Halloween Capital Of The World

There is a city deep in the heart of Massachusetts with a very unique culture. It also holds a terrible dark secret. Salem is a coastal town on the east coast of the United States, and if you happen to find yourself here, you don’t need an information centre or even a billboard screaming the town’s name at you.

Salem the witch city halloween travel ideas magazine

Those who don’t mind some goblins playing in the park, ghouls on skateboards or witches whizzing about would feel right at home. Welcome to Salem, America’s witch city.

This city celebrates Halloween 365 days a year, 7 days a week, 24-hours a day. It is also the place with the biggest and longest Halloween celebrations on earth, increasing tenfold throughout the month of October. The city’s emblem (worn by police on their uniforms as well) is a witch zipping skywards on her broom.

The atmosphere in this town is truly wonderful, and those who enjoy Tim Burton-created worlds will wish they could stay here forever. The town’s folk are very friendly and most of the Halloween-niche shops are concentrated in Salem’s Essex Street.

On quick glance through the shops’ windows it looks like a permanent horror movie set with witches, pumpkins and black cats littering shelves.

Shops range from walking tour companies to gift shops on all things Halloween to a shop called Hex, with old world witchery arts, crafts and candles.

Hex is a very interesting shop and anyone who enters it will be mesmerized by it’s products. One wonders if the owner might be an ancient wizzard robed in black? It’s the kind of street where I am fairly certain a backdoor vendor will have some gremlins on offer.

The state of Massachusetts is well known for elaborate Halloween celebrations throughout the country’s history.

Salem the witch city halloween travel ideas magazine

These old world traditions date back to the first settlers, Protestants and Quakers, who brought bits and pieces of the old Celtic and Druids’ end of harvest festival, Sa’wain with them and infused it with another tradition from European settlers, All Saints Day, which has catholic roots.

Over the years all the traditions morphed into modern-day Halloween, and you would be surprised at how much is still very relevant to the traditions of the old countries.

Nevertheless, Halloween is inarguably one of the most interesting and fun celebrations of the year, and even in South Africa we are quickly catching on with these celebrations.

Salem’s universal appeal stretches further than just Halloween celebrations though. In fact, it was first famous for something else entirely. The Halloween frenzy is as big as it is because of historical events, and if you have any interest in Salem’s history, it’s not a matter of if you will visit Salem, but rather a matter of when you will be heading there.

Salem the witch city halloween travel ideas magazine

Double double toil and trouble…

In 1692 Salem was hit by a wave of hysteria and soon after accusations of witchcraft flew left and right, implicating mostly women as witches, the noose was taken out of the closet.

Twenty people were killed, fourteen of them were women and all but one was hanged. Giles Corey, an American farmer suffered an even more brutal fate and was pressed to death. Most deaths occurred in the second half of the year, close to the end of harvest.

All this sounds very dark but it is important to Salem’s history because attempts by the church and state to hide the fact that innocent people were killed caused such a public outcry that people not only refused to forget it, but spread the word far and wide.

Their refusal to secrecy cemented this historical event with the upcoming Halloween celebrations, which already had connections to myths and legends of witches and ghouls, causing these two events to marry, and catapulted the event into commercial immortality.

There is no mysterious Salem without the events of 1692 and there is no biggest Halloween celebration on earth without Salem having such a mysterious history.

This city is anything but dreadful I assure you, and if you plan on visiting Salem for historical reasons there are a few things you should know.

In 1692 the area consisted of two settlements, Salem Town and Salem Village, and this is important to keep in mind. Modern day Danvers used to be Salem Village and both Salem and Danvers have great significance when it comes to the witch trials.

Salem the witch city halloween travel ideas magazine

Danvers, ma

The oldest woman accused of witchcraft in the trials was Rebecca Nurse, a frail 71-year-old woman. The Rebecca Nurse Homestead still stands today and was fully restored, and turned into a museum.

It is one of the most important architectural sites for a peek into what life was like back then, if not for the entire history of the United States.

As this is a little way out of Salem itself, you’ll have to set aside a good few hours to go and explore it.

The Witchcraft Victim’s Memorial is a monument and park commemorating the victims. It is also located across the street from where the actual trials took place.

Danvers isn’t as commercialized as Salem (due to the name change) and you will find fewer tourists here. While you are in Danvers pop over to what is believed to be the oldest fruit tree in America. The Endicott Pear Tree was planted in 1630.

Salem the witch city halloween travel ideas magazine

Salem, Ma

The actual hanging site was up for debate for centuries but very recently historians confirmed its location. Gallows Hill, as it was known back then, was the location where victims were hung mostly from trees.

