Thomm Quackenbush, author

03.30.07 9:05 p.m.

This world, after all our science and sciences, is still a miracle; wonderful, inscrutable, magical and more, to whosoever will think of it.  

-Thomas Carlysle

 



Previously in Xenology: Does anyone actually care about this part?

All photos in this entry courtesy of Emily Shedletsky and are used by permission. All rights reserved.


Gallows Humor

The brochures don't tell you that nothing in Salem opens before April first. They don't feel the need to explain this salient point because doing so might adversely affect the flow of gullible tourist dollars, such as those crowding Emily's and my pockets. In tourist towns, as in all of nature, osmosis forces a balance and soon we found ourselves poorer for the effort.

On our drive, we make the following bingo/scavenger hunt list, listing the point value of giant pentacles, the phrase "The Burning Times", or people named Raven. We feel very well prepared for the experience to which we are subjecting ourselves under the idea of a romantic holiday together. We are not, however, prepared to be there too early to encounter half of our list. We hear occasional mentions of Goths, but none were to be spied on the streets. They all must have been in hibernation. Emily hates this guy

We wander the town, both to get a lay of the land and in sincere hopes of salvaging what we could. Emily refuses to let us take the car anywhere (not that we would, most anything a tourist would wish to see was a short walk from our hotel) because she managed to luck into the perfect parking spot in front of the Salem Inn and prefers the beauty of it to the functionality of a car.

That first day, the creepiest incident occurs in the Salem Wax Museum. As the name suggests, this is where tourists are corralled to spend their cash looking at over large dolls of deceased townspeople. The door is open, but no one sits within. We poke about a bit, but Emily refuses to enter without leaving admission for the ghosts, a couple of coins to aid their trip across the River Styx. I concede, but feel no need to pay to use their visible bathroom. Walking past the leer of the wax Giles Corey, pre-crushing, I open the door of the bathroom and find each of the faucets blasting hot water. I need to pee more than be haunted, so I shut all the water off.

Not sufficiently creeped out, we visit the adjoining witches' cemetery, authentic in the respect that it is in Salem where people were killed. I maintain that no one with sufficient mystical powers would allow themselves to be caught or punished. Nor would the accused have been granted the sacrament of a proper internment in the good Christian earth. Still, wandering among the weathered headstones, I ask Emily if I shouldn't be feeling something.Okay, I feel this is creepy

"These aren't your people," she says, focusing a shot of one of the tombstones that comes out beautifully enough to deserve framing on a teenager's black painted wall.

"No, of course not, but this is historical. This is hundreds of years old and so many have walked here with spooky intentions."

"It's so funny that people brag about that in America. When I went to college in Glasgow, a house next to campus was built in the 1400s and no one cared."

I nod and look into the middle distance. "Do you think the dead care that they now have a view of Goodyear Tires?"

Before dark comes, we are back in our hotel room. We pop the complimentary champagne, pour two glasses, and head for the Jacuzzi. This bubbling cauldron was the real selling point of this hotel for Emily and she is, as always, our travel agent. Neither of us drinks often or well, so the champagne existed purely because it could and it gave a purpose to our souvenir wine glasses. Within a few dozen minutes with the water jets, much of the champagne in our glasses has been used as a combination shampoo and body wash. It did not seem particularly quality vintage for the price of our room and we'd rather bathe in sticky stars than drink them.

The next morning, Emily has us take one of the only tours of Salem that is available in the off-season. Granted, it is available because we are willing to specifically schedule the tour guide's presence at a premium, but it is available nonetheless. We are not in a position to bargain and I imagine the guide knows this.

We meet the woman outside of the Salem Mall. Perhaps I have unrealistic expectations, but I am bemused to find our tour guide to be a tall, middle-aged redhead in a dapper pantsuit/scarf combo. If told that she was the assistant principal of a Montessori School or the middle manager of a Born Again Christian greeting card company, I would have had no trouble believing it. However, in Salem, this woman found a niche guiding those looking for a taste of "haunted Salem", likely by resisting the urge to put her chipper face on the advertisements. Her smile could exorcise a graveyard at a hundred paces.

Emily is far more excited and forgiving of this woman's eccentric normality. A yuppie family from our hotel joins us for the tour. Our guide asks us what we picture when we think of witches. Emily and I exchange looks and say nothing, since I don't have to use much imagination to see a witch.Spooooky!

