Periscope Depth

well is it over now, do you know how

I took Sylvia up to Salem for an afternoon on Labor Day, just to wander around and see the tourist areas. If you’ve never been, think of the one association you have with Salem, MA – first word that pops into your head – and spray it in every corner. Every other storefront is a witch museum, a psychic reader, a pagan bookstore or a haunted house. Essex Street reeks of incense.


I came late to Dungeons & Dragons, so I never got to witness the Satanic panic of the 80s first hand. It always struck me as an artifact of an older generation and more than a little ridiculous. Sure, the boxed game with the funky dice contains real magic spells; got it, Padre. But looking at the rotating wire rack of spell books in a downtown Salem tourist trap, I could start to see where Jack Chick was coming from. Not only do the “real” spell books use the same colors, designs and artists as the “fake” RPG supplements, they use the same fonts. It looked like the well-thumbed corner of White Wolf splatbooks you’d find in any comic book store in the early 90s.

We took in an exhibition at the Witch History Museum Salem Witch Museum, just off the Salem Common. It begins with an unrelentingly grim wax figure show in an auditorium. Spotlights on alternating tableaus depict the history of the Salem witch hysteria, while an angry British narrator recounts the scenes in increasingly hopeless terms. It’s a dark experience, impossible to dismiss or disregard, recalling the things that mobs will do once they can use and enjoy power.

It’s odd how Salem got its massive influx of Wiccan and pagan believers in the eighties based on its association with people killed there three hundred years earlier who weren’t even witches. I would not expect a concentration of Cherokees in Talladega today, though I might visit there and be surprised. But were it not for the witches, there wouldn’t be much to Salem. Five minutes outside of town in any direction, you find bedroom communities and light industry. There’s nothing else there. I’m glad the association has stuck with Salem for three centuries and I hope it sticks longer. While we object to easy analogies in most arguments – comparing people to Nazis or our fights to World War II – “witch trial” isn’t something that gets used often enough.

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