Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Salem Witch Dungeon Museum

Salem Witch Museum (2017)
Twenty-one years ago, my then-girlfriend and I were concluding her first week in Friendship, ME when my cousin asked if we had ever been to Salem. She’s just past through and was delighted by the honky-tonk; the wax museums and so-called “museums” which commemorate one of the most-shameful (perhaps only one of the first most-shameful?) moments in American history, the Salem Witch Trials.

In particular, she told us we must check out the Salem Witch Museum or the Salem Witch Dungeon -- we assumed there was only one institution called the “Witch Museum.” Not two, or as is the case today, three. Or four.

My girlfriend found a wonderful B&B and when we arrived our host was only to happy to recommend the Peabody Essex Museum, and some fine restaurants by the waterfront. When we asked about the Witch Museum her face fell with something like disgust or disappointment.

“Oh, you’re here about the witches,” she said under her breath before politely directing us toward that part of town.

In fact, it seemed back in 1996 that Salem had not truly embraced its designation as “Witch City” at least not the manner that it does today. The TV Land statue of the character Samantha from the TV program “Bewitched” was not unveiled in 2005.

But then, even the Peabody Essex, founded at the very end of the eighteenth century was much homelier than it is today, receiving a massive renovation in the early 21st century. Like a lot of cities, including ours, Salem seems to be enjoying a tourism boom.

"Bewitched" (2013)
The Salem Witch Museum is the more stately of the two tourist traps we visited two decades ago. Located right off Salem Common, the exterior is extremely visible and striking, formerly an actual church. It also has the benefit of having a large statue of the city’s founder, Roger Conant, standing high in the middle of a three-way intersection. He is dressed appropriately in the puritan fashion of his time, but his great cloak and tall hat do make him look like a witch himself.

However, the attraction itself is not particularly interesting, though it looks sharp. Crowds are ushered into the center of a large room, where a booming recorded voice complete with sound effects describes the events of 1692 while life-size, stationary panoramas depict the terrifying history. Then you exit through the largest gift shop in Salem -- and that’s saying something.

No, the big fun is to be had at the Salem Witch Dungeon Museum, which is distinctive in that it features an actual historic artifact, a single beam of wood from the actual building where members of the accused were actually imprisoned during the witch scare of 1692.

Down the less-traveled Lynde Street, the Dungeon Museum is also a former religious space, a chapel built in the late 1800s. It was to this site I imagined one day taking my children, to share with them mine and my wife’s love of bizarre roadside attractions, though the prospect did not leave me without a little hesitation.

We have passed through Salem a few times in the past several years, visiting our friend Kim, having lunch at Gulu-Gulu, and sharing with them the more respectable sites of the Peabody Essex and, this summer, the House of Seven Gables. But they’re still young and each of them have expressed a disinterest in anything approaching scary.

At least, that was until last year when the girl asked if we could go on the Spook-A-Rama at Coney Island, which she claimed to have hated having decided to do immediately upon exiting, though comments she has made during the year since have suggested otherwise.

You see, when my wife and I went to the Witch Dungeon Museum in 1996, we had a slightly different experience than what is offered today. After paying admission, we entered the chapel, where there was a theater curtain hiding the chancel. Without any fanfare, the curtain opened and the half dozen or so in attendance with us watched as two women performed a scene adapted from original court transcripts in which young Mary Warren accuses the elderly Elizabeth Procter of witchcraft.

Salem Witch Dungeon Museum (1996)
"More weight."
The first thing we really noticed was how the judge, bailiff and court spectators on stage were all ancient mannequins, posed rigid and awkwardly in their seats. They did not move nor comment throughout the proceeding.

Following the performance, the younger of the two actors stepped forward, and led us into the basement, which resembled a prison. We were informed about the historic importance of the wooden beam, and our attention was directed to various cells where we could see even more mannequins being horribly mistreated.

Then she instructed us to head down a short hallway, to take our time, and she would meet us at the other end. She then disappeared through a doorway and we were left on our own. I volunteered to go first down the hallway, peering into cell doors and windows and sure enough, at the far end of the hall, one of the mannequins wasn’t a mannequin at all, but our tour guide who suddenly put out her hands and yelled BLEAGGHH!!!

Not exactly Spook-A-Rama, but high cheese. I did wonder whether or not the girl would get a kick out of it.

What I did not expect was the very pleasant surprise that the Salem Witch Dungeon Museum has during the past generation in fact stepped up its game! There were not two, but three performers on hand, the third what you might actually consider a docent. Also dressed in period costume, she provided narration and context prior to the performance (it was the exact same amateur performance) and led us all the way through the basement “dungeon” giving an entirely respectable historical overview of the events and the persons involved.

The prison cells are still occupied by the exact same dummies we had seen in the 90s, I believe the lights have been lowered to hide the aged plaster and papier-mâché. But we received a proper if brief education in mass-hysteria, and no poor college intern popped out from anywhere to say BOO!

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