Greetings from Witch City

I really tried to give Salem Halloween a chance this year. I kept telling myself to forget that this celebration is based completely on the tragic death of innocent people over 300 years ago and that there is no connection between Halloween and the Salem Witch Trials other than a manufactured one that has to be based on the completely unfounded assumption that these people WERE witches. People just don’t want to hear that, and my persistent haranguing has made me into a bit of a pest to my family and friends. A lighthearted attitude towards the month-long Haunted Happenings “celebration” is completely impossible for me to adopt, so instead I went for detached, either in time or of place: concentrate on the past (this always works for me) and avoid downtown at all costs. But yesterday I just put myself right into the fray, for you, dear readers, who have also been exposed to my Halloween snarkiness for years. I tried to adopt an objective attitude as I mingled among the huge crowds, but I couldn’t really maintain it and then I lost it altogether! So here are my observations, both in words and pictures–that latter a bit more objective than the former–I actually think they are a fair representation of what Salem looks like on Halloween. From my street-level perspective, however, I couldn’t quite capture the immensity of the crowd: estimated at 100,000 people, more or less.

What I observed (words):

  1. Huge crowds, very international in nature: I heard Spanish, French, German, Japanese, and (I think) Polish.
  2. Mostly they just mill about, taking pictures of themselves and others.
  3. There were some great costumes, but also a sea of generic witches and zombies. Lots of ghoulish brides, for some reason. My favorites were a pair of tarot cards, which I didn’t quite catch (see below). People really seemed to enjoy dressing up (humiliating) their dogs–this is just one reason I am a cat person.
  4. Long lines at all the schlocky businesses (the Salem Witch Museum, the Salem Witch History Museum, all the witch and “horror” shops). The Peabody Essex Museum was completely empty, but I was glad to see the House of the Seven Gables doing a brisk business. Kudos to the PEM and the National Park Service for keeping the Ropes Mansion and the Customs House open and free. These were the only real historical sites available to people, apart from the Witch House and the Gables.
  5. Good for business? This is the major reason people think Haunted Happenings is good for Salem. I suppose it is, but I’m really not sure. It seemed to me that the seasonal businesses were bustling while many of the more permanent ones were relatively empty, or even closed altogether. All the restaurants were packed, with long lines, but don’t all those sausage and fried dough stands eat into their business?
  6. Tours: one business that is obviously profiting big time from Haunted Happenings is that of walking tours, which seem to have multiplied exponentially from previous years. Both former and current students of mine were giving tours while I walked about, and I tried not to get too close so that I might hear what they were saying……
  7. Comments overheard during the crush. There are so many people packed together, that you can’t help but hear what they are saying (unfortunately). Most common comments/questions: where were the witches burned? what does that [building] have to do with the witches? Look at that dog!
  8. Crowd control: there is a huge police presence downtown, which is very necessary but must also be very costly.
  9. Trash: everywhere. Salem gets trashed during Haunted Happenings. The city was definitely on top of the trash situation, but again, at what cost?
  10. Desecration: the two most sacred sites downtown, the Old Burying Point on Charter Street and the adjacent Witch Trials Memorial were completely desecrated yesterday. There is no word more appropriate: desecration. The cemetery is simply fodder for tour groups and photo shoots, and the Memorial was reduced to a place where people could sit down and eat their fried dough or text. Drunken clowns (literally) sat on the stones representing the victims of 1692 while smiling tourists took their pictures. I ran home and poured myself a stiff drink.

What I observed (pictures):

Crowds converge around the Witch House and towards downtown; the requisite “sea of heads” shot, on Washington Street.

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The center of the storm, Lappin Park, at Washington and Essex Streets. Here Samantha, evangelical preachers, tourists, and fried dough converge. It’s really hard to convey how odd this juxtaposition of elements is.

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Some of the more creative costumes I spotted…..and uncreative: the last ladies were all sporting the super tacky “Salem Witch” costume I featured in a post a month ago.

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The Business of Witch City.

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Witch City Businesses

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A few random shots. Overheard in front of both the Derby House and the Ropes Mansion: did a witch live here?

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The Burying Point on Charter Street and Witch Trials Memorial. No comment.

