The fog is thick inside the graveyard, and the air smells of incense. It’s not fully dark yet; the sun has just begun to set in shades of dark blue, yellow, and spicy orange. It feels later than it is, with dark colonial buildings closing in on the visitors. Some people have purchased candles from a vendor outside, and they trace their fingers along the names engraved in the granite. Inscriptions of the victims’ protests, taken from court records, accompany the names. One reads, “O My Dying Da-, I Am No Witc-.” The phrase is interrupted mid-protest by the retaining wall’s stones.
Any other month of the year than October, the Burying Point cemetery might have looked like a normal, albeit incredibly old, graveyard. There might have been a few visitors, given the historical significance of the town, but it wouldn’t have been quite this crowded. A variety of people find themselves drawn to the Salem Witch Trials Memorial that is adjacent to the cemetery, from history buffs to Halloween enthusiasts. As they walk among the fog and sinking graves, they are taking part in a remembrance for people they never knew, victims of the darkest incidents of persecution in colonial America.
The memorial is a departure from the campy nature of the main street in Salem, with no tolerance for fried food vendors or photo ops with Frankenstein. A sign warns visitors to conduct themselves with respect as they enter the memorial. A reenactment takes place underneath some of the trees, and a woman wearing colonial garb speaks in a lilting voice, shrieking as she recounts the horrors of history as she proclaims herself innocent.
The granite benches are engraved with the names of the accused, as well as the means and date of their executions. Fourteen women and six men died during the hysteria. Most of them have unrecognizable names; Sarah Good, Mary Parker, Margaret Scott. No one would know these names out of the context of the persecution they experienced. It’s not their names, but their story that is remembered.
The idea of executing white teenage girls seems utterly barbaric today, and the hysteria is written off as a disgustingly violent part of history. But the term “witch hunt” remains in our vernacular for a reason. With the McCarthyism and red scare of the 1950s in recent memory, and today’s calls from a certain presidential candidate to ban people from entering the United States on the basis of their religion, it’s hard to tell whether society has moved past the events of 1692. Maybe the Puritans of colonial Salem aren’t so hard to relate to. Maybe what they felt was an entirely human emotion: fear. They let their fear control them, yes, but maybe they didn’t do so in vain. Maybe we can learn something from the horrific events that took place in America’s Halloween hotspot all those years ago, where the darkness still lingers today: that the power of fear is real.