“I think I saw the Head Witch of Salem in Trader Joe’s today,” I remember my mother saying. “She was wearing a pointy hat and cape in front of me at the checkout.”
Welcome to Salem, Massachusetts, home of the infamous witch trails, the stomping grounds of Puritans and the headquarters of Halloween.
One of the regulars was a “freelance priest,” a man covered in amulets who looked like a cross between the Pope and Merlin. He carried around a backpack full of scrolls that he would hand out to people. Super nice guy, fond of croissants. My manager used to secretly follow him around with Fabreeze so the store wouldn’t smell like musty incense.
Halloween isn’t just during the month of October here; during the other eleven months of the year, Salem is the permanent home to an unusual cast of characters.
But I digress. So how did Salem become Halloweentown, USA?
A few decades after English settlers bought unused land from the Naumkeag people, the Salem Witch Trials began. You’ve probably heard of them as they were immortalized in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. Hysteria consumed the village as community members from all walks of life were accused of witchcraft. It all began when the nine-year-old daughter and eleven-year-old niece of Reverend Samuel Parris accused his slave, Tituba, of sorcery, claiming she was the cause of the strange fits they suffered.
Poor Tituba was beaten by her owner and forced to confess to the court. As the judges were attempting to out other sorcerers, she gave up the names of two social pariahs and the madness began. Over two hundred people were accused of consorting with the devil; nineteen were hanged and one seventy-one year-old man was pressed to death before the governor’s wife was accused of sorcery, prompting the governor to finally condemn the use of “spectral evidence” (dreams and visions) in court.
In the past three hundred years, many theories have been proposed to explain what bewitched the town of Salem to such a degree of insanity that four-year-olds were allowed to testify in court. Some believe the contemporaneous French-Indian war posed a psychological strain on the community; others blame a fungus found in rye that can cause delusions when consumed. Whatever the cause, no trace of it remains, as the town once obsessed with persecuting spell-casters is now America’s capitol of magic where 10% of the population are practicing witches.
Psychic shops and magic stores pepper the city. America’s first witch shop was opened by Laurie Cabot, who was named Official Witch of Salem in 1977 by Governor Michael Dukakis for her work with special needs children. The esteemed sorceress has written several books, taught witchcraft at Harvard University, founded the Witches League for Public Awareness and is currently in the process of building a temple. She is both a revered and controversial figure, having allegedly cursed a policeman in 2004.
The witchy drama continued in 2007 as Laurie Cabot and other established figures in the Salem Wiccan community objected to phony fortunetellers and petitioned the city to require psychic permits. Things escalated when some pissed off pagans left the ritual remains of a raccoon on the doorsteps of two of Salem’s most prestigious magic parlors. Soothsayers now have to file with the Salem Licensing Board along with street performers and liquor-store owners to pick up their fortunetelling licenses.
If you’re thinking that Salem would make a great movie, you’re two steps behind Hollywood. Two episodes of Bewitched were filmed here and a statue of the show’s protagonist, Samantha, was recently erected on Washington Street. Hocus Pocus was filmed in my friend’s backyard.
Sabrina the Teenage Witch’s eponymous cat, however, never actually came to the city, which was smart because all residents who read the police log know that black felines often fall prey to satanic rituals during the month of October.
Itching to do some witching yourself? Here are some must-see suggestions before you jump on your broomstick:
The Salem Witch House, home of Judge Jonathan Corwin, is the only remaining structure with direct ties to the witch trials. While no hearings actually happened at the Judge’s house, the carpenter he hired to remodel the house was eventually accused of witchcraft.
In 1944, while moving and restoring the house due to urban planning projects, a pile of bones was found under the hearth. They were sent off for tests to determine their origin, but the results were never made public and the bones remain an enigma to this very day.
Head to the southeast corner of Washington and Church streets, where the courthouse of the witch trials once stood. You’ll notice the Bewitched Statue waving at passersby. Stroll down the Essex Street pedestrian mall to discover magic shops, enchanting boutiques and the Peabody Essex Museum, which dates back to the East India Marine Society, founded in 1799.
Over 250,000 people from all over the world come to Salem each October; they’re predicting up to 100,000 for 2014. Every year the city hosts a month-long celebration called Haunted Happenings, featuring haunted houses, nightly ghost tours, a exploration of a witch village with a real witch as your guide, the Official Salem Witches’ Halloween Ball (this year’s theme is Voodoo), The Addams Family musical, a haunted cruise, spell-casting classes, an interactive witch trail, a time machine and a beer garden.
Simply walking down the street, watching warlocks go about their day is, as we say in New England, wicked fun.
Continue past the Peabody Essex Museum and you’ll find the majestic Hawthorne Hotel next to the Salem Commons. Named after Nathanial Hawthorne, the Salem-born-and-bred noted nineteenth century author, the building has been ranked fourth most haunted hotel in America (especially room 325) much to the management’s dismay.
To see all the spooky Halloween events Salem has to offer, check out the Haunted Happenings website.
Images via the Massachusetts Office of Tourism.
About this contributor:
Rozena Crossman moved to Paris on a whim in July 2011. A professional adventurer, she is relentlessly improving her linguistics in both English and French at the Graduate School of Life.