In the US state of Massachusetts, there’s a town where it’s Halloween 365 days of the year.
Less than an hour’s drive north from Boston on the I-93, the New England city of Salem is the world’s epicentre of witchy folklore, due to the Witch Trials of 1692.
While this tragic association that lead to the persecution and death of 19 innocent people is obviously not something locals celebrate, it does lend the historic town a certain eerie fascination that’s amplified during the month of October in the lead up to Halloween on October 31. “Salem turns into Halloween town for the entire month of October,” Salem Witch Museum manager Jill Christiansen tells me. “It’s decorated from top to bottom, the streets are crowded with people from around the world and people are in costume all month – weekends are especially fun.”
This spooky interest in the town’s supernatural history is something that’s played up in Salem with haunted houses, after-dark ghost tours and psychic readings on offer. Even the town’s cabs (painted a Wicked shade of green) are emblazoned with logos stating ‘Witch City Taxi’ and witches’ hats – faster than hitching a ride on a broom, I guess!
On the day I visit, where the sky is neither grey or blue but a whiter shade of pale that’s the perfect fall backdrop to the naked branches of deciduous trees and moody 17-century mansions, it's the ideal atmosphere to wander the ever-so walkable streets of Salem. Let’s go…
Salem Trolley Tour
First, orient yourself on the red Salem Trolley tour. The one-hour tour with commentary from Salem-born-and-bred guide, Chris, trundles through the narrow tree-lined streets from the Regional Visitor Center out to Winter Island and back, pointing out historic highlights of Salem’s maritime heritage, significant sites of the Witch Trials, stunning Federation-style architecture, World War II bunkers and more. Chris tells us that the Salem population of 43,000 swells to 250,000 during October and even the police dress up in costume.
Plaques on the historic houses along Essex Street denote when they were built and by who – sea captains, merchant traders, cordwainers and other long-lost trades are among the original owners of these beautiful buildings that are well worth a closer look after the tour.
The town is also the filming location of ‘90s Disney favourite Hocus Pocus, celebrating its 25th anniversary in 2018, and fans can check out some of the highlights such as The Ropes Mansion (a stately white building whose exterior doubled as Allison’s house in the movie), and the red-brick Old Town Hall where the kids’ parents partied for Halloween.
Salem Witch Museum
After I alight from the trolley, I’m transported back to the fear and uncertainty of the pilgrim era – immortalised in Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible – at the Salem Witch Museum. During October, lines snake down from Kimball Court on one side to William Street and wrap around the block, such is the popularity of this site. Outside the museum is a statue of Roger Conant, the colonist and founder of Salem who is often erroneously thought to be a witch or warlock due to his pointed pilgrim headwear.
Within the museum, you’ll be taken through an historic re-enactment of the Witch Trials of 1692, a presentation in the round that describes the heightened atmosphere of fear and religion that lead to these tragic happenings. Don’t miss the guided walk through the Witches: Evolving Perceptions exhibit that highlights how ongoing ‘witch hunts’ have continued around the world. Fun fact: witches weren’t depicted as having green skin until The Wizard of Oz movie in 1939, a makeup look that’s now synonymous with Halloween costumes.
More Witch Trial museums and attractions include The Witch House (the 17th-century home of Witch Trials judge Jonathan Corwin and the only structure in Salem with direct ties to the 1692 events), Witch History Museum and Salem Witch Village.
Salem Witch Trials Memorial
With Salem Witch Museum manager Jill as my local (spirit) guide, we continue on to the Salem Witch Trials Memorial on Charter Street, which is located right behind the Old Burying Point. Those condemned in the Witch Trials of 1692 weren’t afforded a burial in the cemetery, so the Salem Witch Trials Memorial is a spot for descendants and visitors to pay their respects to those 19 people. There are stone slabs for each of victims where people leave mementos such as flowers and coins. Jill says while the slabs are designed for sitting and reflecting, no one seems to out of respect. The Old Burying Point, established in 1637 with its crooked headstones and towering trees, is Salem’s oldest cemetery, and is the final resting place of many notable residents, such as author Nathaniel Hawthorne.
The Essex Street Pedestrian Mall in the Downtown District stretches from the Visitor Center to Washington Street (where the Bewitched statue of Samantha stands) and is adorned with decorated ship busts that hark back at Salem’s distinguished maritime heritage (the port amassed a huge amount of wealth from trading spices and goods in the 17th and 18th centuries).
Cry Innocent: The People versus Bridget Bishop
My next stop on the Witch Trial route is Cry Innocent: The People versus Bridget Bishop, a live re-enactment of the courtroom examination of Bridget Bishop in 1692. The cast stays in character throughout their performance in the mall, drumming up interest, before we, the audience, follow them to the Old Town Hall on Derby Square. Inside, I take a seat upstairs as the proceedings commence. The audience represents the Puritan jury in the trial of Bridget Bishop and are able to cross-examine the witnesses and then decide the outcome.
We voted ‘not guilty’ but sadly, that wasn’t the real verdict. Seated next to me was a lawyer from Adelaide, who was quite involved in the questioning. She told me afterwards that she felt quite passionately about the Witch Trials and loved the opportunity to question the ‘witnesses’ and poke holes in their sketchy testimonies.
As Salem is Halloween central, there’s no shortage of shops to purchase souvenirs from Witch City. There’s even witch shops, such as Artemisia Botanicals, The Coven’s Cottage and Crow Haven Corner, which all stock a bewitching array of ingredients; and my fave, the modern HausWitch Home + Healing store. Located next door to what I was told was a haunted house, HausWitch is a clean, white space where you can purchase ready-made packaged spells and covetable artisan items made locally. Witch City Wicks has a great selection of Halloween-themed soy candles, and the Salem Witch Museum has gifts that run the gamut of kitschy souvenirs (including Harry Potter merchandise) to educational books.
If you’re in the market to know your future, you can do that in Salem, too. All of the above shops offer tarot, tea leaf or psychic readings and magical circles as well as private appointments, all of which are popular with visitors.
The Haunted Happenings Parade kicks off the Halloween season on the first Thursday in October where the whole community marches – police, firemen, schools, the mayor and city council. This year also saw the first annual Howl-O-Ween Pet Parade to dress up the furry members of your family. Or there’s the Salem Harvest Fest with cider and craft beer.
Then there’s the Pumpkin Walk with specially carved pumpkins on display around town. The theme this year is Hocus Pocus as the film celebrates its 25th anniversary in 2018. The Hawthorne Hotel also hosts the official Salem Witches Ball and Annual Halloween Party.
Events in Salem are on throughout October, but if you’re in town for the big event, expect traffic delays due to road closures and make sure to get there early (before 8:30pm) to make the most of the Halloween festivities. Jill says there’s live music stages throughout downtown, incredible costumes on the revellers and street performers everywhere.
On October 31 this year, there’s the Annual Salem Witches’ Magic Circle, Tarot Experience at The Witchery, a screening of Hocus Pocus, and then the fireworks over the North River at 10:15pm.
Jill says Salem residents have mixed feelings about the October festivities and the true story of the witchcraft trials. “Some embrace it and some can’t wait for the month to be over. I have lived here for 25 years and was leery of it all at the start but in a short time I came to enjoy it – the holiday action increases every year.”