The strip of land is now known as the Witch Memorial Land. There isn’t much to see here and you won’t find detailed memorials like you would in both the towns of Danvers and Salem’s centre. Head to Salem’s bustling city centre for all the action.

The Salem Witch Trials Memorial is truly a special place. It is a small garden with stone slabs commemorating all those who perished. There is no entrance fee and you can stroll slowly or sit and take in the abnormal calmness of this garden.

It is conveniently situated next to a wooden house that is rumored to be haunted. Make sure to take a picture of the little window by the attic.

Situated on the memorial garden’s other side is the oldest burying ground in the city, Old Burying Point. This is also the burial place of John Hawthorne, another judge in the witch trials.

There is a big tree that grows in this graveyard and upon closer inspection you will see that the tree actually grows on top of a grave. Upon even closer inspection, after you have confirmed this whacky fact, you will also see that the tree has a split.

Local legend has it that a boy practicing witchcraft was struck by lightning many years ago, then was buried in the graveyard and the tree grew on his grave… and before long lightning struck the tree.

Local witches believe that the bark has great power and apart from the big split, it is evident that pieces of bark are in fact also missing, believed to harbour great power for magic spells.

The only remaining structure in Salem from that period is The Witch House. It is perfectly restored to great detail and one can easily revel for hours inside its wooden walls and creaky floors.

Head down Essex Street past all the shops and you will see how it stands out from the buildings that surround it. This is one of the busiest attractions in Salem and good advice is to get tickets online and try to go early in the day.

The Witch House, known back then as the Jonathan Corwin House, belonged to none other than Jonathan Corwin, one of the judges during the Salem witch trials. He is buried not far from the house in Broad Street Cemetery.

It is important to note that this graveyard is not on the agenda of any ghost-guided walk, but only on the architectural walk. Salem is split in two, there’s the area where all the commercialized attractions are, and then there’s downtown, which is a residential area and has architectural relevance.

Salem the witch city halloween travel ideas magazine

The busiest of all attractions in Salem is found at Washington Square North. The Witch Museum’s exterior look like a Gothic castle and sets the tone for the rest of what you will encounter.

This place delivers on all fronts. Life-size sets and an information overload in the form of mannequins, animated to move, make this one of the highlights. Opt to join a tour group and take a front seat to witness the history of the hysteria.

The second portion of the tour takes you through the ages of witchcraft and is very informative. In the vicinity of the Witch Museum, be on the lookout for strange sculptures surrounding a large locust tree.

These structures, which probably would be popular as houses for trolls, are the brainchild of artist Patrick Dougherty and a few volunteers.

Another spooktacular attraction is quite a walk from the Witch Museum (closer to The Witch House) and is called the Witch Dungeon Museum. This event starts off with a real theatre act and places you in the courtroom during the trials.

You only really understand the frustration and lack of sympathy from the judges once you see it reenacted in front of you, forcing you to make peace with the fact that people were condemned to death on mere fables.

Once the reenactment is finished you are lead downstairs into the dungeon. Here we see how big the cells were where the accused had to live. Some cells were very small – assigned to those whose families were too poor to pay for a bigger cell.

It’s hard to fathom the fact that children were kept here as well, and it is important to note that people did also die in the cells awaiting trial. It is dark and damp, and an arrangement of period accurately dressed mannequins give the dungeon a creepy realistic atmosphere.

Salem the witch city halloween travel ideas magazine

The crème de la crème is a piece of wooden beam from the actual dungeon where the accused were kept. If it could talk I am sure no visitor would sleep that night.

Whether this object is haunted remains to be seen, but I stayed until every tourist resurfaced and soaked up the ambience, and from the general direction of that beam I swore I heard a moan, but who knows?

The last scene depicted in the basement is the actual hanging and it makes for real scares, you can actually hear the branches creaking from the weight of the lifeless victims swaying to and fro.

The Witch History Museum takes a bit more of a commercial approach. You enter a maze and discover the history of witchcraft with a guided tour, where historical scenes are depicted by life-size figures coupled with narration.

You will leave not only with a sense wonder for how easily hysteria created chaos, but also start to wonder if there was actually something more sinister at work back then.

It is important to note that every attraction has a unique appeal and you’ll learn something new at every museum.

Opposite the road from the Witch History Museum is the Salem Wax Museum. Here there are some incredible sculptures of well-known and loved monsters, but it wouldn’t affect your experience if you decided to move along to the next best thing. I would substitute this attraction for the next museum on our list.

Closer to the harbour is something you probably won’t encounter more than once in your life. Count Orlok’s Nightmare Gallery is a definite must.

Unfortunately you are not allowed to take pictures but it is a feast for the eyes. Every clown, creature, beast, homicidal maniac, alien and animal gets a meticulously detailed sculpture.

If it tried to kill, maim or seriously injure a human being, it is found here. The detail on some of these sculptures will have you doubting whether you are really safe being left alone with them.

If you do get to this place, stare into the little girl eyes from The Exorcist for too long and you will freak yourself out. They are all very lifelike and you will find yourself looking back hoping that the clown from the movie IT, is still in the corner where you last saw it.

So, as the sun sets and the shadows creep closer, it’s time for a ghost walking tour. Salem’s ghost tour packs a punch and there are many to choose from.

I’d stick with one that’s focused on ghosts and witches as opposed to zombies and vampires. Salem Night Tour is a win. One detail that the ghost tours add and others do not is the actual spot next to the building that used to be the police station where Houdini was locked up, and dared to escape from.

Salem the witch city halloween travel ideas magazine

You will visit two graveyards and an array of haunted spots, and when it is properly dark you will be taken to churches with a history of their own.

The highlight on the ghost tour is a stop off at the actual site where Corey was pressed to death in 1692. He was the only victim not to be hanged and according to accounts he survived three brutal days before drawing his last breath.

Soak in the faint echoes of history as you listen to the night surround you. There is magic in the air once you realize that you are standing where historical events shaped and changed the world.

Find out about the Candlelit ghost walk that is hosted by the same company (Salem Night Tour) that hosts the original ghost walking tour. They advertise both their guided walks as ghost tours and this particular tour is advertised as an add-on for a second evening after you have done the first one.

It’s a stroll through another part of Salem and your guide talks about architectural history, which gives you more perspective on the city. It is also an interesting peek into New England construction.

This tour ends at the Dunkin’ Donuts so dinner is sorted. You will also walk past a graveyard that is rumored to be the most haunted burial ground in Salem, Broad Street Cemetery.

Note that in Salem it is frowned upon to walk around in cemeteries after sundown so make sure to tell your guide if you want to enter and they will arrange accordingly. Usually they head down to the cemeteries fairly early on.

Interestingly enough, Salem isn’t just famous for witches, witchcraft and Halloween but also for their history of pirates.

The New England Pirate Museum is really worth looking into. A guide, really getting into character as a pirate himself, will guide you through scenes of some of the most famous pirates that sailed the seas.

The mannequins and lanterns really work as you get submerged in how they lived and looted – and seeing as this is Salem, you will also experience how they were executed. Spoiler alert: Blackbeard himself makes an appearance.

During the month of October the city goes into Superhalloween mode called Haunted Happenings, and most of the above-mentioned attractions stay open till much later.

During October there is an array of other events too. Family movie nights, haunted house attractions – Haunted Witch Village is the longest running haunted house in Salem.

The annual October Halloween Ball attracts thousands of people and there is also an annual Halloween Parade. The Peabody Essex museum is not Halloween related or spooky but worth visiting as well. This museum ranks in the top 20 art museums in the United States.

During October the city also hosts The Annual Psychic Fair & Witchcraft Expo where you can get your palm read or get a tarot card reading.

Salem the witch city halloween travel ideas magazine

Trick or treat!

What would any trip be without food? Salem has its fair share of amazing cuisine. Two restaurants stand out with very unique décor, design and food choices.

Bit Bar is a retro throwback to pinball games and gives hungry patrons an arcade feel of old. From Elk burgers to craft beers, you will surely satisfy your hunger here.

Try the S’more Lava Cake and prepare to gain a few kilos. To awaken the gamer in all of us their cocktails are named after classic arcade games.

The Flying Saucer Pizza Company is probably one of the best pizza joints in the world. This sci-fi approach to food really stands out as a winner for best ambience. Try their Pepperoni pizza with added Jalapenos to get a taste of the classic American palate. They serve them by the slice (which is huge by the way) or whole pizzas.

Those who loved Hocus Pocus can visit the famous Bewitched Statue a few metres from this restaurant.

After lunch, pop over to Coffee Time Bake and try their Cider Donuts. These apple infused donuts are a favorite here. Whoopee pies and cupcakes are divine and go down perfectly with a pumpkin pie latte.

Keep in mind that this is America, and that any restaurant that operates as a burger-serving-eatery is bound to serve up something special.

Salem is like no other place on earth, literally. It’s the perfect way to spend the perfect Halloween. Remember, travel by broom and your parking is complimentary.

Story By Johann van der Walt


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