WICKED SALEM PROFILE: THOMAS O’BRIEN VALLOR
“We have a problem with the way that most modern 'ghost hunters' are disrespectful toward the dead.”
—Thomas O’Brien Vallor, Salem Witch
By Sam Baltrusis
When it comes to the twisted representations of the witch-on-broom stereotypes perpetuated by Salem’s tourism machine, Thomas O’Brien Vallor has seen it all. “I don't find it to be annoying or offensive like a lot of people do because I have seen the industry from the inside out,” the Salem-based Witch (capital W) told me.
It’s the ghost hunters on TV that really stir his cauldron.
He’s the first to point out why the city’s contemporary pagan population is wary of the typical “aggressive male approach” on programs like Ghost Adventures and formerly Ghost Hunters. “To a Witch, the paranormal is normal and the supernatural is natural,” Vallor said, paraphrasing a quote passed down by his elders.
Vallor contends that the paranormal personalities featured on television don’t respect those who have passed. “We believe that the dead are around us at all times so the idea of ‘ghosts’ as the souls of people who are trapped on Earth doesn’t align with our beliefs,” Vallor explained. "We have a problem with the way that most modern 'ghost hunters' are disrespectful toward the dead.”
As far as the ways paranormal investigators are being disrespectful, the Salem Witch Walk tour guide said it’s a long list. “First of all, they don't have the right intention in their heart,” Vallor said. “Some might not respect the true history of the area or understand who actually lived here or what happened here. They’ll needlessly focus on traumatic things and sensationalize people's personal lives,” he continued. “When a Witch communicates with the dead, it’s with the utmost respect.”
Vallor has a point.
For example, paranormal investigators wanted access to the city’s Witch House, the last structure standing in Salem with direct ties to the witch-trials hysteria of 1692. Home of judge Jonathan Corwin, a magistrate with the Court of Oyer and Terminer, which sent nineteen to the gallows, the Corwin House dates back to 1675 and is an icon of America’s tortured past.
Access to the house was denied for years. Members from the Park and Recreation Commission thought it would be in poor taste to investigate the Corwin dwelling. “We have to have respect for the gravity of the injustice that occurred in 1692,” responded board member Chris Burke. “This is sort of a touchy subject,” said Elizabeth Peterson, director of the house. “We want people to be aware that we’re not a Salem witch attraction.”
In 2011, the governing board apparently changed their minds and allowed the crew from the Travel Channel’s Ghost Adventures to set up an overnight lockdown. When Zak Bagans, Aaron Goodwin and Nick Groff walked into the Witch House, all hell broke loose.
“In broad daylight with [Witch House director] Elizabeth Peterson and talking to her, things got really weird,” Groff told the Boston Herald. “Zak was filming and the batteries on his wireless mic kept dying. There was some sort of energy causing his batteries to die. We felt something weird, felt cold and then the batteries died.”
The Ghost Adventures team fought for years to gain access to the historic property. “We’ve already captured a voice and we just stepped into the house to start talking about history,” Groff continued. “I think we’re going to be in for a long night of finding paranormal activity.”
The crew supposedly picked up a child humming and an EVP of Bridget Bishop, who named “Mary” as her accuser. She kept repeating the word “apple.” In Christian Day’s The Witches’ Book of the Dead, he claimed to have summoned Bishop’s spirit away from her usual post at the Lyceum. “I didn’t want anyone living or dead to steal the spotlight from the Witch House,” he wrote. “The team mentioned recording some strong activity on the second floor, but their machines really started to get going once we arrived. Real Witches are magnets for the dead,” he said, adding that he performed a necromantic blessing in the house, which included a blood offering.
Groff, who left Ghost Adventures 2014 and is now featured on Paranormal Lockdown, told me that the Essex Street haunt was a historical goldmine. “The location, the Witch House, is just absolutely awesome. To be able to walk back in time, regardless of the paranormal activity that’s actually occurring there, it’s just cool to step foot on those wood floors and experience the environment of what it could have been like,” he told me. “You’re almost stepping back in time. Whatever paranormal stuff that happens there is a plus to me. It’s a cool place.”
