Halloween in Salem
“And above all, watch with glittering eyes the world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.” – Robert Dahl, author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
Between the rush of the city streets, the buzz of my overloaded app notifications, and the brain squeeze to memorize to-do’s, grocery lists, and yoga sequences, I often forget to stop and smell the cinnamon fig lattes in my day-to-day life. Yet as the first shiver of fall made itself felt by the frigid air and the eye-opening changing of the leaves, I vowed to be more present to the alluring magic of autumn in New England. I cringed to think that another year would slip away without fully cherishing all the fall feels: sipping warm apple cider, baking cranberry pies, hosting fall parties with friends, and yes, spending Halloween in Salem.
Salem, Massachusetts is doubtlessly a top destination for Halloween, with up to 250,000 outsiders paying a visit for the holiday each year. The city is best known as the historic location of the Salem Witch Trials, the series of hunts between 1692-1693 in which over 200 individuals – mostly women – were accused of witchcraft. This resulted in the hanging of 19 “witches” on Gallows Hill – what has become a local park for schoolchildren today – and the death of another 5 accused “witches” in jail. This small line of our nation’s colonial history has become a cautionary tale against religious extremism interfering with human rights to life in addition to its elevation of “witches” as a feminist symbol of women’s power as rebels and healers.
Just a 30-minute train ride from Boston (unless of course a Red Sox parade dramatically delays transportation, as on this year’s Halloween), Salem is a New English city with an old world, puritanical feel. As I stepped off the train in my pirate’s hat and black tutu, I realized that I was grossly underdressed compared to the array of fully made-up Freddy’s, Jason’s, Michael Myers’, and Hocus Pocus witches. Shivers ran down my spine as I meandered down Essex street, where men with megaphones screeched at costumed passerby’s to stop our sinful behavior while waving their “Jesus” banners. Nearby, a white-cloaked Pope waved from his second-story window, and a plump Rapunzel teasingly tossed her strands of yarn through the screen of the adjacent room.
My bunny-eared travel companion and I meandered into a gift shop whose walls were lined with healing stones, chakra banners, "all natural" incense, and mood rings. “Haven’t you always wanted to have your fortune told on Halloween in Salem?” she asked, raising her fur-lined ears. I told her I hadn’t thought to add it to my bucket list. My mind played back my experience at a palm reader’s shop in Yangon, where I was spooked by his wide-eyed remark, “You not meant to live in motherland!”
“Excuse me, how much for a reading?” My rabbit friend asked the blue-haired man behind the counter.
“$40 for 15 minutes, and you can find a list of our readers and their psychic abilities on the front wall,” he said with a lipsticked grin, the rabbit crinkled her nose.
Unsatisfied, we walked on until we encountered a woman in a witch hat, who appeared to be a local. “$40 for 15 minutes, what scandal! These people all appear on Halloween claiming to be local witches, and they take these tourists’ money without a micro-cauldron of remorse. So you want to see a real psychic? Keep walking down Essex Street until you find the Magic Parlor and ask for Stephanie.”
“Excuse me, can we make an appointment with Stephanie?” The Hare happily asked the bearded man behind the counter of new age knick-knacks and eyes of newt at Magic Parlor.
The man smirked with amusement. “Stephanie wouldn’t work on Halloween night. Why don’t I set you up with another reader?”
We were swiftly directed to a dimly-lit room in the store’s corner that was divided from the main shop by a maze of black fabric. Our reader, a short, curly-haired local, plainly dressed in a purple sweater peered at us from behind her black-rimmed glasses. She greeted us with a grin when she learned that we were the guests for her game. Beaming from across the cramped table, she explained her craft of “runes”.
Displaying her black leather back filled with divining chips of wood from an Irish bog, she instructed my friend to sift her fingers through her gems as she posed a question. “My role is to interpret the signs from the universe. I don’t predict specific events in your future,” she continued with a cackle, and plastering a second smile, “and I don’t reveal doom. I believe that humans generally have a choice in their destiny. The universe simply has opinions to consider.”
20 minutes later, after the Hare’s Magic 8 Ball-esque Q&A session with the runes, it was my turn to sift the chips. “Where in the world am I meant to live?” I asked with a glimmer in my eyes.
“Where do you want to live,” said the psychic, raising one eyebrow.
“Um… I don’t know…” I hesitated.
“You know,” said the Hare, scrunching her nose.
“Well… Paris?” I replied with uncertainty.
The psychic looked satisfied and rolled her chips. “Ahhh,” she said cheerily peering at the array of symbols. “I think you’ll live in Paris one day… but it won’t be easy. These two chips indicate that it will involve a process or transformation and turbulence. Probably after a breakup.”
I widened my eyes, horrified and asked again with a squeak, “Will my boyfriend and I break up?”
She let the chips fly, and stated knowingly, “This is the oxen. It indicates it will be an uphill battle. And this symbol says he’s got baggage. Secrets that have yet to be revealed. This symbol indicates the gods have spoken. That’s all I can say.”
The Hare left glowing from her sunny destiny, and I gloomily walked alongside her unnerved and unsatisfied. Questions eroded my mind as the crowds of ghosts and goblins began to densely line the streets to an impassable halt. What secrets? What does she know? Was she really a witch?
I had come to Salem to open my eyes to the world’s magic, and instead I had been misled by a sweatered psychic who had promised that she wouldn’t reveal impending doom. My reading felt like a death sentence, and I suddenly felt solidarity with the city’s history.
At once, I recalled our psychic’s opening statement: I believe that humans have a choice in their destiny, the universe simply has opinions.
Maybe I hadn’t actually been sentenced to a life as a divorced femme à chats, nor a hanging at the Gallows. The psychic simply brought to light the obvious: relationships take sacrifice. I could be empowered with the choice to run away to Paris, but it would be at the expense of my happy life here with my boyfriend in Boston. And based on my unshakeable sense of doom at the thought of trading my loving boyfriend for a life of endless baguettes, Paris is not in my cards at the moment.
Gazing through the crowded haze of the darkened New England horizon from my coach of costumed characters on our train ride home, my eyes peeled open to cartoonish beauty of the moment. This was exactly where I wanted to be – not in the depths of my head, nor in the fluff of high clouds, nor on the beaming sunlight of a Paris summer. I wanted only to be exactly where I was, in pirate hat and tutu, waiting patiently for our train to meet my prince’s carriage of an electric car at North End Station.