SALEM — Reader, forgive me: It’s Halloween, and I’m writing about witches. Groping for seasonal resonance is a newspaperly instinct; you can almost set your watch to it. I could have written about this show any time since it opened a month ago. I didn’t. Now you know why.
That said, my timing is really the only predictable thing about “The Salem Witch Trials: Reckoning and Reclaiming,” now on view at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem. The museum’s perch in the hometown of an enduringly infamous episode of baseless persecution — has any other yielded its own metaphor? — makes witch-hunting exhibitions simply part of its DNA. Revisiting the subject, evergreen as it may be — witness the costumed throngs parading up and down Essex Street, the town’s pedestrian promenade, day and night, all October long — can be a wearying pursuit. How to refresh, year after year? And given the built-in demand, any old warmed-over offering might sell tickets just as well.
I’m happy to report that the museum takes the issue to heart. PEM, fundamentally, is the steward of a stark and somber archive. Its store of documents and objects from the time of the Salem Witch Trials, a period spanning not even a year — from June 1692 to March 1693 — number about 500, an accretion that suggests a ferocious pace of accusation and consequence. In that whirlwind, some 400 people were implicated in the ungodly practice of witchery. Twenty-five men, women, and children were put to death for it.
The exhibition, compact but potent, is a sober antidote to the quasi-pagan revelry outside the museum doors. The first small gallery, its walls cloaked in dark aubergine, shimmers in low light with the bleak resonance of a disturbed tomb. It contains mostly fragments: remnants of lives upended and families torn apart by the suspicions of neighbors and friends. The fine ivory-handled walking stick of Philip English is propped upright in a glowing vitrine, a pale avatar of loss: English’s merchant wealth was no shield from accusations of witchcraft in 1692, which forced him and his wife, Mary, to flee the comforts of their life in Salem for the New York colony, where they waited out their trial. They came home when the witch-hunting hysteria abated, but they never recouped the property that was seized on their arrest.
The Englishes were the lucky ones. John Proctor, a wealthy farmer and tavern owner, was accused in April 1692. Proctor had decried the entire hysteria, calling it out as a fabrication and sham. When the accusations turned to him, he was just as defiant. During his trial, the three girls who said he had bewitched them claimed to see his disembodied spirit about the courtroom. He was convicted and put to death; his wife, Elizabeth, also convicted, was spared only because she was pregnant; she gave birth in prison.
You might know Proctor’s story from “The Crucible,” Arthur Miller’s 1953 play about the trials, and the movie that followed in 1996. There are no theatrics here, but the objects and documents from that very time and place — a sundial owned by Proctor himself and no doubt touched by his hand; a petition signed by dozens of his neighbors vouching for his character as Proctor sat in prison, awaiting his fate — give off a contact high that I found more powerful than any storytelling. Here were the shreds of a life ended without evidence, or justification, by suspicion and fear. The installation — columns of light, shrouded in shadow — is both reverent and ominous, a memorial and a warning. False claims were quick, easy, and loaded with consequence; a lesson with clear resonance today.
“Reckoning and Reclaiming” tells old stories in new ways, breathing life into objects freighted with loss carried forward through the ages. They are material and tactile emblems of how wrong things can go when lie supplants truth, amplified by paranoia and rage — a cautionary tale for our own times. But the exhibition also situates itself in the present, acknowledging the radioactive half-life of a moment long ago.
Wisely, it elides the frivolities of popular culture — no Sabrina, Samantha, or Halliwell sisters here — in favor of real connections. One of those revisits the late fashion designer Alexander McQueen’s revelation that he was related to Elizabeth How, hanged in Salem in 1692. A bout of family history research in Salem in 2006 led to McQueen dedicating his autumn/winter 2007 collection to her; the gowns and runway videos here inject the exhibition with a vitality of remembrance, honoring the dead with vibrant, creative life.
The final gallery is thoughtfully plainspoken, hung with Frances F. Denny’s frank and stoic portraits of contemporary self-identified witches. Denny calls the series, which connects contemporary practice to old ways, “Major Arcana: Witches in America.” The title refers to the central cards of the tarot deck, a significant source of occult belief; Denny’s straightforward portraits also elide theatricality to situate her subjects as unexceptional in the vast spectrum of faith, as they should be.
The passing show outside on Essex Street is a world apart. Eschewing Halloween pageantry, the show works a strange magic of being dutiful and captivating at once. A text on PEM’s website declares its mission as stewards of the archive “to (tell) this important story in new ways,” and “to honor the victims ... and explore themes of tolerance and persecution that are timeless and relevant to today.” With “Reckoning and Reclaiming,” it does.
THE SALEM WITCH TRIALS: RECKONING AND RECLAIMING Through March 20, Peabody Essex Museum, 161 Essex Street, Salem. 978-745-9500, pem.org