"Now, now," the woman lectures the air in front of her where none of us stand. "Don't look at your wife or think of your mother-in-law." I think she would say the same thing had we been a crowd of bachelors or very young children. Our responses or lack thereof matter very little to the routine. She removes a picture of the Wicked Witch and Bette Midler from her fanny pack and goes into a monologue about the inaccuracy of Hollywood witches. This is not to say that she ever points out that there are modern practitioners of a religion called Wicca who think of themselves as witches. That would be unseemly. She just wants to immediately get us thinking about fanatical Puritans, as though this would be a new thought in a town that sells mass produced facsimiles of their dour costumes.

The yuppie wife asks about some "gothics" she ran into the previous night who gave her excellent suggestions as to where to dine that night. Her husband and the tour guide decide that "gothics" are almost like actual people and will outgrow it. Their comments vary between condescending and amused, as though they ran into tamed versions of some man-eating native species instead of a very typical and American variety of adolescent. They do not dwell at Dolce & Gabbana so this family must assume they are denizens only to the land of witches. I silently wish that her dear, thin, pretty blonde daughter falls into a Hot Topic in a few years, discovering the joys of hair dye and black pleather.

The guide describes the history of Salem that most American public students learn and forget in the same day in the tenth grade, peppered with enough of the gory underbelly to keep us motivated but still said in the same tone as a Cub Scout den mother telling a spooky story. Murders lose their thrill to me when relayed with the passion of "Now who wants smores?"

At the local jail, the woman clicks onto track 23 of the recording in her head and starts to tell us that a man named Albert DeSalvo was once kept in this jail. "Do any of you know who he was? In fact, Albert DeSalvo-"They peed in buckets

"The Boston Strangler," I say. "He was the Boston Strangler."

Having interrupted the recording, she narrows her eyes behind thick pink frames. The gaze conveys an obvious message. "Why does he know this?" The morbidity of this town is her providence alone, protected under the same trademark that impels her to forbid us from video recording her performance, as though there is a vast bootleg market for walking tours.

I shrug and Emily jokes that I have very specific, trivial knowledge. The yuppie couple holds their children a little more tightly against them until they decide that I am peculiar but not particularly harmful. After all, I have been shorn and dress nicely for a tourist. I am not one of those heck forsaken gothics.

The most interesting part of the tour comes across from a Dunkin' Donuts. Beside the doughnut shop stands a tall brick building that had once belonged to a man named Joshua Ward. He was one of the sheriffs responsible for torturing many of the accused, who hardly appreciated his influence since he was infamous for crushing people to confess their crimes. For one reason or another, it was decided that it would be more economical to bury this man under the foundations of the house rather than at the nearby cemetery. I imagine the locals were not terribly fond of him in death. Yet he is not supposed to haunt his house. Instead, according to the story, there is a hag who looks not unlike Tina Turner on a rather bad hair day. Realtors and visitors would occasionally see her, but the most notable occurrence came when a realtor was having her picture taken inside the house. Instead of her face, the hag appeared on the Polaroid. Our tour guide amended that the realtor immediately quit. Yet, despite this haunting, the house did sell to a man who had no interest in ghosts. In fact he said, "If there is a ghost in here, I'll put her to work." The guide acts as though this ended the haunting, but adds that the man does not allow visitors into the house. Instead, he runs his business selling rare books through the building. People rarely see this man, though it is said that your hand will turn numb to touch the foundation even today. I doubted I could convince Emily to return after nightfall, even bribed with a coffee Coolata.

We hit the rest of the available museums before lunch, enjoying a guide, Ansel, who told us of Wicca in the cadence of someone whose mind had wandered away many years ago. "This is a... pentacle... each of its points... is an element." Emily points out that he sounded a great deal like Bananafingers. At another museum, a man picks on Emily to demonstrate the laugh witches have. While he could drag her up to the front of the crowd, she remains tight lipped. "Come on," the man beseeches the crowd, "you want to hear her cackle, right?" Emily looks at everyone before her as they say absolutely nothing to his petitions. By the end of that tour, the guide - very Pagan friendly if not a Pagan himself - catches on that we are witches because we criticize the Wiccan dummies with which we are presented. I feel that I should get points on our scavenger hunt for the fist sized pentacle the female dummy wore, but M denies me.A witch!  And an actress!

The tours were not just a good way to convince us to part with our cash to see wax molds. At the behest of Emily, our first guide, the smiling den mother, explained why there was such a controversy over TVLand's decade long loan of a statue of Samantha Stevens from "Bewitched" to Salem.

