November 2, 2006

A Salem Halloween

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Like any good story, this one begins with witchcraft, ritual murder, and sleeping in a car on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean and ends in a sweltering curry restaurant reading irreverent poetry aloud. The only thing connecting these bookends is the American interstate system, plus the instinct of two very enterprising travelers.
It’s true that Halloween in Salem, Massachusetts is unlike any other experience one could have — it’s not exactly your mother’s trick-or-treating. Rather, when the population of this 350-year-old town doubles in the expanse of a few days, and amongst that population are self-proclaimed witches, soothsayers, crytsal healers, horror movie fanatics, policemen on horse, as well as droves and droves of deep-pocketed tourists away for the weekend, interesting things are bound to happen. It’s the subculture of this weekend, the fact that a Psychic Convention, Salem Haunted House, and Christian missionaries offering free hot chocolate and dream interpretation can exist on the same block, that’s really most fascinating — something emblematic of travel, of course, but really about the possibilities of cultural expression. The examples go on and on, some more relevant than others, but underneath the kitsch of tourist traps was a whole world of cinema, art and drama — not all of it good, but most of it at least memorable.
Film played a tremendous role over the weekend. Featuring two horror film festival, completely different from one another, Salem’s movie houses turned out to be a real treat. On one end, the more commercially-oriented Salem Cinema showed three movies at midnight all weekend, and we chose the German silent Nosferatu. One of the original vampire reels, the most impressive thing about Nosferatu was its actors’ capabilities to create a totally fantastical consciousness on film using their bodies instead of special effects. One the other end of town, the Salem Independent Horror Film Festival ran three homemade horror shorts at the Russian Aide Society on Pickering Wharf. While not anything extraordinary, it’s these type of ventures that gave us Living Dead.
The next day provided an interesting portrait of the extremes of Salem’s museums. After breakfast at a provincial diner, Ben and I shelled out $6 each to enter the Salem With Dungeon Museum — reportedly “as important for the visitor to Salem as seeing the National Archives in Washington D.C.” If only the National Archives presented a ten-minute amateur play and then led us on a “tour” of their dank basement filled with wax figures this would be correct. As we left the Dungeon, vowing never to fall for this tourist crap ever again, we passed the far more respectable Peabody-Essex Museum. Admission was steep at $10, but scoping out the back exit turned out to be a fortuitous discovery, as we were able to non-chalantly gain entrance, hiding in the elevator alcove until guards passed. Housed in a beautiful, expansive structure designed by Israeli-born Moshe Safdie, the architect behind Los Angeles’s Skirball Center and the Vancouver Public Library, the building itself seemlessly linked the old and new with careful precision and a vaulting thatched glass ceiling. Its contents, however, were a real disappointment, since Peabody Essex is, for the most part, a crafts and hobbies museum. As a curator told us, “You want paintings? We had, six months ago; now it’s Native American objects.”
The real art find came after, at the Newmark Gallery on Essex, right on the cobble-stoned pedestrian mall. In one huge room hung modern art, photography, and sculpture, as well as fine antiques and musical instruments. In a rush, Newmark was a nice break from the barrage of tourist marketing, but with time we could’ve spent a whole day.
With all its ups and downs, Salem still presented limitless opportunities to continue the adventure, and at some point, I’d like to experience it all again if only to add to the stories that could be told.