note: entire contents copyright 2004 by Carl A. Rossi
If you are planning an October visit to Salem, with or without children, and crave some literary merriment with a touch of the macabre, stop by for ghost stories being told at Ghostly Manor and aboard the sailing vessel “Friendship” on Derby Wharf --- after all, ‘tis the season to be scary….
Storytellers (on a rotating basis):
Storytellers (on a rotating basis):
Considering that the puritanical fathers of Salem, Massachusetts, condemned theatre on moral grounds, it is ironic that, thanks to them and their successors, the town has long since acquired a year-round theatricality all its own that reaches its climax during the Halloween season. Much of the atmosphere is tourist-oriented: the corn stacks tied around streetlamps, the black and orange merchandise crowding into store windows, enticements such as having your palm read or being photographed as part of a sepia-toned coven; visitors who arrive in full monster regalia can promenade up and down the cobblestones without raising eyebrows. The witch hysteria of the 17th century with its trials and executions (by hanging, not burning) can be viewed in a number of exhibits; even Salem’s most famous son, Nathanial Hawthorne, has not escaped commercialization: you can wander through his birth-house while waiting to be led into the House of the Seven Gables, next door (the former has been moved from its original site to be conveniently near the latter) --- if you know anything of Mr. Hawthorne’s personal history as well as his literary life, there is a heady thrill to examining the tiny rooms where the man, his widowed mother and his sisters lived in seclusion or to peeking into a reconstruction of Hepzebah’s shop in the Gables house (the room had once been a ticket office --- a shop, never) or winding your way up its torturous secret stairway, designed for neither the short of breath nor the wide of hip. If you are planning an October visit to Salem, with or without children, and crave some literary merriment with a touch of the macabre, stop by for ghost stories being told at Ghostly Manor and aboard the sailing vessel “Friendship” on Derby Wharf --- after all, ‘tis the season to be scary….
While sitting in Ghostly Manor’s outer lobby, waiting to be ushered into its story-chambers, you find yourself being watched by two old portraits on the wall of a respectable-looking man and woman who turn ghoulish when viewed from various angles --- once inside, your host or hostess will regale you, from room to room, with tales of a malevolent knight’s spirit walking abroad, a man-eating tree, and a mummified monkey’s paw that can grant its owner three wishes. On the afternoon I attended, Erik Rodenhiser, a familiar face on the North Shore theatre scene, clad in funereal black with a lace collar foaming from his coat, regaled his listeners with a blend of Victorian barnstorming and modern-day tongue-in-cheek, and there are sound and visual effects to make you jump at least once then chuckle afterwards for having lowered your guard. Aboard the docked “Friendship”, a reconstruction of a Salem original built in 1797 (it later disappeared when captured by the British in the War of 1812), “Chilling Tales” about the sea are being told after sunset, the most memorable tale being daintily spun by Amy Aldrich about a woman wanting a ghost for her own ship and having her wish granted --- with a catch; in another part of the “Friendship”, Art Hennesy’s sandpapered declamation could make Mr. Dickens’ Bill Sykes pause in his tracks.
One of the best introductions to Salem is the Hocus Pocus Evening Walking Tour under the scholarly guidance of Susan or Richard Metzger or their son Michael (the latter comes dressed as an old-time undertaker, complete with top hat). The Metzgers also mix their tales with humor --- after all, they have taken their tour’s name from a popular Bette Midler film set in Salem and will point out which scenes were filmed in town and which were filmed, elsewhere. Beginning and ending near the Museum Place Mall entrance, the curious are led around the immediate neighborhood and into the dark corners of Salem’s past; you soon realize that Salem’s true theatricality does not lie in the obvious --- i.e. that which is on display to be photographed, bought or sold --- but, rather, in the juxtaposition of bloody or ghostly deeds that occurred in the midst of self-righteous and, later, genteel society --- the resulting mood is positively Lizzie Borden-esque. The Metzgers are wise to conduct their tours after hours: during the day, Salem displays a pretty ankle with her winding streets, her architecture and her statuary but the nightfall claims her as a scarlet woman --- a handsome Federal mansion, for example, sunning itself by day takes on a sepulcher cast in the moonlight upon hearing that an old man was murdered in his bed … up there …. You become a child, again, filing through the streets like trick-or-treaters to learn about the origin of the name “Salem” or the spooky visitations in the Hawthorne Hotel or how the Puritan dead were buried if they couldn’t afford the proper length of coffin or the appalling conditions of the town’s two prisons, one long razed; the other, now out of business --- and all conducted sans special effects or hired actors leaping out at you, brandishing rubber cleavers. Most stunning of all is to suddenly stand before the house where Sophia Peabody, the future Mrs. Hawthorne, lived and was courted; the structure stands firm, despite being damaged from a long-ago fire --- a deceased romance comes alive, again: there is the door upon which the shy writer knocked, heart in hand; which upstairs window was his invalid beloved’s? Adding to the richness of the overall canvas is the ever-present wind with the smell of the sea on its breath; the fallen leaves racing across your path, the flickering candles in the hands of others passing by --- you can see why Mr. Hawthorne, when young and unknown, chose to walk at night as depicted in his story “Night Sketches”: the scarlet woman beckoned to him --- no matter how far he fled, afterwards, Salem continued to hold him in her spell.
Though “Ghostly Manor” and “Chilling Tales” will close on Halloween night (the former will perform “Legends of Salem”, come April), Salem herself will remain but why not visit this haunted, haunting town now while she is in full bloom?