WHY GO: The phrase “Witch Hunt” has been flung around pretty cavalierly lately, but here, in Salem MA, where it actually happened, the last Witch Trials in the New World will forever be held up as a cautionary tale of mass hysteria, religious fundamentalism, and unbridled power run amok. In January 1692, accusations of witchcraft and Devil worship began in the home of contentious Reverend Samuel Parris and by September, as he felt more and more disrespected, and his sermons grew more and more sinister, nineteen residents were hung and one pressed to death beneath stones for these “crimes.”
The Witch Trials were all about regular people caught up in an insane lie, pointing fingers at each other to stay alive. (In the Devil’s crazy calculus, if you were accused, but then accused someone else, you’d save your own skin.) Where did the objects and stereotypes of witchcraft originate? During the Middle Ages, everyone cooked in caldrons; “eye of newt” and “wing of bat” were most likely plants used for medicinal purposes. And why is Salem now Witch Central? Blame the TV show Bewitched. Elizabeth Montgomery and her twitchy nose filmed 8 episodes in Salem in the summer of 1970, which garnered great public interest in this New England town. Laurie Cabot – the first “official Witch of Salem” saw a burgeoning tourist market, and opened Salem’s first Witch Shop in 1971. Now, the flying witch is the town’s emblem, the football team is, yep, the Salem Witches, and even cop cars sport the crone-on-broomstick.
Learning about the Witch Trials, and the tragic consequences in the very place it happened is one (but not the only reason) to visit Salem, MA. Stay to hear from real witches of today, to go on a night or day walking tour, and learn how Salem MA went from a town without witches to one with 900 practicing witch residents. To avoid crowds, come during shoulder season and try to keep away in October when Salem brims with broomsticks and pointy hats.
Things To Do In Salem, MA
VISIT: The Salem Witch Museum. A first stop for Salem newcomers interested in an overview of the Witch Trials, this museum accurately depicts what happened here in 1692 via an absorbing multi-media presentation. It seems a bit like payback to locate this tragic tale of religious and gender persecution in the 1846 First Church of Salem, but the setting makes for a riveting performance. A new exhibit, about Witch Hunts in our own time (McCarthyism, Japanese Internment during WWII and blaming the AID epidemic on the gay community) adds another dimension. Open daily 10-5 with extended July, Aug. and Oct hours, $13 adults, $10 kids.
TOUR: Salem Night Tour. In October, up to 1,300 tourists per night take this 1 hour 20 minute “Haunt and History Tour.” (Off-season averages 80 visitors per night). And even on a frigid 20 degree Wednesday winter’s eve, 11 people showed up (mostly from Australia) for this completely outdoor walking tour, which proves that seasonal temps have nothing on the popularity of Salem’s witch history and it’s purported hauntings.
While Salem Night Tour Guides are steeped in the Witch Trials and local lore, each is free to guide in his or her own unique voice. One of the best is Cas, a striking 6 ft tall professed “history nerd” and ghost skeptic with a sharp, dramatic wit.
Cas, dressed in a witch-like hooded mourning cloak, expounds on only the most documented ghost stories, as she guides you from cemetery to former dungeon sites, to the place where a man was “pressed” to death by boulders to elicit a confession, all the while narrating chilling, spooky stories about four-year-old prisoners, evil cops, and the mystifying fire of 1914 that wiped out the town, but began at the location of the Witch Hanging Tree. Tours nightly Nov-March 6pm Sun-Thurs 8pm Fri-Sat, April-Oct 8pm nightly begin at 127 Essex St. (Remember Salem), $15 adults, $10 kids.
TOUR: The Witch Walk. Tom Vallor AKA “Tom the Tour Guide,” who asserts that one is born a witch and after coming to that conclusion, must “come out of the broom closet,” is one of many who live in Salem. Appearing like an Amish rocker with hair to his waist and a healthy chin beard, mild-mannered Vallor begins his 90-minute walking tour asking, “why would real witches want to flock to a place known for executing women and men who were not witches at all?” The answer comes slowly, circuitously, over the course of the tour, which begins with a quick ritual – a Circle of Magic (“Like a Star Trek force field”) using burning sage, a sword and magic words – and ends after a visit to the 1637 Burying Point and Salem Witch Trials Memorial. Along the way, he tells tales about Salem in the 1600’s, habits of the Puritans, and stresses the fact that real witches have been vilified wrongly throughout history. When it comes down to it, Tom’s tour is a lesson in tolerance and levelheadedness.