In hindsight, Peterson said she has mixed feelings about the investigation. “Personally, I was very uncomfortable doing it. I love this sort of thing, so it wasn’t the subject matter,” Peterson told me. “They were lovely kids, but I don’t think they were a good match for the house. When they were off camera, they were very different. When their camera started running out of batteries, they did pick up a child humming. My first response was shock. My second, as a mother, is that it saddens me that there may be a child’s spirit here that I wasn’t sensitive to or was unaware of in the house.”
Peterson believes the EVP captured on Ghost Adventures was questionable. However, she’s not saying the Witch House is free of residual energy. “There were eleven deaths in this house up until 1719,” she said. “Enormous amounts of human drama unfolded in these rooms. My son thinks he’s seen things, and I think I’ve heard things.”
When Wicked Salem questioned Vallor about Christian Day’s use of blood on Ghost Adventures, he bit back. “I don't think that Christian’s blood ritual was disrespectful at all,” Vallor said. “He has a lot of respect for Bridget Bishop and did a lot of work with her. If you think it's disrespectful, then you don’t have a misunderstanding of blood magic.”
As far as Salem’s “coven of commercialism” disrespecting its past, Vallor believes it’s an underlying tension that has existed for years. “When it comes to what most people consider to be commercial or touristy in Salem, I see it more related to the culture and image that the city has had for centuries,” he said. “We were the Witch City long before we were a tourist town.”
Along the way Salem transmogrified as a city known for its blood-stained history to a Halloween-themed mecca of magic. But how? In 1970, Laurie Cabot opened the city’s first “witch shop,” selling a few tools of the trade. Her underlying goal was to educate the public about modern witchcraft and dispel some of the misconceptions related to her path. Cabot flourished.
In response, Salem set up a bevy of “museums” to educate visitors, including the Witch Dungeon Museum and the Salem Witch Museum, while offering a few scares along the way. However, it wasn’t enough. So, entrepreneurs set up the Haunted Witch Village, which later became the Haunted Neighborhood at the Salem Wax Museum.
“People were walking away from Salem disappointed that they did not get the scare,” said Salem Wax Museum’s former spokesperson in North Shore Sunday. “Historically speaking, they were overly satisfied. But they weren’t coming here just for the history. They want a haunt—to get frightened out of their wits. So we’re going a different route. And there’s nothing historical about it.”
Of course, the Haunted Witch Village faced some controversy when it opened in October 1995. “I recently visited Salem because the witch trials were the only thing I remembered from high school history,” said a New York visitor, adding that he was confused “that a town would make a tourist trade out of this horrible event. These are disasters, you don’t celebrate them.”
The controversy quickly subsided and the Haunted Witch Village thrived. The debate, however, continued.
A similar backlash swept Salem in 2005 when TV Land decided to unveil a statue in Lappin Park of Elizabeth Montgomery’s character Samantha Stephens from the ’60s TV classic Bewitched. “It’s like TV Land going to Auschwitz and proposing to erect a statue of Colonel Klink,” said a former member of the Salem Historic District Commission. “Putting this statue in the park near the church where this all happened, it trivializes the execution of nineteen people.”
The statue was erected despite the minor backlash and has become an icon of sorts for the Witch City. Oddly, the statue’s hand is pointing in the direction of Proctor’s Ledge, the spot where innocent men and women were hanged for witchcraft in 1692.
Vallor said he didn’t come to Salem for tourism or witchcraft. However, he stuck around because he loved the city’s Halloween-year-round vibe. “I moved here as a teenager and went to Salem High School,” he said. “I hung around downtown for years before I worked in the tourism industry or even knew I was Witch.” He started giving tours with various groups in town which eventually led him to the Salem Witch Walk. “In order to help explain witchcraft to tourists I began to educate myself,” he recalled. “That is when it dawned on me that I was a Witch.”
The tour guide in his mid-thirties believes that the hysteria of 1692 somehow laid the foundation for real Witches three hundred years later. What are the lessons learned from the Salem witch trials according to Vallor? “Don’t believe everything you hear or judge a book by its cover,” he said. “And, most importantly, think for yourself.”
