American History Hex: The Salem Time Machine

October 11, 2015 — There are a lot of ways to tell the fascinating story of Salem. The Salem Time Machine does it as a glow-in-the-dark 3D horror story.

“It’s just a history of Salem. Wax figures and such, I’m sure. Salem loves wax museums,” I told my five-year-old daughter as she warily eyed the haunted house façade of its shop front. “They just glow in the dark and are 3D in this one.”

“Everything’s already 3D,” she answered.

I wasn’t quite sure how to explain the concept of 3D paint to her. And I honestly did think it was just a Day-Glo history story. After all, the tagline on its sign was “3D Walk-Thru Adventure into Salem’s Past.” I didn’t read too much into the rest of its exterior because, well, every other business in Salem looks like a haunted house this time of year. Also, because the temporary signage festooned across the entrance was advertising its October weekend incarnation when, like many of the attractions in Salem, the place transmographies into an actual haunted house with actors hiding among the shadows and the colors and the 3D effects.

But we weren’t going there on the weekend. So we slid on our 3D glasses and headed through the curtain. And over the course of 10 small, but psychedelic rooms, we were told the story of such hash marks on Salem’s timeline as the Great Salem Fire of 1914, its golden age of maritime trade, its role in the underground railroad, and, of course, the Salem Witch Trials. Every so often a “time machine” sound told us when to break the laws of physics and continue through a curtain to the next moment in Salem History.

Except that in this version of Salem’s past, every character—be they victim, villain, or hero—was a multi-colored monster, every scene a kaleidoscopic dark carnival. And it was all lorded over by a narrator straight out of an old-time horror movie trailer. It was the kind of place that could give history teachers heart attacks.

The tableaus surrounded us on all sides. There was no place to stand without a neon fiend at our backs. And every once in a while, one of them moved. Not in the frantic haunted house way, more like in the gentle Halloween lawn decorations kind of way. The 3D effect of the paint was pleasantly discombobulating. I might need to paint a room in my house with it. Thinking about the foyer.

So it was more like a spooky funhouse. No startles, just creepy. One of those places some people will find unredeemably cheesy and others will find the apex of awesome. You can find it yourself at 131 Essex Street, close to where the Pedestrian Mall starts on the Hawthorne Boulevard side. Maybe think twice about taking your five-year-old in there. Or at least lying to her about what it is before going in.

Or just do what I did and interpret her long silence during and after as a deep-felt awe of history.