VISIT: The Witch House; The Witch House is the only surviving structure from the period, and though it’s been painted black (from a nice pea-green), and no witches were ever accused or brought here, its has some ties to the trials; it was the home of Witchcraft Trial Judge Jonathan Corwin. A guided tour will bring you through rooms decorated as they would have been in the 17th century. Each room provides information on the Witch Trials, superstitions, midwifery, and offers a good idea of women’s lives at the time. Open daily mid-March – mid Nov. daily 10-5, $10.25 adults, $8.25 kids.
DO: Witch Pix Costume Studio. This is no “saloon gal” dress up tourist trap. For anyone – male or female – who comes to Salem for the witch history, a portrait studio session at Witch Pix and resulting photos are the best souvenirs you can buy. The experience itself is a hoot – beloved by families, bachelorette & entourage, engagements-to-be, High School Grads, Game of Thrones fans, and drag queens alike – with lots of sequins and sparkle, faux fur “pelts”, and um, leather get ups for a certain demographic.
Owner Hope Hitchcock stocks her studio with a huge variety of capes, dresses, and artisanal pointed hats that customers can choose to don (over clothing) for their portraits. The act of choosing is fun enough (and yes, you are helped), but it’s in the photo studio itself that things get really camp, with props like glowing crystal balls, flying brooms (and requisite fan), cauldrons, and skulls. RSVP Encouraged, though walk ins welcome. Photo shoot for 1-5 people results in over 70 digital images. Packages, including a 15-30 minute professionally conducted photo-shoot with chosen costume start at $41 for one Pix Print to $141 for all digital images and four Pix Prints.
DO: Tarot Card Reading with Leanne Marrama at Hex Old World Witchery. It only takes 15 minutes to discover your destiny, according to the awfully nice clairvoyant, Leanne Marrama. Salem Witch and Italian Strega, Leanne, reads your Tarot Cards, asks a few questions and then has you ask about your own concerns. An “intuitive,” she couches everything in the positive, so even a crisis might offer a challenging opportunity. This is a great exercise, even for people who don’t believe in these things, as it leaves you with a sense of optimism – or at least a course of action – especially after a parting hug. 15 minute Tarot Reading $40, 30 minutes $75, Mediumship (speaking to those who have “crossed over”) $75 for 30 minutes.
SHOP: Hex Old World Witchery. For all your Voodoo, Dousing, tea and witch’s cape needs.
SHOP: Wynott’s Wands. Moved from the waterfront to this Essex St. location next door to Remember Salem, and, though now owned by Tim Maguire, still keeps the Wynott’s name. Are you an aspiring Harry? Need a specific wand? Choose among the largest selection of wands (most cost $22.95) this side of Diagon Alley.
SHOP: Remember Salem. The meeting place for Salem Night Tour. Back in the 70’s the TV show, Bewitched, drove a good percentage of Salem tourism. The Harry Potter books and movies are inspiring a whole new generation to visit the country’s center of witchcraft and wizardry.
MOR TOURS: Other tours of Salem include Hocus Pocus Tours, history with nods to the movie (parts of which were filmed here), Salem Witch Walk – with an authentic town witch, Haunted Footsteps Tour, Black Cat Tours – which promises to cover more ground than any other walking tour, Bewitched After Dark Walking Tours, and Spellbound Tours, which takes a ghost-hunting a paranormal exploration approach.
SEE: The Bewitched Statue. Due to a mysterious studio fire in Hollywood, production of the hit TV show, Bewitched, moved to Salem for three weeks in 1970. Known as the “Salem Sagas” the show’s presence here brought national attention to Salem and kicked local tourism into high gear. It’s been high-flying ever since.
FAMOUS FESTIVAL: Salem Haunted Happenings. If you don’t mind elbow-to-elbow crowds, join thousands of visitors for thousands of events from October 1st to Halloween, including Ghost Tours, Pirate Forays, and other ghoulish attractions.
SHOP: Three shops offer everything an amateur or professional witch may need. Crow Haven Corner, Hex Old World Witchery (see above), and Omen are all witch-approved. There are potions, spell kits, crystals, alters, and poppet dolls galore.
EAT: Flying Saucer Pizza Co. So, it’s not quite witch food, but will Star Trek, Aliens and Pugs in astronaut suits do? Find sustainable locally sourced chewy-crust pizzas, fourteen local beers on tap, and inexpensive wine in this funky space. Monday night is “Nerd Trivia Night,” just in case you were wondering. Gourmet pizzas $11 – $22.