Wicked Salem: Exploring Lingering Lore and Legends
Genre: Ghosts, Hauntings, Local History, Salem, Haunted History
Publisher: Globe Pequot Press
Date of Publication: May 1, 2019
Number of pages: 264
Word Count: 61,500
Cover Artist: Globe Pequot Press
Tagline: Something Wicked This Way Comes
It’s no surprise that the historic Massachusetts seaport’s history is checkered with violence and heinous crimes. Originally called Naumkeag, Salem means “peace.” However, as its historical legacy dictates, the city was anything but peaceful during the late seventeenth century.
Did the reputed Boston Strangler, Albert DeSalvo, strike in Salem? Evidence supports the possibility of a copy-cat murder. From the recently pinpointed gallows where innocents were hanged for witchcraft to the murder house on Essex Street where Capt. Joseph White was bludgeoned to death and then stabbed thirteen times in the heart, Sam Baltrusis explores the ghost lore and the people behind the tragic events that turned the “Witch City” into a hot spot that has become synonymous with witches, rakes, and rogues.
What is it about the sleepy New England city that engenders itself to history’s witches, rakes and rogues?
Salem, Massachusetts suffers a bit of an identity disorder. There are two versions of the so-called “Witch City” that have symbiotically etched itself into the collective unconscious. There’s the iconic, blood-stained Salem that boasted a sadistic sorority of witch-hanging zealots in the late 1600s. And then there is the modern, witch-friendly spectacle that welcomes thousands of supporters into its coven of commercialism every October.
It’s a tale of two Salems.
As far as the paranormal is concerned, the city is considered to be hallowed ground. However, based on my personal experience as a local historian and tour guide, Salem has a love-hate relationship with its ghosts. Why?
"The city has a long history of not wanting to get wrapped up in commercializing its witch history," explained Tim Weisberg, host of the radio show Spooky Southcoast and researcher with Destination America's Haunted Towns. "It's something they've only really embraced over the past couple of decades. There's still a bit of an 'old guard' in the city that doesn't want to see anyone capitalizing on witches, ghosts or things of that nature.”
As Salem’s on-air expert for the national Haunted Towns TV show, I helped Weisberg hunt for locations with ties to the witch trials of 1692. It was tough. “As they've let some of that guard down and television shows have come in, it's been my experience that the 'powers that be’ who control many of the allegedly haunted and historic locations have been disillusioned with the way productions have come in and treated its history,” Weisberg told me. “At least, that's what I heard in the rejections I received from certain locations when attempting to get permission to film Haunted Towns."
Known for its annual Halloween “Haunted Happenings” gathering, it’s no surprise that the historic Massachusetts seaport is considered to be one of New England’s most haunted destinations. With city officials emphasizing its not-so-dark past, tourists from all over the world seem to focus on the wicked intrigue surrounding the 1692 witch trials.
Originally called Naumkeag, Salem means “peace.” However, as its historical legacy dictates, the city was anything but peaceful during the late seventeenth century. In fact, when accused witch and landowner Giles Corey was pressed to death over a two-day period, he allegedly cursed the sheriff and the city. Over the years, his specter has allegedly been spotted preceding disasters in Salem, including the fire that destroyed most of the downtown area in June 1914. Based on my research, a majority of the hauntings conjured up in Salem over the city’s tumultuous four-hundred-year-old history have ties to disaster, specifically the one-hundred-year-old fire that virtually annihilated the once prosperous North Shore seaport.
Cursed? Salem is full of secrets.
About the Author:
Sam Baltrusis, author of Wicked Salem: Exploring Lingering Lore and Legends, has penned eleven historical-based ghost books including Ghost of Salem: Haunts of the Witch City. He has been featured on several national TV shows including Destination America's Haunted Towns, the Travel Channel's Haunted USA on Salem and served as Boston's paranormal expert on the Biography Channel's Haunted Encounters.
During the summer of 2019, he will be featured on the one-hundredth episode of A Haunting airing on the Travel Channel. Baltrusis is a sought-after lecturer who speaks at dozens of paranormal-related events scattered throughout New England, including an author discussion at the Massachusetts State House and paranormal conventions that he produced called the Plymouth ParaCon in 2018 and the Berkshire’s MASS ParaCon in 2019. In the past, he has worked for VH1, MTV.com, Newsweek and ABC Radio and as a regional stringer for the New York Times.
Visit SamBaltrusis.com for more information.