I grew up across the bridge from Salem, Massachusetts, a town that is undoubtedly rich in history. It’s among the oldest settlements in New England. It became a seafaring power after the Puritan era and a base for privateers during the Revolutionary War. It’s the home of notable cultural institutions like Salem Willows and The Peabody Essex Museum. It was the birthplace of the National Guard, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and the Parker brothers.
But none of these are why you’ve heard of Salem. Salem’s biggest claim to fame is of course the Salem witch trials, an epidemic of mass hysteria that resulted in the hanging of 19 people (mostly women) and the pressing to death of one man in the 1690s. While a significant incident in history and sociology, the witch trials have taken on particular prevalence in pop culture. If there are magical people in a story, they frequently have connections to Salem: everything from Harry Potter to Sabrina The Teenage Witch to American Horror Story: Coven name-checks the town. It was also the setting of ’90s-kid nostalgia favorite Hocus Pocus and the TV series Salem, now in its second season on WGN.
Salem’s residents, for their part, are well aware of the town’s specialty. There’s a neighborhood called Witchcraft Heights. Salem High School’s mascot is a witch. Police cars and The Salem News banner are emblazoned with a symbol of a witch. Salem makes an effort to present itself as The Witch City, and for good reason: Witch-related tourism is a big money maker.
Historically minded tourists can find some legitimate artifacts to peruse in Salem. There’s the so-called Witch House, the home of Judge Jonathan Corwin, who presided over many of the trials. There’s also the Witch Trials Memorial, with the names of the victims etched in stone. Next to that is The Burying Point, Salem’s oldest cemetery and the resting place of another witch trial judge (as well as a Mayflower pilgrim). The city is rife with centuries-old buildings; there is in fact an entire historical commission that makes sure residents living in historic districts don’t make anachronistic additions to their homes.
Upon first visiting, however, visitors are likely to be be struck by the staggering number of tourist traps—a hodgepodge of attractions and novelties that capitalize on Salem’s supernatural cred with varying degrees of tackiness. On the more educational side are offerings like The Witch Museum, the Salem Museum, and The New England Pirate Museum that elucidate the region’s past. Then there are the exhibits whose connection to the city is tenuous at best.
The short-lived 40 Whacks Museum told the story of Lizzie Borden, despite that she lived 80 miles away in Fall River, Massachusetts. Count Orlok’s Nightmare Gallery is a museum full of movie monsters like Pennywise and Nosferatu. The Salem Wax Museum runs a haunted house called Frankenstein’s Castle. There are places to see magic shows, places to get your fortune read, places to get old-timey photos, and dozens of kiosks selling caps and T-shirts reading “Salem, Massachusetts: A Wicked Good Time.”
Salem has become a spookiness destination, and as you might expect, October is particularly bonkers. Tourists descend in droves to experience the city’s month-long Haunted Happenings celebration. The Halloween fervor has only increased since I was a kid, and it shows no sign of abatement. Among the offerings are a costumed grand parade, a street fair, witch-trial reenactments, scary stories in historic buildings, film screenings on the Salem Common, live music, ghost walking tours, ghost trolley tours, a haunted harbor tour, and a slew of pop-up haunted houses. Since 2008 there’s been a carnival with games, snacks, and a Ferris wheel.
There is, perhaps, something a little ghoulish in all this. After all, we can follow a straight line from a bunch of murders in the 1690s to a Ferris wheel today. The true events are obscured by the popular myth—for instance, contrary to popular belief, no accused witches were ever burned in Salem. And antiquarian pedants will be quick to point out that the preliminary hearings also took place in the neighboring towns of Danvers, Ipswich, and Andover. There’s also the fact that increased tourism vexes residents sick of seeing their town taken over.
On the other hand, if you’re like me, the gaudy chaos of Salem is one of its greatest treasures. Halloween has always been my favorite holiday, largely because of where I grew up. As a kid, I had no greater joy than going across the bridge and seeking out some paranormal-themed doodads. Once I won second place in a costume contest for my dragon outfit. I would even imagine that a statue of the town’s severe-looking founder, Roger Conant, was a memorial to a great warlock. To this day, if you travel home with me I’ll most likely demand we browse through love potions and voodoo dolls at Hex: Old World Witchery and Omen: Psychic Parlor And Witchcraft Emporium.
This dichotomy came to something of a head in 2005 with the proposal to erect a new statue in town. Nine feet tall and bronze, it was a likeness of Elizabeth Montgomery as her Bewitched character Samantha, on a broomstick next to a crescent moon. Bewitched filmed several episodes on location in Salem in 1970 and the statue was conceived by TV Land to mark the show’s 40th anniversary. Public opinion was divided. Some residents thought the statue was a whimsical addition to the city’s oeuvre. Others found it tasteless, even for Salem. However, proponents touted its potential tourism benefits, and the plan was approved. The Bewitched statue stands in a small park downtown and has become a popular photo spot.
Is the Bewitched statue tacky? Yes, absolutely. Is it offensive? Potentially. Salem’s witch iconography and pop culture ubiquity subtly shift blame to the victims of the hysteria—implicitly justifying the claims that these women actually were witches. A piece of public art celebrating a TV witch is inherently trivializing to these innocents.
Then again, Elizabeth Montgomery was an outspoken liberal and champion of women’s rights. Bewitched itself had a largely feminist bent. And the witches in media that have subsequently invoked Salem are most often figures of empowerment: strong and decisive women in authority positions. While the Salem hysteria was born of a chauvinistic, women-fearing climate, its role in culture today shows how far we’ve come—witches are heroes instead of villains.
In fact, Halloween as a whole is somewhat a celebration of outsiders. It’s a Dionysian spectacle: Free of the orders and strictures of daily life, the strange and discomfiting figures on the nightmare margins of society can take center stage. And every October, the thrill seekers, horror fans, Wiccans, and weirdos make their annual pilgrimage to The Witch City. It’s grisly, it’s garish, but everyone’s welcome to join in. It’s a wicked good time. And that’s magic.