It should be said that the Salem Witch Museum, which I visited last Sunday, isn’t really a museum, and doesn’t contain any artifacts related to the witch trials in Salem, or anywhere for that matter. It’s a wax-figure diorama “show” followed by a rather rushed group tour of a sort of simulacrum of a museum, ending unceremoniously with the group being propelled into the gift shop. The narration and other sound effects of the diorama show are absurdly exaggerated, and the intent appears to be more to frighten than to enlighten. Even here, though, you get the sense that the creators had a genuine wish to educate. The more museum-like portion – a confused jumble of wax figures, timelines, and wall words – makes that evident, even though it fails on many levels.
The museum seems earnestly to want to inform people about “pagan” history, changing visions of witches, and the causes of witch hunts. More generally, the town has become something of a center, not only of Wicca, but of woo of all sorts. Psychics, tarot cards, astrology, hauntings, alternative healing – all are billed as part of the Salem experience.
And it isn’t all, or even predominantly, about commerce. The celebration of “real” witches and suppressed traditions in Salem is a nose-thumbing at puritans and other religious authoritarians, past and present. When it comes right down to it, though, it’s really just contesting one form of superstition and irrationality with others, and taking the spotlight off of the damage caused by religious beliefs and superstition in general.
Salem is a beautiful town with a rich history. The witch culture and attractions can provide entertainment and even some food for thought (or just a reminder to eat later). But it’s hard not to think about how this could be done so differently. For art in Salem, there’s the outstanding Peabody-Essex Museum I mentioned recently; there are other historical attractions at the harbor front. But it would be fantastic for the town to become a center of skeptical history and to have an institution that rigorously addresses local history from a contemporary perspective. The stories involved are enthralling enough that there’s no need for melodrama, and there’s a great deal of interesting research on both the local history and the larger dynamics of witchcraft accusations and persecution. It’s frustrating that the last display in the museum (offering the simplistic formula “fear + trigger → scapegoats”) refers to the internment of Japanese-Americans in World War II and McCarthyism, with the guide thoughtfully adding a mention of Muslims in the US post-9/11. Sadly, not a word is said about contemporary witch hunts around the world. These will be the topic of my next post.
For now, here are a few photos from the harbor: