It isn't easy tackling a subject as famous and broad as the Salem Witch Trials of 1692. There are experts living right in the back yard of where much of the witchcraft hysteria took place. Luckily for me, they gave me their time and considerable expertise as I researched my latest book, The History and Haunting of Salem: The Witch Trials and Beyond.
What is so wonderful is how many of the homes and buildings that featured so prominently in the Witch Trial chaos are still standing. You get a real sense of how far apart the homes were, how far the villagers came in order to attend the meetinghouse events--whether spiritually, or as voyeurs to the trials. The area seems hushed as you stand there. You feel a sense of weight and atmosphere, and, for me at least, a feeling of trespassing on events of which I was not invited.
Salem Village is today, Danvers, Massachusetts. It is blissfully void of loud traffic sounds and one can pause here and pay reverence to the memorials and walk the same paths and roadways (albeit paved today) as one did in 1692. Some homes offer tours, some do not. The Rebecca Nurse Homestead is an amazing place to visit. It gave me a sense of the isolation one would feel in winter months as these homes sitting on large acreage were set far back from the road. The threat of Indian attacks was a very real and prevalent danger in 1692. Many of the young women who "cried out" against witches were refugees from Indian bloodshed; several of them orphaned due to it. The woods were a scary place. They could harbor a hatchet-bearing native, or a pole-riding witch.
One of the wonderful people I met while researching the book was Barbara Bridgewater. Barbara recently purchased the John Proctor home in Peabody (it was part of Salem Village in 1692). She will be adding tours and events in the near future and is already experiencing some paranormal activity at the house. She has generously invited me to visit...which I fully intend to do. :) Marilynne Roach, a witch trials expert and instrumental in finding the location of the hangings (Proctors Ledge), gave me so much of her time for my book. She is a delight...witty and smart...generous and talented. Rachel Crist with the Salem Witch Museum shared with me some background on their wonderful venue and goals for the coming years. Richard Trask is one-stop-shopping for all things concerning the 1692 event. He located the foundation of Reverend Parris' home where the witchcraft outbreak began. His photos of that excavation are in my book, along with his wonderful pictures and background on the movie Three Sovereigns for Sarah, an historical retelling of the witch trials. He is the curator and historian for the Danvers Archival Center. Julie Arrison with the House of the Seven Gables also added an interview to my book with a fascinating history of that incredible home.
I learned so much while researching the Salem Witch Trials. It is a sad story with so many layers to it that I didn't realize going in. The cruelty is mind-boggling. Yet, I agree with historian Richard Trask, the overlying moral of the trials was the courage of the those who died refusing to denounce their God and their good name. Many others confessed to witchcraft to save themselves from the gallows. Not one person who confessed was hanged. I realize how insane that sounds, but it is true.
And so, my journey in witchcraft showed me a period of time where the Devil was every bit as real as God. To deny one was to deny the other. Witches were not the stuff of fairytales but seen as someone who could be living next door, or flying overhead. The specters that visited bed chambers during the witchcraft outbreak would rival the Departure Terminal at today's airports.
As thousands of people descend on Salem in the next few days, they will go in search of magic and spells, Wicca and museums. Thankfully, many places in Salem and Danvers pay homage to the victims and leave the sensationalism to Hollywood. There is a nod to Hollywood's view of witches in the book, including a nod to Hocus Pocus and the filmng locations for that movie throughout Salem. No matter what your fascination is with the Salem Witch Trials, one thing is clear: it is an event that will continue to "bewitch" us for centuries to come.