Paris To Salem, A Halloween Homecoming Tale
The writer grew up in the town of the infamous witch trials, where Halloween was the most important holiday of the year of her childhood. For the first time in more than a decade in France, this globetrotting sorceress will be flying in to spend October 31 among her native flock.
In France, where I've lived for more than a decade, October 31 is mostly just another day on the calendar. Sure, the Halloween marketing machine has tried making inroads on the Old Continent, but they haven't stirred the blasé souls of Parisians who couldn't care less about carved pumpkins and fake blood.
But where I come from, Halloween is much more than a popular fête, it's a sacred holiday.
And this year, for the first time in longer than I care to remember, I will spend it on my old haunting grounds of Salem, Massachusetts, where I grew up in a cauldron of fringe spirituality simmering between Boston's suburbs and the Atlantic Ocean.
From witch trials to retail opportunity
Salem is notorious for the historic witch trials that took place in 1692, where the ultra-puritanical colonial village executed 19 citizens accused of sorcery. The event was popularized with Arthur Miller's 1952 play The Crucible, loosely based on the true story of how a group of local women found dancing frenetically in the woods led to a veritable witch hunt.
But it wasn't until the 1970s that the city began to truly embrace its dark past, when the first witch shop was opened by Laurie Cabot — who was later appointed The Official Witch Of Salem by the governor of Massachusetts. Since then, from a certain perspective, we could say the witches have come back to run the place.
Today, Salem's self-proclaimed witches are a prominent part of the population, taking part in City Council meetings and dotting the streets with their magic stores that sell everything from psychic readings to enchanted candles. The city's logo? A sorceress riding a broomstick.
Laurie Cabot, the official Witch Of Salem
Official Witch Of Salem Laurie Cabot
Satanic temple doesn't scare us
Here's the Salem of my youth I'm looking forward to on Sunday: the people in front of me at the grocery store (any time of year) wearing various capes and pointy black hats; a classmate in high school asking to take the day off for Samhain (the Celtic name for Halloween) since it was a religious holiday; my favorite regular at the bookstore where I used to work being a "freelance priest," dressed like the pope but in all black with a backpack full of faux-papyrus scrolls ... I will once again be strolling around colorful colonial houses decorated with spooky glee — like the guy who built an enormous animatronic dragon sprawled across his roof.
I've seen weirder.
October is an important month for groups of worship beyond the witch movement, which paved the way for all sorts of peripheral religions to prosper in Salem. When the Satanic Temple opened in 2016, the Salem City Council President told a reporter: "It's not really that big a deal. We've had weirder things pretty much on every other street corner."
I'm not sure exactly what to expect, not only after my decade-plus absence but also a year-and-a-half of COVID. Before the pandemic, the 18 square-mile city counted half a million visitors each year for Halloween. An explosion of haunted houses, psychic fairs, costume contests, folklore told by candlelight, labyrinths and witches' balls make even a walk to the grocery store feel like you're participating in the festivities.
It's hard to explain all of this to my enlightened French friends, who carry on thinking it's all a bunch of hocus pocus. Salem on Halloween? You have to breathe it to believe it, like Paris in the spring.
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