A few months after his release, Damien Echols walks into a bank. It's his first time in one since he was 18 years old. He needs to make a deposit. Dressed in black, blue-tinted glasses on his face, Echols picks up a deposit slip and holds it in his fingers. What are all these boxes? What are you supposed to write? Where are you supposed to write it? What's my account number? What am I supposed to do? Echols puts himself in line, a few people in front of him, doing their business the way they have a hundred times before, money in and out, classic errand. His heart quickens. The pores on his scalp open; a prickle of sweat begins on his forehead, the back of his legs. He rushes from the bank, experiences the rest of his panic attack outside on the sidewalk.
In prison, Echols became a Red Sox fan. "Like this place is the epitome of autumn," he says of Salem, "the Red Sox came to be the embodiment of baseball. They're so enriched with history and tradition." And the characters, he said, such oddballs: Papelbon, Varitek. Underdogdom is appealing. So is breaking a curse.
So the first thing he wanted to do when he was released — the first thing — was to go to Fenway and see the Sox play. While he was here, he tacked on a side trip to Salem.
Echols had learned about the witch trials in middle school, American history, the way everyone does. "West Memphis is the second Salem," says an 18-year-old Echols in the HBO documentary.
"I'm all for burning them at the stake," says a father of one of the murdered boys of Echols and his friends. "Like they did in Salem."
Before Salem became a figure of speech, before the Wiccan boutiques and haunted tours and psychic shops, before the silhouette of a witch on a broomstick marked the front doors of all the cop cars, before Gallows Hill had a basketball court on it, before Salem cashed in on its past, Disneyfied it, made it palatable and appealing to tourists and teenagers and pagans, a dark and inexplicable frenzy took hold in this old seaport town. It started with three young girls.
Winter, 1692, and nine-year-old Elizabeth Parris, daughter of a reverend, her cousin, 11-year-old Abigail Williams, and their friend Ann Putnam, age 12, started acting weird. The adults claimed they were possessed, that the devil was afoot. Accusations erupted; trials were held. Over a hundred were accused; those accused were not allowed legal counsel. Nineteen people were hanged on Gallows Hill. One man was crushed to death under the weight of stones.
When the hysteria lifted, apologies were offered, monuments erected, money made. Out of something very bad, lessons, infamy, fame.
On that first visit to Salem, Echols took a ghost-walk tour. The tour guide "was talking about the witch hangings," Echols says, "and he said, 'That's why Massachusetts is such a blue state now, because we learned our lesson from that.' "
That sentence struck Echols hard. "It already happened here once," he goes on. "They learned from their mistakes. They won't do it again."
He and Davis plan to live there the rest of their lives.