Festival of the Dead in Salem, Massachusetts
 

North Shore Sunday reporter Dinah Cardin explores the mystery and magic of Salem’s first annual Festival of the Dead:

Knocking 'em dead?
By Dinah Cardin
North Shore Sunday, Thursday, October 30, 2003, Front Page

A funky, irreverent 'celebration' of death inaugurated its first edition in Salem this year - but not without a few spooky speed bumps.
Just when local officials were beginning to feel safe that Salem's Halloween festivities were headed in a more family-friendly direction, those mischievous witches have gone and shaken things up again.

The witches concede it's been a cauldron's worth of work to consecrate this first annual Festival of the Dead, a 10-day celebration of our own deaths and of those who've already crossed into the next world.

So much for pumpkins, cornhusks and trick or treating.

The masterminds behind the Festival of the Dead are shrewd. They have to be, they say, in waging a constant battle to market Salem as a spooky witch city that celebrates Halloween 365 days a year, rather than what they claim is some local officials' current mission to spin Salem as a quaint maritime village.

The whole idea behind the fledgling yearly Festival of the Dead is to show mere powerless mortals what the Halloween season is really all about: taking the time to contemplate mortality, poking fun at it (even if for a moment), confronting personal fears of death and emerging on Nov. 1 the stronger for it.

As Shawn Poirer, high priest of the Salem Witches, puts it: "Death is the most ardent lover we will ever have who pursues us relentlessly, until the day he can embrace us in his cold arms. From the moment we are born, death pursues us more than any lover. Sometimes it stalks. Sometimes he comes too soon and his greed and haste will cut a life short. Or when he sees an old body that's been here too long, he will kiss that person and transform them to the next world."

Oh, and did we mention the festival is way sexy? An easy concept to grasp from the look and feel of the Web site (www.festivalofthedead.com). For those who don't like having their wits scared out of them, there's always the S&M side to the Witches Ball and the Vampires and Victims Ball, where corsets, leather collars and "slave auctions" titillate, if not terrify.

The more spiritual side of the festival, however, is about embracing the darkness and bringing it to the surface to again see the light.

"We sleep in the dark," says Poirier. "The dark can be a terrifying place if we're not aware of our surroundings. The dark gives you solace and a time for rejuvenation. That's what Salem is - allowing the darkness to take you over and strengthen the soul."

The politics of haunting
Festival organizers generally agree that Salem's Haunted Happenings has dwindled in substance with each passing year, leaving visitors wondering why they traveled to Salem in the first place. With a diverse sprinkling of posters advertising the festival about town, the group pokes at Haunted Happenings with one slogan that reads: "Here's a happening that's really haunted."

Dissention among the ranks is almost always the name of the game in Salem - the Wiccans not approving of those who practice darker witchcraft, and those so accused, in turn, countering that the Wiccans are too tame. Many residents dislike the "kitschy witchy" side of the shops altogether. And specific to the festival, certain witches, area organizations and town officials have expressed doubt about this whole honoring-dead-folks thing.

Propped up inside a gauzy tent at Pickering Wharf's Crystal Moon shop, local witch Christian Day takes time from doing psychic readings to relay the ongoing battle with the town.

He begins by saying a town official recently told him that the people he and his friends bring to town are "T-shirt wearing zeros." Day thinks the town's mantra of "a quaint and beautiful maritime village" is overdone on the North Shore.

Day, who studied political science at Brandeis, explains that he often dresses very un-witchy in Old Navy and Structure duds. Lately, he sports a top hat and black frilly shirt, black eye liner, face glitter and skull rings on his hands.

"Shawn said this is the year I find my inner witch - I put this together and now I look like something from `A Christmas Carol,'" he rolls his eyes theatrically.

Witch history, however, is unique, Day says. Making it particularly meaningful when witches walk down the streets of a city that once put people to death in the name of "witch."

Salem's Bob Murch, creator of a local Salem spirit board game, agrees.

"People aren't coming to Salem to see the Friendship (the local historic ship)," he says. "They are coming to see the witches."

The city has become a single slice of pie, he adds, that everyone perceives as way too small.

"They are pushing each other out and silencing the witches' party when there's enough for everyone," says Murch.

Festival organizers feel they've gotten a major runaround by the town, claiming the rules changed daily about whether they were permitted to hang banners on Old Town Hall or use certain kinds of signs to advertise.

"I have to talk to this person who has to talk to this person who has to talk to that person and we'll call you back," says Day. "They don't come out and say we hate what you're doing, but they let it be known in a subtle way. It's a battle to fight the city. It's horrible to feel like they don't want you here."

It must be that examining death is just not something the town officials want to do, Day says.

"They may not know the specifics of the events, but they understand it's a festival of the dead and they are afraid of death," offers Day. "We're ripping the Band-Aid off and saying, hey, look at this. It shows them that despite all their wealth and grandness, they will die."

But in the end, no matter the dramas, says Day, when it mattered, the Old Town Hall proved to be the perfect place for last weekend's Psychic Fair - the marathon tarot readings and setup of witchy vendor booths easy and effortless.

However, there have been other hardcore obstacles.

Festival organizers had to scramble to move an event because they heard the state chapter of the Knights of Columbus threatened to pull the local chapter's charter if a scheduled festival event called "Death and Rebirth - Ritual Transformation" took place at the chapter hall on Nov. 1. This came as a shock, since the hall has often been rented for witch events, says Day.

