“Happy Halloween,” said the young Norwegian museum attendant in crisp, British-accented English. She sounded solemn, like she was welcoming me to a funeral. I was an American in the Pomor Museum in Vardø, Norway, and, judging from the emptiness of the museum, the streets, and my hotel, I was the town’s sole tourist.
Any wicca wannabe with an Urban Outfitters smudge stick and a Hot Topic “Resting Witch Face” t-shirt can find their way to Salem for Halloween. Salem is just one of the four Massachusetts townships that held witch trials during America’s 17th century witch panic, but it’s the best known and more or less synonymous with the 19 people hanged for witchcraft between 1692 and 1693. Three centuries later, Salem has turned persecution into profit; the greater Salem area sports almost 20 witch-related shops, from wiccan apothecaries to witch-infused glass-blowing, t-shirts, and ice cream. Witchery is a business, and money is a charm. Welcome to the dark side, will that be debit or credit?
Known as the Witch Capital of Norway, Vardø shares in Salem’s witch history, but unlike Salem, it’s not commercial. Once the cod capital of the Arctic, Vardø, population 1,875, perches like a fish-scented mirage on the edge of the Arctic Circle in Finnmark, Norway’s northernmost county. While the Visit Vardø website makes the town look like Williamsburg with puffins and Aurora Borealis, it isn’t. There are only four ways to Vardø — none are good, and all originate at Kirkenes, a shithole in the way that only towns that are waystations to other places can be.
From Kirkenes, you can take a ferry, fly in a puddle-jumper plane, drive a car, or take the bus to Vardø — options that look rosy in print, but in reality are depressing because of time, cost, and inconvenience. Vardø really, really wants you to like it, but getting to Vardø is so demeaning, so frustrating, and so expensive that you need a good reason to visit.
For me, that reason was the Steilneset Memorial, a monument to witches that makes Salem look like a Disney ride. Today’s Vardø may be trying to reinvent itself as a tourist attraction (bird-watching is its other big draw), but three centuries ago, it was the beating, psychotic heart of a major witch panic. Co-designed by Swiss architect Peter Zumthor and French-American artist Louise Bourgeois, the Steilneset Memorial honors the 91 people who died, most burned at the stake, in the witch persecution that started in 1600 and ended in 1692.
To put Vardø’s witchy body count in perspective: Finnmark’s current population is about 75,000 people spread across a landmass that’s roughly equal to Maryland’s. In the 17th century, Finnmark held fewer than 3,000 souls, so prosecuting 135 people for witchcraft and killing 91 was a lot. Stacked against Vardø’s dead (14 men; 77 women; about one-third Sami, the remainder white Norwegians), Salem’s 19 hanged witches (200 accused, gleaned from at least four townships with a combined population of about 2,000) makes its magistrates look like slackers.
To reach Vardø, I took the ferry, which despite its name functions more like a cruise ship, filled with German tourists and retired Norwegians. (Along with staterooms, the ferry has multiple restaurants, observation decks, a gym, and two hot tubs that no one used.) Traveling on the ferry to Vardø felt like an acid trip. I was faintly queasy, the blackly barren lands were beautiful in ways I couldn’t quite comprehend, the light shimmered with an uncanny glow, and it lasted far too long.
When I landed in Vardø at 4:30 p.m., it was already night, and I didn’t know where my hotel was. I accosted a random Norwegian, a local who huddled close to give me directions, and found the Meieriet Hotel just past the ABC Thai Restaurant on Vardø’s main drag. Built in the 1950s as a dairy, the hotel, which is co-owned by native Jonny Henriksen and his American wife, Dawn, boasts a mural in fever-dream hues depicting Vardø as socialist utopia with rainbows and wheat. It’s a wildly optimistic image, but Jonny and Dawn were nicely chatty. I downed a shot of whisky, ate a meal of fried cod, and crashed.
The mind runs amok in the dark. There’s nothing normal about 24-hour night, but it’s perfect for seeing witches where there’s no one but your neighbors.
There’s no easy way to describe Vardø’s extreme, compelling weirdness. It’s hard to believe that Vardø once held a population of 5,000 in the many buildings that squat on concrete haunches around the harbor. Vardø’s hotels once burst with rich Russians who traded rubles for cod. The wharf once slapped with the sounds of fish being beheaded, gutted, skinned, salted and dried. The harbor once rang with the sounds of ships — at first small with sails, then larger with motors, then metal monsters — coming and going. Just 70 years ago, sailors swaggered in and out of Vardø’s bars and shops; just 25 years ago, more than 350 Sri Lankans staffed the fish processing plants. Now Vardø is a fraction of its former size, and its ghosts seems to hug you close.
