Imagine someone accusing you of a crime so ridiculous that the crime itself isn't a real thing, like "French-kissing a pink elephant while enjoying free healthcare and a living wage." And before you can even figure out how to mount a reasonable defense, you and a dozen other people in your community are dead, swinging from a hanging tree while the rest of the town pats themselves on the back for sending the pink-elephant-kissers back to Hell where they belong.
Now imagine that a few hundred years have passed, and instead of mourning the terrible crime committed against you, everyone in town dresses up as a cartoon version of you and encourages tourists to buy trinkets that minimize and celebrate your death.
Got all of that? Cool, you've basically pictured what's happened in Salem, Massachusetts. This town is famous for witches and witch trials, which is another way of saying "mob hysteria which resulted in the murder of over 20 people." Instead of solemnly remembering their dark past with humility, Salem has gone a different route -- specifically, the route populated with merchandise and Ferris wheels.
The home of America's most famous assault against allegedly supernatural women has decided "f**k it, let's just run with our biggest crime against the human race" as a tourist attraction. Salem has an amusement park, where devouring cotton candy and enduring nauseating rides are presumably an elaborate metaphor for pledging your eternal allegiance to Satan.
Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism
Here "Double, double, toil and trouble," refers to the port-a-potty line.
To be clear, Salem doesn't only run this shitshow during Halloween; the town is a year-round bevy of witch-themed tourism. There are museums and souvenir shops, and even the Salem Police wear witches on their uniforms, because what better thing for law enforcement officials to represent than the arrests and convictions of a bunch of innocent people?
Salem Police Department
We don't want to rain on anyone's Halloween parade, but isn't all this a little bit fucked up? As we all know, the Salem Witch Trials didn't involve any actual witches; just a few dozen people (mostly women) who were executed or left to die in prison.
Briggs. Co. / George Eastman House / Getty Images
Proving once again to never listen to a dude with a stupid hat and terrible facial hair when he states his opinion on women.
Beyond good old-fashioned paranoia and frontier ignorance, some theories speculate that the Salem Witch Trials may have actually been an insidious backlash over property disputes, or fueled by a psychosis-inducing fungus which grew in the area. So really, Salem is about as appropriate a place to celebrate black magic as an Arby's parking lot (they probably have the same body count).
The Salem Witch Trials (not to mention the tens of thousands of people killed in European witch hunts) were a goddamn atrocity, in which religious fervor and misogyny were used as justification for mass murder. So why are we all okay with turning a historical tragedy into a kickass party? Sure, witchcraft and the occult are topics that fascinate our culture, and there's nothing wrong with witches in fiction, or dressing up as a witch for Halloween or a pornography shoot or what have you. But why do we feel the need to appropriate an insanely dark chapter of history and turn it into something "fun"? If the Nazis had invoked some supernatural creature to justify the Holocaust and accused every Jew they murdered of being a vampire, Twilight wouldn't have included a chapter about the few lucky vampires who managed to escape Hitler's death machine and flee to America, right? RIGHT??
This practice extends beyond Salem's tourism industry, constantly rearing its bizarre revisionist-history head in pop culture. Take Disney's Halloween classic Hocus Pocus. The movie begins right in the middle of the Salem Witch Trials, with three witches being hanged. Of course, in the film, magic is real, so the townspeople are completely justified in executing three women.
Walt Disney Pictures
Walt Disney Pictures
And this was before Sarah Jessica Parker was guilty of making Sex And The City 2.
Except for the "witches are real" part, the scene is straight out of the history books ...
Walt Disney Pictures
... So this is a Disney movie wherein history's monsters are recontextualized as righteous heroes. And since Disney never revealed that Scrooge McDuck made all of his money in the illegal arms trade, that's certainly a first. Even crazier, it turns out that this whole prologue is a high school history lesson, because apparently that's how the public school system teaches the Salem Witch Trials.
Walt Disney Pictures
"And the nooses broke their necks, causing their bowels to loosen and violently soil themselves. Oh, that's the lunch bell."
The movie named its three witches after actual victims -- Mary, Sarah, and Winifred. Two Sarahs and two Marys were convicted and executed for witchcraft, and a woman named Winifred was the last person to stand trial for witchcraft in New England.
Again, this isn't to say that we can't make movies about witches, but witch movies almost always try to shoehorn Salem into the story, which inadvertently legitimizes the execution of all those people by suggesting that witches were both real and present in 17th-Century New England. There's literally a show called Salem on TV right now, which is about real witches glowering sexily for no reason.
Burning stakes aren't the only things smoldering in this version.
Even J.K. Rowling decided that the Salem trials should be a part of the Harry Potter universe, furthering the theme that wizard life is utter dog s**t. A story in her A History Of Magic In North America series professes that many of the victims in Salem were actual witches, and that some of the Puritan judges responsible for the trials were secretly evil wizards. That's f*****g insane.
"The Inquisition was a tragedy for the demon community."
Salem's portrayal in pop culture isn't a minor detail, either. It was a Salem-set episode of the '60s TV sitcom Bewitched which tipped the scales of public perception, essentially birthing Salem's witch-themed tourism bonanza. Before then, locals were so shame-filled that they wouldn't even talk to Arthur Miller about the trials when he was researching his classic play The Crucible. Now, there's a statue of Bewitched main character Samantha -- an actual witch -- erected by TV Land in the middle of Salem.
via Trip Advisor
They presumably ran out of money to build adjacent statues of bloodlusty Puritans trying to hang her.
Not surprisingly, it turned out that putting a statue of a sitcom character as a memorial to a bunch of people who were unjustly killed didn't go over super well with some. That being said, not all of Salem's witchy attractions exploit the supernatural. For instance, the Salem Witch Museum tells the story of the real-life trials while looking like a haunted Disneyland attraction.
Salem Witch Museum
Or the worst Showbiz Pizza in history.
In fairness, Halloween is admittedly both an awesome holiday and an inherently ghoulish one. Saying that macabre histories can't be a part of it is like saying that Arnold Schwarzenegger movies can't have explosions. Perhaps the real problem lies in the fact that the story of how law and order can break down and yield to religious fanaticism is a more important takeaway from the Salem Witch Trials than any fairy tale. By constantly recasting the story in a supernatural light, we're undoing the potency of an important cautionary tale. And if you think that it's not still relevant, remember that just this year, a female presidential candidate has been repeatedly, seriously accused of consorting with the devil. Ultimately, we as a society need to find a healthy balance between learning from history's mistakes and enjoying a good pun-fueled postcard now and then.
Hopefully, we have room for both.
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