Catholic-related chat rooms buzzed with discussion condemning the festival the past couple of weeks with messages like this one found on a Web site for young Catholic hipsters called www.phatmass.com: "Can you say `Satanic Ritual' being held in a hall run by CATHOLIC men who should KNOW BETTER!!!!????!??!??!"

Organizers hesitated to reveal the event's new venue to anyone but ticket holders, for fear someone would try to stand in the way of it again. They received numerous phone calls and e-mails, says Day, from people claiming to have tickets, in hopes of sabotaging the evening dedicated to undergoing a transformative "death," to surrender that which needs left behind, only to awaken refreshed, perhaps with a bonus healthy glow.

Their trouble first began when Destination Salem, a non-profit agency made up of local businesses, refused the festival's $250 membership fee to join and receive advertising benefits, claiming the event didn't fit into the "cultural mission statement." Festival organizers asked the agency what culture has escaped death.

The agency's director, Carole Thistle, had no other comment other than to say the board voted to turn festival organizers down.

"I knew I was going to fight with the city," says Day. "I knew I was going to fight (`Official Witch of Salem' Laurie) Cabot. I never knew I was going to fight the office of tourism."

In a single day, the group went out and crafted a navigable, competing Web site www.hauntedsalem.com, as a place where Salem businesses could advertise for free. The site promotes Halloween every day of the year, a theme for this group, which doesn't want to see Halloween trinkets replaced with maritime trinkets every Nov. 1.

Eternal staying power
Some witches associated with the festival have been dreaming big, and they're planning to give those dreams wings. Don't expect the kiddies to be left out of the fun, for example.

A goal of the festival next year is to teach a class to help children deal with the death of loved ones and ... drum roll please ... to host a school for youngsters to learn the techniques of mediumship. "Raven Moon's School of Witchcraft and Mediumship" would teach children ages 8 to 13 how to summon spirits and reconnect with their dead ancestors. Poirier says, think Harry Potter on steroids.

"No one has ever taught children to open their spirits and allow grandma to come in and speak," he says. "In Salem most children are taught to make fairy wands and wear glitter dust."

These witches are more marketing geniuses than Dungeons and Dragons castoffs. Festival organizers have brains, relentless grit, education, Web skills and youth on their side. In addition to putting on the festival, each of the three central planners has at least a dozen other pet projects going on concurrently.

Day, a former dot-com wiz kid, is responsible for the festival's swanky Web site, as well as Poirier's site, where one can have a psychic reading using automated Paypal. Day is also the marketer and Web designer for Murch's Cryptique, the local Salem spirit board game, and Day hosts his own site called Salem Tarot. Like a true techie, Day is concerned with making sure his slick sites show up on Page 1 of Google searches.

Playing to their individual strengths and keeping it in the family is what it's all about for these guys. Murch praises Poirier and Day for marketing Salem's Halloween with more savvy than ever.

Poirier, well spoken even in the most spontaneous of situations, is the idea guy and the face of the group. Day describes Poirier - an imposing dark figure, with long dark hair and witchy long fingernails - as just what people want to see when they visit Salem in October. He's the "razzle dazzle" people are looking for, Day says, referring to "Chicago," one of many Broadway analogies he employs.

"When tourists come here they want to see a 400-watt light bulb. Shawn's a 400-watt light bulb," says Day. "I'm probably a 200."

Selling scary
Murch and Day are scary-good PR guys, with Day specializing on the details. The group massages the media like pros. With Poirier often fronting, together they have appeared on a Showtime special, the Travel Channel, in Playboy Magazine and the list goes on.

Along with a collection of other talented friends, until now they've been basically unorganized, known as Shawn, Christian, Bob and their musical friend, Poirier's roommate and "sorcerer of song," Teisan Russell, formally of the Salem-based band Coven 13. But the festival gives these characters a staging mechanism.

Thanks to another friend who has professional printing capabilities, festival organizers can churn out their brochures with blitzkrieg speed. They outsource almost nothing.

When met with the office of tourism's frosty reception, the festival couldn't contribute to the tourism and marketing meetings among the members of Destination Salem. But fortuitous diversification, owing to the fact Cryptique is a member, offers Day and Murch a voice. A loophole navigated.

"We may be young, we're not 50 or rich, but we have reach," says Day. "We develop products that have reach and we have the media."

Very little, it seems, can keep these witches under wraps. It's worth the effort, says Day, if the witches can take Halloween back and start a regular tradition with the festival.

"We're doing it our way," says Day. "We've always done our way ... by necessity."

But as much as witches love drama, this is a happy story. A certain level of cooperation from all sides is permeating the atmosphere, say festival organizers.

In the examination of mortality and death, all the spooks are getting involved, from Wiccans to voodoo priestesses to vampires with filed teeth, constantly on the hunt for eternal life. Though these factions have not always played well together in Salem, they are seeking commonality under the collective umbrella of the new festival and by looking death square in the face.

The famed Witches Ball and several of these events have always welcomed brave members of the public. But not like this. The Dumb Supper, rumored to have piqued the interest of music channel VH1, is a silent dinner where spirits are conjured and where, supposedly, a scheduled surprise at the end will have people talking for the next year.

So why would the witches want to share their way of life and secrets so openly?

"If a secret is kept too long in a closet it withers and dies," says Poirer.

Something they simply won't allow their new festival to do.



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