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Leering Legends and Brown Bags

The leering legends of witchcraft and wizardry that attract thousands of tourists to Salem, Massachusetts every year captivated a full audience during the Center for Women and Gender’s Brown Bag Discussion Thursday afternoon.

Speaker Dr. Jeannie Thomas, the head of Utah State University’s English Department, skillfully entranced the crowd with the tale of Salem’s haunting history. “I’m going to take you to Salem, Massachusetts,” she said. “And we’re going to do a little legend tripping.”

What is legend tripping? According to Dr. Thomas, it’s exactly what is sounds like.

“When you hear a legend you think, ‘That sounds kind of interesting, I think I’d really like to take a trip there,’ and you do,” she said.

Isn’t that the basis of all tourism? Someone hears a story; they go somewhere to engage with that story; and then they come back to narrate that story to family and friends, which in turn engages more people to visit that place.

When you live in Salem, however, the haunting history of witchcraft and hysteria are stories you can’t run from. “Those in Salem can’t escape the witches,” Thomas said. “They’re everywhere.”

Because the town, haunted by it’s eerie past, immediately invokes thoughts mysterious possession, immoral actions, and unjust murder, people gravitate toward it Thomas said. They feed off the unsettling weirdness.

This is the exact appeal of St. Anne’s Retreat – a deserted nunnery quietly nestled in the canyon of Logan, Utah. Though the location of the nunnery is considered private property, it doesn’t stop curious students or fascinated tourists from seeking it out.

Why? Because of the sinful and somewhat disturbing history that surrounds it. According to local folklore, St. Anne’s Retreat served as a hidden place where nuns and priests would engage in sexual intercourse and drown their newborn babies.

Invasive narratives such as the Salem Witch Trials and St. Anne’s Retreat fuel much of the tourism during this spooky time of year. The only drawback? The large audiences that are intrigued by them.

“Though the town of Salem relies on its commercialized focus on witches to support its economy, parking becomes the nightmare of the locals during the month of October,” Dr. Thomas said.

So if you find yourself seeking the thrill of the supernatural during this haunted holiday, read Dr. Thomas’ book Haunting Ghost Experiences in Contemporary Folklore, which hits on topics ranging from Japanese ghost legends to the Buffistas and Twihards of Vampire fanlore. You can also safely (and legally) explore St. Anne’s retreat through USU’s digital exhibit.

To find out when other Brown Bag Discussions will take place, visit our calendar or follow us on Facebook. Happy Halloween!

By: Kayla Watanabe