their lives. It is moving, visually imposing and yet very intimate and simple. It was erected in 1992 on the tricentennial of the outbreak. Three hundred years was not enough to assuage the guilt felt by the town itself. Was it, is it enough? Again, I do not know.
All of us who study the paranormal, who visit homes, prisons, graveyeards, any place and call out a name hoping for a knock in response, we are all walking a thin line between respect and exploitation and it is slippery as well as thin. When we go back again and again and we ask for signs, demand information, beg for proof are we abusing those whose memory we seek to confirm? I ask myself this often.
I suppose that all we can do is continue to explore our own motives and remind ourselves that when we investigate, we are attempting to communicate with people. Whether we are successful or not, all of our history is people. People's lives, dreams, hopes, fears, crimes, gifts and deaths. That is what we plumb, what we mine and we must always be respectful of them as if we are always successful in connecting, even when we are not.
The funny thing about my trip to Salem was that as I walked through the Broad Street Burial Ground at sunset, surrounded by roads and homes and yet completely empty of people, I felt strange. Strange, alone, and yet something else. The entire town seemed to empty of people in the 20 minutes it took for the sun to set and I thought to myself, "this is why people believe in vampires". I laughed a bit, but I found a place for a warm drink pretty quickly.
I do this. I do this for a living and I do it because something in me demands that I do it. I seek out haunted places, I seek out souls in history. But I do feel a responsibility to those souls, to remember them even if I never find them. A responsibility to respect them.
This blog was supposed to be about haunted places in Salem. Sorry, I guess I was more haunted by the history and the present of Salem than I thought!
How do you feel about it our responsibility to the past? Do we have one?