Halloween in Salem, MassachusettsPhoto Credit : Heidi Besen/Shutterstock
The witch trials of 1692 cast a shadow over Salem, Massachusetts, that has spanned centuries, seeping into the city’s collective consciousness and shaping its character. Yet what was once only a source of infamy for this historic coastal city is now a highly profitable tourist draw. For the most part, Salem’s status as “Witch City” has been embraced, or at least tolerated, by those who live here. But for visitors, it’s downright fascinating — and never more so than at the spookiest time of year. Here’s a look at my experience of Halloween in Salem.
At the city’s annual monthlong Halloween festival, Haunted Happenings, events kick off with a grand parade in early October and come to a close with fireworks display over Salem Harbor on Halloween night. In between are Halloween-themed theatrical productions, carnival rides, psychic fairs, haunted attractions, costume balls, and more. Haunted Happenings lures thousands of tourists to the city, many of whom don colorful and festive witch hats.
But while I enjoy the festival’s aura of spooky fantasy and fun, I begin my own experience of Halloween in Salem at the Witch House on Essex Street, getting reacquainted with the real tragedy that occurred in this town back in the late 17th century. Despite its name, this landmark building wasn’t the home of a witch, but rather it belonged to the wealthy and upstanding Corwin family — most notably Jonathan Corwin, one of the magistrates responsible for investigating the allegations of witchcraft and sentencing the accused.
Thought to have been built in the 1660s, the Witch House is not only a stunning example of early New England architecture but also an intriguing link to the witch trials. Each room features information and displays highlighting the Corwin family, witchcraft, and the history of the trials.
One of the Witch House artifacts that draws me in is a 17th-century poppet. Poppets were simple, even crude, dolls that many in colonial New England believed to have mystical powers. As with voodoo dolls, it was thought that what you did to a poppet would be felt by the target of your malice; anyone found in possession of one of these dolls would almost certainly be suspected of witchcraft. During the witch trials, the discovery of poppets was testified to in court and played a role in the downfall of the first person to be executed, Bridget Bishop.
After getting a fascinating lesson on politics and history at the Witch House, I find the human tragedy of the witch hysteria brought into sharp focus at my next Halloween-in-Salem stop. Dedicated in 1992, on the 300th anniversary of the trials, the Salem Witch Trial Memorial sits next to the old Burying Point Cemetery. The memorial features granite benches bearing the names of the 19 people who were hanged and one who was pressed to death. The victims’ chilling pleas of innocence are carved into stones at the entrance to the memorial.
The Burying Point, next to the memorial, predates the witch trials by several decades, but don’t look for the victims’ headstones here. According to Puritan belief, those found guilty of witchcraft were in league with the devil and could not be buried in consecrated ground. The final resting places of almost all the witch trials’ victims remain unknown. (However, one of the judges from the witch trials, John Hathorne, is buried here.)
After a visit to the Witch House and a stroll through the memorial and cemetery, I feel I’ve gained an understanding of the true historical events of the past — and now it’s time to explore the spooky, carnival-like atmosphere of today’s Halloween in Salem. The transition from serious history to celebratory fun isn’t hard to make: As soon as I step out of the cemetery, I am greeted with the smells of fried dough, apple cider, cinnamon buns, and other festival food. Fog machines pump clouds through the narrow streets as displays of skeletons, witches, ghosts, and monsters entice visitors to various attractions.
Salem has plenty of year-round and seasonal museums already devoted to the macabre, but even these places go the extra mile during Halloween in Salem. Count Orlok’s Nightmare Gallery, for instance, transforms its exhibit of full-size movie monsters and horror film memorabilia into an interactive haunted attraction for part of each day.
Meanwhile, Salem’s historic cobblestone streets are filled with vendors selling kitschy souvenirs, makeup artists offering gruesome makeovers, and costumed monsters posing with tourists. Providing a dramatic backdrop to the Halloween madness is the world-renowned Peabody Essex Museum.
A staple of any Halloween celebration worth its salt is a costume ball, and in Salem you can take your pick. The biggest is hosted by the Hawthorne Hotel on the Saturday before Halloween, when the hotel’s normally elegant interior is transformed into a fantasyland of colorful lights, giant pumpkins, and delightfully gory decor.
Each year, the Hawthorne chooses a theme for the party. During my visit it’s “Mardi Gras Masquerade,” and I see many guests dressed perfectly to the theme, complete with flashy masquerade masks and stacks of bead necklaces to throw out to fellow party guests. The majority, however, are wearing whatever Halloween disguise struck their fancy.
Speaking of costumes, I’ve never seen as many creative and jaw-dropping costumes as I have at the Hawthorne costume balls I’ve attended. Some of this creativity is fueled by the Hawthorne’s extravagant costume contest, but most attendees seem motivated only by the fun and fantasy of the night.
In addition, the Hawthorne ball features a live band to keep the guests dancing all night. Food is provided throughout the hotel and libations can purchased for an additional fee. Psychic readings on the top floor are also popular with party guests.
As the party comes to a close at midnight with a rollicking rendition of “Thriller,” guests slowly make their way to the exits and out into the Salem streets. And I’m among those hesitant to step out into the night air, reluctant to say goodnight to the magic of another Halloween in Salem.
Have you ever enjoyed Halloween in Salem, Massachusetts?
This post was first published in 2014 and has been updated.