Letting Witches Be Witches in Salem

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Joe Raedle / Getty

A witch costume is displayed on a mannequin in Salem, Massachusetts.

Should you find your way up to Salem, Mass., this Halloween season, your chances of encountering a psychic are up — and the odds that that he or she has a felony record are down. That, for those of you who were too drowned in multimedia Harry Potter to notice, is the news from the real town where some estimate every tenth person is a witch.

In June, the Salem town council eased its rules on fortune tellers — or, to be more specific, those locals who are engaged in "the telling of fortunes, forecasting of futures, or reading the past, by means of any occult, psychic power, faculty, force, clairvoyance, cartomancy, psychometry, phrenology, spirits, tea leaves, tarot cards, scrying, coins, sticks, dice, coffee grounds, crystal gazing or other such reading, or through mediumship, seership, prophecy, augury, astrology, palmistry, necromancy, mind-reading, telepathy or other craft, art, science, talisman, charm, potion, magnetism, magnetized article or substance, or by any such similar thing or act."

Salem may have been where witches were once tried and executed by puritans, but — thanks to the magic of branding — it has since become a mecca for witches and others involved in the occult arts, as well as for tourists. Around a hundred thousand tourists descend on the town every Halloween season.

In fact, the new regulatory changes are an indication of growth in the witchcraft industry. In 1998, the last time the town addressed the issue, it had legislated a quota allowing only one professional fortune-teller per 10,000 Salem residents. That amounted to roughly three psychics, although another nine or so were grandfathered in. The city council also licensed some psychic stores, which were allowed to subcontract to five fortune-telling workers apiece.

Enforcement, however, was lax. And the ordinance did not take into account several large "psychic fairs," run by Salemites but often staffed by out-of-towners, that breezed in yearly to take advantage of high season. These events infuriated several of the store owners. Says Barbara Szafranski, owner of the shop Angelica of Angels, "Why should [a fair owner] come in and make fifty grand in one flush when we spend all year trying to get close to that?"

In 2005, says Sylvia Martinez, owner of The Goddess's Treasure Chest, several of the merchants complained to the council that the fairs stole their business during "haunted happenings season." They asked it to shut down unlicensed psychics and draw up guidelines of psychic ethics and quality. ("What are the criteria?" the Salem News reported a baffled councilwoman as asking.) One Salem police officer testified about a scam whereby adepts detected a "dark aura" around a tourist and then charged as much as $5,000 to remove it.

The council's June 14 revision was something of a compromise. It removed the cap on licenses, but it also made getting one more difficult. Applicants have to submit a five-year employment and educational history. The town reserves the right to determine whether any consumer complaints have been filed against applicants, to investigate any criminal and probationary record, to revoke licenses, and to impose fines of up to $100. The new statute also affirmed the right to hold psychic fairs.

Not everyone is happy about the revision, and passions run high. Laurie Cabot, whom then Governor Michael Dukakis once named the "official witch of Salem," has reportedly made common cause with some of the store owners in complaining that the new rules will increase the quantity and decrease the quality of psychics. In the period between the last public meeting about the statute and its passage, the Salem News reported that someone had left a raccoon skull and intestines in front of two of the stores, a gesture many involved in the controversy seem to think was part of an attempt at "dark magic."

"This isn't being put to rest," says Szafranski, of Angelica of Angels. She says she and the other owners will be back at the Council's door. But not until November, she says. Halloween preparations have already begun.