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End note: Things did pick up after I went home and had a drink and received my trick-or-treaters, who were cute and gracious. There were the usual pirates and princesses, but one costume, worn by a boy about 10 years old, I found quite perplexing: a black, inflated, puffer suit of sorts, rendering him quite round. No mask, no graphics. I asked him what he was supposed to be, and he shrugged while his sister answered for him: America. Morbid Obesity.


30 responses to “Greetings from Witch City

  • Rick Ouellette

    Thank you for being out intrepid reporter. I agree with you, having gone (mid-October) the last couple of years. It is part of an overall American propensity to want to be at an event, regardless of whether one understands it. The pics at the Witch Trials Memorial are particularly discouraging, At least it’s Nov. 1st now.

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  • moonandstarmysticism

    Well done. This is a disgusting ‘celebration’ of a tragic time played off to be a Halloween festivity. I was particularly disgusted by the women dressed as witches with Salem written in fake blood upon their aprons.

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  • Rebecca

    I have to say I agree with some points but disagree with others. While I understand why people get so perplexed by Halloween in Salem every year, I kind of feel bad for them. I always enjoy october in salem despite the crazy crowds. There is a high cost to this event every year but the boost in its economy shows. I am reminded by this daily when I work there. 15 years ago Salem was much different. Now housing prices are soaring, new business are opening monthly and I for one have a job because of it. I can’t complain. However, I do feel the memorial is never respected as it should be. I wish they would have thought of the design a little bit more. I can understand why people sit on it because it looks like a bunch of benches. Maybe that is what the architect wanted but it obviously isn’t working.

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    • daseger

      I know what you mean, Rebecca, I lived here 15 years ago too, and Salem is a much more dynamic and flourishing place, no doubt, but I do not attribute that to Haunted Happenings entirely. I love the Memorial’s design: at the very least we need to put a sign up explaining what it is and prohibiting food and drink. We should also prohibit the concession stands from butting right up against it. That entire little Liberty Street is hell on earth during October.

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  • Roger

    The association of Salem and witches is inescapable. There is a Lincolnshire brewery, Bateman’s, which brews an excellent porter named Salem Porter after the brewery’s address, Salem Bridge Brewery. There seems to be no connexion at all between Salem Bridge and witches or Salem, Mass. but the advertising for the porter features a traditional witch on a broomstick: http://www.cyclopsbeer.co.uk/beer.asp?beer_id=19..

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  • Kim A. MacIsaac

    Bingo, Well said! This world is bad enough with all the killing that goes on and then people want to glorify it. We live in a sick society! Such debauchery. Unfortunately, we are probably in the minority.

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  • starsinshadow

    Good grief! Great – but disheartening – observations. I was in Salem two weeks ago; I had been warned not to go in October for all these reasons, but my time in New England was almost up so I had no choice if I wanted to see it. I had been to the Rebecca Nurse homestead in Danvers back in August, and it was delightful: informative, low-key, and respectful. I already knew Salem was marketed as “Witch City,” which made me uncomfortable since I was going there for the history.

    Fortunately I went on a Monday, and it was not nearly as insane as you found it yesterday! I skipped the tacky museums in favor of the Witch House and of course the memorial, which was pretty quiet and subdued that day. I’m especially horrified to see people sitting on the memorial stones (which might as well be gravestones and should be treated as such). When I was there, there were flowers and notes lovingly left behind by the victims’ families, and here are people using the stones as coasters. Ugh!

    It never fails to amaze me that despite the hysteria being one of the most publicized and publicly-recognized of American tragedies, people still assume actual witches were involved. I hope the long lines around the witch-related museums at least mean that people learned a few things there.

    tl;dr I didn’t find Salem, overall, as disrespectful as I was expecing to – though I still don’t like the “Witch City” label – but yesterday, my mother asked me why I chose a classy t-shirt that says only “Salem 1626” instead of “something with a witch on it” and I tried to explain, but she (like many of the people you saw yesterday, I imagine) didn’t appreciate what I was saying.

    …sorry for the absurdly long comment, but it seems rare to stumble across people who actually respect the memories of the victims of 1692!

