The winter of 1692 was a tough time to stand out in the crowd in Salem, Mass. A silly group of bored young women in that Puritan settlement had convinced themselves they were suffering persecution from witches.
The insanity spread until almost anyone in the tiny community could be accused, imprisoned and put to death.
The odder you were, the more likely you were to be labelled a witch. In reality, none of the people executed during that horrifying year had practiced witchcraft, and it's unlikely that Salem had any actual witches at the time.
Today, however, Salem is home to real practitioners of witchcraft -- and they're valued members of the community, offering psychic readings in shops bursting with witchy gear -- crystals, Tarot cards, incense and more.
One of Salem's best-known witches is Lori Bruno. Dressed in flowing black robes, her long black hair piled on her head like a Spanish queen, dozens of amulets around her neck and her fingers festooned with rings, Lori is striking.
And she's anything but scary. I know, because she had dinner with my husband and me.
Lori's voice is lively, and her accent is pure New York City. She laughs and jokes and exudes the kind of genuine caring you would expect from a grandmother -- which she is. Lori is also a mother, a wife, a sister and, it seems, a friend to everyone who walks through the doors of Magika, her shop where she practices witchcraft, her religion.
Her conversation is a fascinating mix of clever wisecracks, other-worldly intuitions about the person she's speaking to and sudden bursts of incantation, as she invokes support and guidance from the spirit world. Lori says she's always in touch with the hereafter -- that's how she operates, as a conduit between this world and the next.
It can go both ways, Lori explains. "Sometimes, clients will tell me they need to get in touch with someone who's passed and I make that connection. Sometimes, it's a spirit who contacts me first, looking for someone who's still alive."
Given that spirits aren't necessarily tied to a particular location, I ask how she manages to find the person who's being sought.
"I don't know," she says with a grin, "but it always happens. It might take a day or two, but ultimately, that person will come through my door."
In addition to making those connections, Lori also does psychic readings and performs exorcisms.
"Mostly," she says, "the exorcisms are to banish spirits from houses. If someone dies an unhappy death, he or she may be tied to that place so I command them to leave." The process can be exhausting, but she says it has never failed. "I'm good at what I do."
In fact, I'd say Lori is just plain good. Though committed to her beliefs, she has family members who follow various religions, from a salad bowl of ethnic backgrounds and sexual orientations, and Lori accepts them all. Though she charges for her services and is considered one of Salem's most popular witches, Lori won't accept payment from those who can't afford her help.
When Halloween rolls around, Lori's faith is sorely tested as bus-loads of hard-line religious protesters descend on Salem. Lori stands patiently outside Magika, as they hurl insults and prophesy that evil witches will burn in hell.
Imagining that storm of hatred pelting a gentle woman, you have to wonder -- just who is evil?
FOUR SCARY WAYS TO CELEBRATE HALLOWEEN IN SALEM
1. Have a psychic reading: Whether it's done using crystals or Tarot cards, a psychic reading will open your mind to the possibilities of the spirit world.
2. Visit the Salem Witch Museum: Displays and a well-written "show" will give you an understanding not only of the events of 1692 that led to the execution of 19 "witches" but also of similar instances of mass hysteria and prejudice that have been the cause of other outrages throughout history. See salemwitchmuseum.com.
3. Sit on the jury: Look for the cast of Cry Innocent, a live, interactive theatre performance that takes place several times a day. When the costumed characters run through the streets, encouraging you to join the jury at the trial of Goody Bridget Bishop, join in. You'll hear the evidence against the accused witch and vote on her guilt or innocence. See cryinnocentsalem.com.
4. Spend a Spooky Night: Nathaniel Hawthorne Hotel is ranked fourth on the list of America's most haunted hotels. Though the lovely heritage property doesn't advertise its dubious honour, it's common knowledge that the sixth floor is the place to be -- if you're a ghost or a ghost hunter! See hawthornehotel.com.