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How ‘Bewitched’ Helped Salem Embrace Its Grim Past

A popular 1960s sitcom helped the New England town turn witches into big business

(Josh McGinn via Flickr)
smithsonian.com

How did Salem, Massachusetts become a Halloween destination? For centuries, the New England town avoided any association with its infamous Puritan ancestors, who executed 19 people under suspicion of practicing witchcraft. The surprising answer, author Stacy Schiff writes for The New York Times, has a lot to do with the sitcom "Bewitched."

These days, Salem is rife with kitschy witches and Halloween attractions. But before the late 20th century, town citizens rarely acknowledged the Puritan trials. When playwright Arthur Miller visited Salem to research "The Crucible" in 1952, locals refused to help him. "You couldn't get anyone to say anything about it," he complained, according to "Salem: Place, Myth, and Memory."

Until "Bewitched," that is. In 1970, the popular sitcom filmed episodes on location in Salem, including one where Samantha Stephens, the titular sorceress, travels back in time and is put on trial. Schiff writes:

Accused of witchcraft in old Salem, she winds up manacled, on trial for her life. She admits to the charge. But she announces to the courtroom that she will also prove that no 17th-century suspect was a witch [...] "How can you imprison someone who can vanish before your very eyes?" she demands. Firmly she sets our Puritan forebears straight: "The people that you persecuted were guiltless. They were mortals, just like yourselves. You are the guilty," she informs the old Salemites, before she vanishes, at long last clearing the air.

After "Bewitched," Salem began to embrace a tourist-friendly version of its grim past. The town began hosting an annual Haunted Happenings festival in 1982, which quickly exploded into a month-long Halloween celebration. In 2005, a statue of Elizabeth Montgomery, the actress who played Samantha, was erected in Salem's town square. Today, even the city's police cars are decorated with witch insignia.

Still, "Bewitched" isn't the whole story. For centuries, Salem's port made it one of the wealthiest towns in New England. The town had fallen on hard times when the sitcom arrived, Schiff explains. The witch trials became a way to boost the local economy. "There is, perhaps, something a little ghoulish in all this," Matt Crowley, who grew up in Salem, writes for the A.V. Club. "After all, we can follow a straight line from a bunch of murders in the 1690s to a Ferris wheel today."

Maybe that's why residents opposed Montgomery's statue when it was first proposed. While supported believed it would be good for tourism—akin to Philadelphia's statue of Rocky Balboa— others thought it was an affront to the innocent people who were murdered. ''It's insensitive to what happened in 1692," Salem resident Jean Harrison told the Boston Globe's Kathy McCabe in 2005. ''She was a fictional witch, but the people who died were not witches."

Nevertheless, as Schiff writes in the November issue of Smithsonian, the legacy of the Salem witch trials linger in modern American culture:

When computers go down, it seems far more likely that they were hacked by a group of conspirators than that they simultaneously malfunctioned. A jet vanishes: It is more plausible that it was secreted away by a Middle Eastern country than that it might be sitting, in fragments, on the ocean floor. We like to lose ourselves in a cause, to ground our private hurts in public outrages. We do not like for others to refute our beliefs any more than we like for them to deny our hallucinations.

About Danny Lewis

Danny Lewis is a multimedia journalist working in print, radio, and illustration. He focuses on stories with a health/science bent and has reported some of his favorite pieces from the prow of a canoe. Danny is based in Brooklyn, NY.

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