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  • thesalemgarden

    Yesterday I was fortunate to spend the morning helping at the parking lot of a local insurance agency that donates their spaces to Salem school groups to sell to visitors during Haunted Happenings. We made a lot of money for the Senior Class at Salem High! It seems that more local groups in the city are benefiting and I’d like to see that trend continue. It does make the disruption to every day life easier to deal with. The desecration of the memorial is just wrong. I wonder if there’s a group who would take on the task of carefully monitoring that space and properly interpreting it to our visitors, along with the downtown cemeteries. Mayor Driscoll just posted a link to a Haunted Happenings survey for residents that will be used to plan for next year. If people share their concern, maybe a plan would be developed that would help our memorial and cemetery spaces become places of reverence and education about what really happened during the witch trials when visitors are here in town for Haunted Happenings.

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  • Cecilia Mary Gunther

    Morbid Obesity!! Brilliant. Now, you do remember that you can always escape to my barn. No Halloween out here. All is peace. and Can you explain to me why people say Happy Halloween. What does that mean “Happy Halloween, Darling.” Um – Thanks?

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    • daseger

      He was really cute! I do remember and I will take you up on the offer one year–I’ll work hard for you just to be away from here in October. I cannot explain “Happy Halloween”other than to suggest that its just another indication of the increasingly “festive” nature of the “holiday”.

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  • crowles213

    I really enjoyed this post! As a former student turned tour company owner/guide, I can assure you my tour is *very* historically accurate. I just love seeing my guests’ faces fall when I tell them “there were NO witches here in 1692…” Happy November 1st!

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  • Ruth

    Thank you for your posts which keep me in touch with the things about Salem that I love. Although the same things that bother you about our tourist trade gall me as well, I was glad to be able to look through your lens. I used to love those early days of November when down town became sane again.

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  • Lindsey Roman

    Ah – this reminds me of why I evacuate the city the day before Halloween each year and come back on November 1. I avoided downtown for most of the month of October, and took that time to discover other places in our surrounding towns. I dislike the large crowds, I dislike the ignorance many people hold to what really happened in this area, and I severely dislike the disrespect shown in these photos. This isn’t a theme park. It kind of embarrasses me to think that there are people out there who visit and probably think that we live in this land of insanity year round. Salem isn’t a magical Halloweentown…real people live here, and real tragedy happened here. There are so many other things the city has to offer and be proud of. Anyway, I’ll be positive and think of Halloween in Salem as a good excuse to go stay with my family in my quiet NH hometown for a couple of days each year! Enjoy November and the relative peace it will bring 🙂

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  • Paula Mason Libby

    46 years ago, I left Salem, where I’d lived during my college years and the beginning of my marriage, and moved to Maine. I was gobsmacked by your pictures of what Downtown Salem looked like just before Halloween. The contrast between Salem then, a still, more or less, economically plagued city, and today’s circus was a shocker. A friend was in Salem about 2 weeks ago and sent me a few photos, all respectful and lacking the nut jobs in weird costumes, but her accompanying email didn’t describe the circus like atmosphere. I’m glad the old town is on the upswing, but at what cost to its more fascinating history of its shipping trade, architectural wealth and place in US and Massachusetts history? ( The Peabody Essex Museum is worth the trip alone) Perhaps the upswing would have happened naturally anyway, as it seems to have with most of the North Shore just because of the proximity to Boston without all the hoo haw about witches. When I was there, the whole subject of witches was still a little taboo and the old town retained some of its guilt in the deaths of so many innocent people and what Hawthorn wrote of in House of the Seven Gables. Even without Salem’s shameful history with the Witch Trials, it is a fascinating and wonderful place to visit. All I can say is, that I’d rather remember my time there as it was and not what it has become.

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  • Meghan Arnold

    This definitely makes me reconsider our plans for a Halloween trip next year. Maybe we will come in September or November, instead.

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  • Stephanie

    I thought of this piece while listening to this Ben Franklin’s World podcast on Salem, http://www.benfranklinsworld.com/episode-053-emerson-w-baker-a-storm-of-witchcraft/

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  • Brian Bixby

    Perhaps Salem needs a new motto: “We didn’t burn witches . . . but we will burn ignorant tourists!” While it’s a tempting thought, it’s probably best not to use it . . . as SOMEONE would take it literally. (And I am not suggesting a Salem State professor.)

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