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Article ID: 1907
Age Group: Adult
Posted: February 2nd. 1997
Witch City (The saga of Salem)
by Peg Aloi
W I T C H C I T Y A Documentary by Joe Cultrera and Henry Ferrini
A Review by Peg Aloi
A Salem Native's Uncompromising Look
at a Town Steeped in Pagan Politics,
and Tacky Commercialism
Just in 6/30/97 Visit the wonderful PIXBIZ Home Page for the latest on this project
This 56-minute video is a fair-minded and brutally honest look at what "Salem Town" has become, 300+ years after the famous Witch Trials. Of course, we all know that the famous outbreak of hysteria occurred in what was then Salem Village, which is now called Danvers. And witch hunts took place all over Colonial New England. But the name "Salem" (which means "peace") will always be synonymous with Witchcraft, it seems, and it earned its name "Witch City" long ago, even before the town decided to capitalize on its horrible history.
Narrator Joe Cultrera remembers the Salem of his boyhood, with photos taken of tightly-knit ethnic neighborhoods and sleepy seaports. He then offers details of the events of 1692, dramatized in a way reminiscent of Unsolved Mysteries. But his real focus here is contemporary Salem, the place where Pagans and Witches often journey on a sort of pilgrimage, to connect with the energies of a place where innocents were hanged as Witches. And a place where local merchants take full advantage of the town's dark history. With snippets of interviews with various local residents, authors and Witches, the filmmakers allow for a myriad opinions.
Stephen Nissenbaum, author of Salem Possessed, explains that there is absolutely no proof that any of the twenty people executed as Witches actually practiced Witchcraft. In fact, most historians acknowledge that what makes these deaths such martyred ones is that those accused, such as Rebecca Nurse and Giles Corey, were known as devout Puritans. But as Laurie Cabot (known to many as "The Official Witch of Salem") claims, there is also no way for us to know that these people were NOT practicing Witchcraft. The pagan traditions that began in Europe had gone underground after the witch craze in 15th Century Europe, and the Puritans themselves had made the treacherous journey to the New World to escape another type of religious persecution. It makes sense on some level to acknowledge that the Old Religion may very well have co-existed along with all the "new" ones.
More disturbing than this contradiction-ridden discussion of the travesty of justice in 1692 is the blatant commercialization of these events. Tourists flock by the thousands to Salem every year, especially in the month before Hallowe'en, and the filmmaking team captures this carnival atmosphere in full color. The owner of the Salem Witch Museum (whose toupee is far more frightening than any of the atrocities he displays) describes the scavenging he did for mannequins and wigs, from auctions and junkyards. In other words, he is admitting he put a bunch of crap together in order to charge people money. The Wax Museum is just as offensive; who wants to be reminded of the deaths of these innocent people with glassy-eyed dummies splashed with blood-red paint? Ask any self-respecting Witch if she has even set foot in one of these sideshow-like attractions, and most of the time she will answer negatively.
Then why do the Witches go to Salem? For there are many who live there, and many who travel there. There are a number of New Age and occult shops, and from what the filmmakers show, some of them are as tacky as the Witch Museum. One place sells angels, sold by a woman dressed like a deranged extra from Amadeus. One Pagan shop owner tells of the local fundamentalist Christians, who form human chains near his store, trying to block entry, and who also perform melodramatic "plays" about Witches, designed to get the public's attention before they start preaching.
The Tercentenary (300 year commemoration held in 1992) is portrayed as a huge commercial event, but also as a time when many Witches and Pagans band together in celebration and honoring of their heritage. A parade of Witches contains as many people in flowing black robes as it does those in tie-dyed t-shirts and jeans. Although Laurie Cabot complains that no Pagans were allowed to serve on the planning committee, still this looks to have been quite a dramatic event, with speakers like playwright Arthur Miller and Nobel Laureate Elie Weisel present. Weisel makes some heartfelt comments about fanaticism being the main reason Salem could happen, and reminds everyone that "there are still Salem's."
I think this is a well-crafted film, given the aesthetic constraints of working on video. It hits hard on both sides, but I do think the Pagan community appears to have more integrity than the business-owners who are clearly out to exploit the town's history to make a buck. One moment in the film stands out for me as particularly chilling: two young women, perhaps nineteen or twenty, are shown perched upon a tombstone in the cemetery. They are dressed in typical Goth-like garb, and one is pretending to stab the other with a knife. They say they are from New York, and continue their mock-attack upon one another, one now pretending to bite the other, acting as if possessed. Seeing the glow in their eyes as they performed in front of the camera I was reminded of those teenage girls three hundred years ago. In the public eye for perhaps the only time in their lives, given license by the court officials to behave scandalously, and willing to sell out their neighbors in what to them seems to have been a hideous childhood game.
Media Coordinator - Witches Voice
(c) Imbolc 9996
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