"The problem is not with the statue and certainly not with the utterly luminous Elizabeth Montgomery, but with the placement of the statue exactly here. Where you are standing was the well in old Salem and was the gathering place of the residents. Behind where Samantha Stevens now sit is Gallows Hill, where eighteen of the accused were hanged. You can be darned sure they were hanged right there as a warning to the people of the town, who would have to watch their neighbors swaying in the wind. I just think they could have placed the statue somewhere a little less whimsical," she spits this final word with all the venom she could muster.

Emily and I scan the horizon for raised land that would afford a properly threatening view. "How far behind her?" I ask.

"Oh, about a mile and a half diagonally, behind the Peabody Museum," she said. Your fun fact for the day: Salemites once had the visual acuity of eagles before the witch hysteria. No wonder spectral evidence was held in such high regard. If they can make out figure over a mile away, astral bodies were a piece of cake.

We return to our hotel that night with the intent of looking through the provided maps at the front desk to find Gallows Hill. I wander through the book collection in the lobby because I am easily distracted, but end up studying the painting of the Green Man on a nearby doorway.

"You can go in there," an unfamiliar voice says. It is one of the innkeepers and I worry irrationally that I've been caught at something untoward.

"We don't need-" I begin to protest, but Emily cuts me off.

"Do you know how to get to Gallows Hill?"

I freeze. While I appreciate Emily's initiative, I worry that this place is sacred to the residents of Salem as it was to our tour guide. Perhaps there is a vestigial shame in what happened. Or perhaps they are more than willing to indulge the tourists in lucrative ways, but draw the line at nocturnal visitations to the real sites that don't cost anything. The innkeeper, Gina, does nothing to justify my fears.

"That's right behind my apartment," she tells us. "I get off work in ten minutes. Wait around and I'll take you."

Possibly because there were so few tourists off-season or that our money fueled this town, everyone we met acted irrationally nicely toward us. The innkeeper chats about her husband and the ghosts in her faceless apartment as she leads us toward the hill, stopping at a liquor store on her way. I adore the trust she places in us with no reason beyond our renting a room. I truly believe she would have done it even were we more of strangers.

Gina leaves us to our grim task. Emily and I walk up the cement pass through the trees, their branches reaching down at us. Emily tells me I need to go ahead of her because she is not feeling surefooted. Then she revises that it is because this is creepy and I am stupid enough to find it fun. I don't disagree and will do most anything to keep her motivated instead of scared.

Once we crest the hill, we move toward the flagpole that Gina told us was the approximate location of the tree used to hang the accused. It is rather odd to place a flagpole there. I would rather my brutal murder be commemorated with a plaque, but I suppose the dead Puritans were not given much of a choice.

I feel ill equipped to do justice to the sight before us. How does one put such a thing into intelligible words? I'm positive there will be more than a few skeptics reading this account and I want to keep everything as factual and objective as possible.Oooh!  Orbs!

Gallows Hill is a playground. There is a large basketball court covered in the standard, spray painted graffiti. There are swings, some of which are rusted or missing. There is a broken water fountain. There may be a slide, I don't recall. A dozen yards from the flagpole is a gazebo. A dozen yards further are houses with vinyl siding. This might as well be Gallows Hill Elementary School, which I later discover is really what the primary school is called.

Emily takes a few pictures, any orbs easily written off as droplets of drizzle. The only frightening thing is that this should be the biggest draw in the town, the actually place where the cashco... accused witches were hanged, and it is an anonymous park. I would have settled for some Satanic graffiti, but the complete absence of any recognition is the most chilling aspect of this place. Do the stoner teens we pass as we leave the area even care what happened up there?

Despite our uneventful night, I feel accomplished. True, we didn't find anything worth seeing and certainly nothing worth the misty walk, but we tried and were brave. Emily does not agree with me. She doesn't feel accomplished, she feel terrified. She does not sleep that night in the hotel, though I drop off in minutes. Every time she closes her eyes, she sees the ghost of a frizzy haired hag from Joshua Ward's house.

Soon in Xenology: Tears on a cheek of a man.

last watched: Death of a President
reading: The Color Purple
listening: Reprieve

Thomm Quackenbush is an author and teacher in the Hudson Valley. Double Dragon publishes four novels in his Night's Dream series (We Shadows, Danse Macabre, and Artificial Gods, and Flies to Wanton Boys). He has sold jewelry in Victorian England, confused children as a mad scientist, filed away more books than anyone has ever read, and tried to inspire the learning disabled and gifted. He is capable of crossing one eye, raising one eyebrow, and once accidentally groped a ghost. When not writing, he can be found biking, hiking the Adirondacks, grazing on snacks at art openings, and keeping a straight face when listening to people tell him they are in touch with 164 species of interstellar beings. He likes when you comment.



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