“There is no escape from the cycle.” – Richard Ravish, With Love from Salem
Like another recent documentary involving modern Pagans that I enjoyed, Alex Mar’s “American Mystic,” Karagan Griffith’s “With Love from Salem” is not an introduction or history lesson, but is instead a portrait of a belief system, a culture, in action. It follows Richard and Amy Ravish, Wiccan clergy who led rituals on Gallows Hill in Salem, Massachusetts for more than 20 years. While ostensibly about their Samhain ritual and procession on its 20th anniversary, what emerged to me on my viewing was surprisingly personal, an intimate look at the lives of two elders whose duty to Salem has become deeply intertwined with their faith, their friendships, and how they interact with community.
The mere mention of Salem, Massachusetts can be divisive within modern Pagan circles, with some Witches and Wiccans decrying the tourist-drawing Mardi Gras-like atmosphere around Halloween, and the Witches who have embraced that spirit of spooky fun as well. Yet, purposefully flamboyant Salem Witches like Laurie Cabot were instrumental in advancing tolerance and rights for Wicca and religious forms of modern Witchcraft. It was Cabot who founded the Temple of Nine Wells, “as a focus for worship and to facilitate a multi-traditional practice of the religion of Witchcraft in order to best serve the spiritual needs of the growing Wiccan community in Salem, Massachusetts.” A mission that was taken up by Amy and Richard as administrators of the temple. According to Amy “Gypsy” Ravish in the film, the ritual and procession at Samhain not only reminds people of the differences between Salem’s Halloween festivities and the religious observance of Samhain, it also gives an opportunity to those Pagan tourists who “can’t walk down the streets of their town, and say that they are Witches.” The tourism acts as a normalizing element, protective coloring for individuals across the country who see Salem as a pilgrimage.
“The commitment , passion and love for the Craft was and still is what moved Gypsy and Richard all these years.” – Karagan Griffith, director of “With Love from Salem”
“With Love from Salem” subtly shows you how Salem has woven its way into the modern Wiccan mind, but it’s as much a meditation on aging in the Craft as it is about honoring those killed on Gallows Hill. Richard Ravish passed away in 2012, and as such much of the talk about aging, ancestors, and the spirit of Samhain take on a deeper resonance. It shows Wicca as a faith that endures through the Winter of their lives, and one that continues to resonate for new generations of Witches. The handheld camera work by Griffith gives an impression of home movies, which actually adds to the intimacy, rather than detracts. It’s like watching footage of the elders in your own group or community, talking about their work, their devotion. It gives us outsiders a chance to be a fly on the wall as these two elders plan a community ritual.
Ultimately, “With Love from Salem” is a time capsule, a document of a couple who quietly served a community since the 1970s, a fixed point where seekers and the curious could experience Witchcraft in a “land of ghosts.” It is about mortality and remembrance, not just for the victims of the Salem Witch Trials, but for our own elders as they age and pass on. As Richard Ravish says towards the end of the film, “there is no escape from the cycle,” there is only our acceptance, and our honoring of its gifts. Director Karagan Griffith has done an admirable job of documenting one couple’s journey within that cycle.