In his short time here, Echols has come to recognize a dividing line in Salem between those who embrace its history and those who want to forget it. "You even see bumper stickers — Salem's future does not lie in its past, crap like that," Echols says. "You're kidding yourself if you think you can just cover something that powerful up." To forget it, to deny it, is to risk repeating it. Echols picked a place to live where witch hunts are more than a metaphor.
Salem calls to people, Echols says today. "It calls to people who feel disenfranchised, people who feel discriminated against, people who feel like they don't fit in anywhere else. It's the one place in the world where I'm in the majority."
It's less than two weeks before Halloween, and Essex Street, the pedestrian strip and tourist hub in the heart of Salem, crackles with witchy commerce. Booths line the brick-and-cobblestoned way, selling haunted tours and custom Dracula fangs, New Age equipment, wigs and masks and flower garlands. There are tourists in long capes, peaked witch hats, zombie make-up. A sandwich board announces Shalimar the Spiritual Advisor.
Gina DiBenedetto, with wavy blonde hair and eyelashes like wings, sells jewelry and spell candles from a booth outside the Broom Closet on the upper part of pedestrian Essex Street. Her eyes are a pink-lavender, with a cream-colored center. "Contacts," she says. "Barbie pink." The effect is enchanting. She is likable, the sort of person who pulls you in with an immediate sense of intimacy. She says she came to Salem after the death of her daughter in a house fire.
Does she know who Damien Echols is?
"I was obsessed with the case," she says. "Saw all the movies, researched it. I studied forensic psychology in college. It's funny that you ask — he was at this booth two weeks ago." She points to the bracelet he was looking at, a large gold colored skull bracelet with eyes made of sparkly black jewels. "He was standing right there by the scarecrow. I recognized him and said, 'It's Damien Echols.' He went racing off down the street with his long trench coat flowing behind him." She shakes her head. "I was very disappointed to hear he was released."
She won't come out and say he's guilty. "Let's just say I think there was involvement," she says. "There are too many contradictions. I can't explain it. It was just in my gut the whole time."
"There is black magic," she says. "I don't practice it." She pauses. "It does involve sacrifices. But I wouldn't know."
She says her daughter had been interested in Echols too, before she died, and even wrote Echols a letter while he was in prison. "It wasn't a very nice letter," DiBenedetto says. "If she had seen him here, she would've chased him down the street."
Suspicion has followed him, even in this place of refuge. Gut feelings and shadows of doubt ghost around him still, even in Witch City.
One of the candles on the table has a binding spell written on it: "No more harm shall come to me/From your grasp . . . I AM FREE."