- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 31, 2000

Salem is referred to as the "Halloween Capitol of the World," "Witch City" and the "City of Fright" by many of the nearly 500,000 people expected to pack the streets of this small Massachusetts city tonight.

The event is a cross between commercialism and commemoration of town history. Pepsi is the official cola of Haunted Happenings, a three-week fall festival in Salem with Halloween as its apex. A jack-o'-lantern festival for families runs until 10 p.m. at a local park. A commemorative candlelight walk starts at 8:30 tonight at Gallows Hill, where 19 men and women accused of witchcraft were hanged in the late 17th century.

For people who do not buy into the occult permutations of the holiday, Wesley United Methodist Church is celebrating the eve of All Saints Day. That event is expected to draw 500 people.

The split between those who observe Halloween and those who do not occurs in many American cities, but Salem, with a population of 37,000, stands out as the only place in the country where hotel rooms have been booked since April by tourists wishing for a spooky time.

The draw is part historical; Salem is famous for its 1692 witch hysteria even though the actual locale was next door in the town of Danvers.

The witch hysteria began in January of that year when the bizarre behaviors of the niece and daughter of the Rev. Samuel Parris were diagnosed as "bewitchment." A hunt for witches consumed the town as both prominent figures and town misfits were accused and, in many cases, convicted of witchcraft.

The trials continued until October 1692 when Massachusetts Gov. William Phipps disbanded the court. By then, 19 suspects had been hanged, one had been stoned to death and several had died in jail. Arthur Miller's play "The Crucible," which became a 1996 movie starring Winona Ryder, immortalized the trials. Since then, witchcraft has become the "warp and woof" of the area. One of Salem's neighborhoods and a local elementary school is named Witchcraft Heights.

It is also thematic; witches journey from afar to gather at a locale sympathetic to their beliefs. Some 150 of them will gather at a local Knights of Columbus hall to celebrate Samhain, their most sacred holiday of Wicca, a pagan religion. However, the Knights of Columbus is a fraternity associated with the Roman Catholic Church, which has taken a strong stand against witchcraft.

Salem resident Terri Kalgren will be one of the witches at tonight's celebration, which will include rituals, feasting and a "welcoming of the dead." The witches believe the veil between the living and the dead is thinnest on Halloween, making it easy to communicate with ancestors.

"People come from all over the country to network with other witches," she says. "It's our new year. It's a time when we reflect what's in our lives that we don't want in our new year. It's also a time when we honor ancestors that went before us."

She directs the Salem-based Witches Education Bureau, which promotes awareness of the Wiccan religion, and activities such as "make-a-wand" for children.

"I hope that next time you hear that witches are bad, you will remember you have a friend in Salem, Massachusetts, that's a witch," Mrs. Kalgren tells children.

"So many people come into Salem with misconceptions about what witchcraft is and is not," she says. "We look to dispel myths."

The holiday draws visitors of another type: evangelical Christians from as far away as Oklahoma who join with local residents and seminary students in what the Rev. Ken Steigler of the Methodist church calls "invitational evangelism." This approach introduces revelers to a Christian interpretation of Halloween if they express an interest in hearing about it.

Last year, 140 evangelists handed out 30,000 tracts on the streets to costumed visitors in Salem. This year the group plans to distribute 50,000.

"Nobody that comes here gets any training other than to be loving and Christlike," Mr. Steigler says. "The key is loving. That is what we teach over and over and over."

Former witches turned Christians will be among those witnessing their faith in Salem. According to Christianity Today, New York resident Shelly Wift abandoned her Wiccan beliefs after receiving a tract from students at Gordon College, an evangelical institution in South Hamilton, Mass.

Whereas the city promotes Haunted Happenings as a way to extend Salem's tourism season from Columbus Day weekend until Oct. 31, Salem's 30 evangelical churches respond with Holy Happenings, a 10-day Christian celebration from Oct. 22 through today with concerts by such Christian musicians as Rita Springer and John Polce.

"The city of Salem is not totally dedicated and committed to Wiccan happenings," Mr. Steigler says.

City officials seem to care less about the religious underpinnings of the holiday than its commercial possibilities.

"Witchcraft isn't the hook," insists Ellen DiGeronimo, executive director of the Salem Chamber of Commerce. Instead, Halloween is more a fall festival, she says, that lures in Mardi Graslike crowds for whom the 1692 witch trials are only part of the cachet. The costume balls, festivals and world-famous autumn leaf displays help provide the rest.

"Haunted Happenings, in term of economic benefits, parallels December holidays in other places," she says.

Ray Petrault, owner and manager of Bernard's Jewelers in Salem, sees an definite increase in business as a result of Halloween traffic.

"I think [Haunted Happenings] is very beneficial to all our businesses," he says. A possible downside is that "some of our regular customers may not come downtown in October."

Some local residents wish Halloween were celebrated only one day in October.

"There are a lot of residents in Salem not thrilled with this event," says Connie Foster, the Halloween chairwoman at Salem's historic Hawthorne Hotel. "It's a 26-day festival. Parking is a problem. People litter. There is a lot of local resistance, but a lot of love for it, too."

Kate Fox, executive director of the Salem Office of Tourism, dates townspeople's feelings about the event to rowdy festivities in 1997 when a half-million visitors filled Salem's streets. Fewer fun-seekers some estimate 300,000 came the next two years, but tonight's crowds are expected to top last year's turnout by at least 12 percent.

"The final weekend was a lot of fun, but the town was not prepared," Miss Fox said. The reaction of event organizers, was, 'Oh my. What happened?' "

Since then, organizing committees and city officials have joined forces to ensure that Halloween is a controlled, fun event. Haunted Happenings is advertised as a family-centered event with storytellers, parades and festivals. Costume balls are the only events restricted to the older-than-21 crowd.

"The majority of residents love Haunted Happenings, but would rather it be one weekend of disturbances," Miss Foster says. "My feeling is people would come anyway and I would rather there be organized events for them."

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