For two months, starting around Thanksgiving and ending around Valentine’s Day, Vardø is dark. I don’t mean that the sun slinks quick from dawn to dusk. I mean that it’s pitch-black night for two months straight. Even with four hours of daylight, as there is around Halloween, I felt the Arctic blackness press like a weighted blanket. I imagined living in this dark for weeks on end, and understood how you could start to see things. The mind runs amok in the dark. There’s nothing normal about 24-hour night, but it’s perfect for seeing witches where there’s no one but your neighbors.
America so loves a witch-hunt that it’s become a labile metaphor, signifying mass hysteria, political overreach, patriarchal power, or the brutal persecution of a political opposition — just about anything, really. In the 17th century witch panic, Norway executed about 300 people for witchcraft, but Norwegians had largely forgotten their witch-hunting past until historians like Liv Helene Willumsen began uncovering original court documents and dragging the country’s past into current consciousness. The reasons why Norway “forgot” its witches isn’t clear, and when I asked three residents of Vardø about why Norway has only recently begun to explore its witch panic, I got three different answers.
Vardø’s local amateur historian, Knut Stenhaug habitually drinks two fingers of vodka, served neat in a tumbler, at the Meieriet’s bar. With his Gandalf-white hair and shaggy beard, he looked like central casting for an old Norwegian man. Knut (pronounced Kuh-noot) said no one remembers the witch trials because in World War II, the Nazi army destroyed Vardø. “What happened 300 years earlier had no impact really, when you knew that your house, your parent's house, grandparents’ houses were burned and bombed,” Knut said. One trauma superseded another, Knut suggested.
Astrid Stenhaug, Knut’s college-age daughter, saw it differently. During the summers, Astrid works as a guide at the Steilneset and at Vardøhus Fortress, the star-shaped fort and juridical seat for the witch trials. “Things are forgotten so fast,” Astrid said. “People here weren't really aware of the witchcraft burnings. Sure, you maybe heard a story about there was some witches, but you don't really care or know anything.”
“I wasn’t taught about the witches in school,” Jonny, the Meieriet’s owner, told me. “I didn’t know much about the witches until the memorial opened,” he paused and then admitted, “The local people didn’t want it.” I asked him why. Quiet for a moment, Jonny said one word: “Shame.”
Completed in 2011 and commissioned in part by the Norwegian government for its National Tourist Routes, the Steilneset Memorial is a haunting — and possibly haunted — structure in two parts, each disquieting. Peter Zumthor designed the wood-and-canvas construction that faintly resembles the wooden racks that Norwegians traditionally used to dry cod. Weathered and Scandinavian simple, Zumthor’s contribution looks like it’s both part of and apart from its bleak coastal landscape, a decomposing entity as timeless as state-sanctioned murder.
Louise Bourgeois’ black glass cube, The Damned, The Possessed and The Beloved, on the other hand, is starkly alien. Its glass shelter houses a plain metal chair that burns with an eternal flame, and seven looming mirrors reflect the blazing chair, each mirror angled differently, causing a hall-of-mirror refraction. Nothing about Bourgeois’ cube is natural, and placed on that treeless plain, nothing about it looked right.
I visited the Steilneset twice. On Halloween, the wind howled and sleet pinged against Zumthor’s cocoon, making the structure shake like an animal digesting. The following day was still under a slate grey sky, and the monument felt muffled, an unearthly quiet. Both of the times I visited the Steilneset, Bourgeois’ eternal flame was out, catching me between two urges: Did I want to sit in the chair or did I want to light the flame? Did I need to recognize the witch in myself, or did I want to see the bad girl burn? The veil between the living and the dead is thin on Halloween, but the line between victim and victor is always fragile. That’s one thing a good memorial will teach you.
Each time after leaving the memorial, I walked the streets of Vardø. I saw folk art graffiti walls, the winds scrubbing the walls clean. I saw the bird island, its cliffs shellacked white with guano. I saw the harbor, mostly empty, and I smelled the fish (always the fish, forever the fish). I considered having coffee in the one open café, but it looked too desperate, too needy; I couldn’t give it a pity visit. The streets were slippery; the sky was leaden; the sleet ticked against my cheeks. Back in my hotel room, I saw a video of the Google walkout in New York and, the sun shining on masses of people in shirtsleeves, it felt like a revelation.
Three days after arriving, I boarded the bus back to Kirkenes. The trip revealed snow-covered fjords gleaming in the dawn, miles and miles of barren landscape, and my first tree in five days. It’s shocking how fast you can forget things.
I went to Vardø expecting Salem in a corpse mask. I didn’t get that. There was nothing metal in Vardø, there was no one ironically screaming into the void. There was, instead, a very weird, very earnest town in a punishing landscape with a long history and no clear future. Vardø holds no witches — none that I saw as I walked the silent, icy streets, none convening in my hotel, and none wafting sage at the Steilneset Memorial, built on the very land where witches burned.
But here, I must admit something that pains me. I had planned to visit the witch memorial at midnight on Halloween, but as midnight approached, I was too creeped out. The ground is icy, I said to myself. It’s too dark. I’m too fragile. The naked truth is that I was afraid.