A Picky Guide to October in Salem

I think this might be the first time I’ve written up a “things to do” in Salem for Halloween, a holiday that lasts for at least two months here and seems to be on the way to becoming a year-long “celebration” with perhaps a month break for Christmas. I’m the ultimate Halloween Scrooge, I’ll never be able to get past the opportunistic exploitation of tragedy issue, and Salem has enough boosters already. BUT, this year is a bit different as I am teaching the Salem Witch Trials for the very first time, in a couple of seminars for freshmen designed not only the explore the historical event and its impact but also to introduce them to the requisite skills of critical thinking and effective discourse. None of my students are from Salem, so I want to introduce them to the city as well. They are excited to be here and the last thing they need is a Halloween Scrooge: every Thursday after our last class of the week they ask for weekend recommendations and it would terribly wrong for me to simply say LEAVE. They should form their own impressions about Salem in general and Salem in October, so here is my guide to helping them do that. It’s not just for students and those new to Salem: I get emails about October every year so I’m trying to address general queries as well.

Get the story straight and the lay of the land. Where to go for general orientation when there is no Salem Museum? The only option is the Salem Visitor Center on Essex Street, right in the midst of the sprawling Peabody Essex Museum campus. The Center is a collaboration between the National Park Service and Essex Heritage: at present there’s not much there besides flyers, books for sale, banners, and restrooms, but you can purchase tickets and view the best introduction to the trials: Salem Witch Hunt: Examine the Evidence. We’ve spent the last month in class doing just that, but I still recommend this documentary to my students and anyone visiting Salem with the goal of learning more about the trials.

The Salem Armory Visitor Center and the Peabody Essex Museum’s Plummer Hall and Daland House adjacent: empty in the midst of much activity!

Choose your tour carefully. Walking tours are the best way, and really the only means, for the student/visitor to get both the lay of the land and the Salem story, but it’s important to know which Salem story you want to hear. I have no idea how many walking tours are offered now: I was walking down Charter Street the other afternoon (a relatively short street) and I encountered six, encompassing amplified guides each surrounded by 30+ tourists. It felt like a gauntlet. It’s impossible not to hear what guides are saying as you walk down the street, and they are spinning very different tales. So this is an opportunity for consumer research. Use the crowd-sourced tourism review sites: they are very illuminating. I’m taking my seminar students on their own walking tour in November, but I’m sure many of them want to go on ghost tours now and are are too afraid to ask for recommendations from me: I have none, so I would just tell them (and any visitor so-inclined) to do their research. There are a few below-the-radar historical and architectural tours that I’d like to mention here, however. Dr. Donald Friary, the former executive director of Historic Deerfield who now lives in Salem, is giving two focused tours of the Salem Maritime National Historic Site sponsored by Essex Heritage, and you can also book tours with him (and other guides) here. Two other tour companies which seem to be offering more intimate and focused (cultural and architectural) experiences are here and here.

In addition to Dr. Friary’s tours, the Salem Maritime National Historic Site offers several audio and digital tours of their site; The tour group in Derby Square above is about the average Salem size in October: this particular guide was doing a great job explaining the changing coastline of Salem while keeping their rapt attention: I’m sure I couldn’t do that!

Salem museums are not created equal. Salem has only two museums which are accredited by the American Alliance of Museums, whose core standards are available here: the Peabody Essex Museum and Historic New England’s Phillips and Gedney Houses. Actually the small museum administered by Essex Heritage out at Bakers Island is also accredited, but I doubt that very many October visitors are going to make it out there and it is closed for the season. The word museum is used very loosely in Salem, so beware: this is another realm for which online reviews will be helpful. Last year, the Peabody Essex Museum decided to engage with the Witch Trials by offering its first exhibition on the events of 1692 in quite some time, and it was truly wonderful to see objects and texts which I had only read about for the first time. This year, the PEM is continuing its engagement with The Salem Witch Trials: Reckoning and Reclaiming. I’m a bit confused by this exhibition so I’m going to go back again myself as well as with my students, but I will say that, once again, the authenticity of the objects and texts is striking when contrasted with so much faux in Salem, and I know from reading all these reviews that authenticity is something that very many Salem visitors are seeking. Historic New England offers a bit of specialty programming for both of its Salem properties in October: just the other day I went to a stirring presentation of Poe poems at the Gedney House, and the Phillips House is presenting Wicked Wednesdays for children.

Poe at Gedney House by Theater in the Open: these performance are over but remember, remember for next year. They use the house really well.

The Salem Witch Trials Memorial and Charter Street Cemetery. A big change here in terms of stewardship, so I can recommend a visit to these important, sacred sites. In past years, they were both overrun, but a partnership between the Peabody Essex Museum and the City of Salem has created a more protected and interpretive environment, based at the adjacent first-period Pickman House. The cemetery has been restored very carefully, and it’s really one of the most poignant places in Salem. Unfortunately the tackiest attractions in Salem are adjacent, literally blowing smoke into the cemetery, but that’s the reality of Salem in October: poignant and tacky.

FilmsThere are many opportunities to see timely films in Salem during October: on the Common, at the recently-revived Cinema Salem, on the patio of the East Regiment Beer Company. I’m looking forward to a screening of the animated House of the Seven Gables at Cinema Salem on the 28th in an evening sponsored by the Gables which will also feature a Q and A with the creator/director, Ben Wickey.

Just walk around: I suspect that my students just want to walk around in the midst of the packed Instagram crush that is downtown Salem, although a few of them did express concerns about the density of the crowds last weekend. So for them, and any visitor seeking a bit more space, I would recommend just walking around the neighborhoods: in the McIntire District, adjacent to the Common, along  and off Derby Street. There’s lots of beautiful houses to see, many decorated for the season, and lovely gardens behind the Ropes Mansion and Derby House. I’m hearing that the Haunted Happenings Marketplace, now on Salem Common, is a bit more carefully curated than in years past, so I might even venture over there today (a Saturday!) on foot, of course: opinions may differ about the character and impact of Salem’s Halloween, but the one thing everyone agrees on is the need to discourage driving dramatically: traffic and parking are just too scary.

Derby and Ropes Gardens, Federal Court, and WAY further afield on Lafayette Street.

 


9 responses to “A Picky Guide to October in Salem

  • Kathy Sands Boehmer

    Bravo! I grew up in Salem and I concur with your sentiments here. I’ve come to detest October and think that there’s so much more to this city than the tacky “museums” spread throughout…. Thanks for your insight.

  • Norm Corbin

    It appears to be lost that there were never any witches, only innocent people accused and murdered as being them. There is a new very small memorial “Proctors Ledge” where the gallows were installed. It is on Pope Street very near the Walgreens on Boston Street. I was there a few weeks ago, it is very respectful. At some point the “Witches” mascot for the High School teams should be reconsidered. Norm

  • Nancy A Roney

    Thank you for this blog. It is not only interesting but useful. Not that it is a halloween tour but I recently toured with Charlotte’s Salem. I hope they repeat it. The actress who performed as Charlotte Forten was excellent. She really did her research and got into the personality of the person. two hours and sprinting through salem at different locations left me wanting more. I think having training as an actor really helps someone lead these tours. Really liked your Provincetown blog. I was there recently and used it in planning my trip.

  • Nancy

    Hey, Donna, while I was waiting to get my flu shot, I picked up (and bought) a LIFE EXPLORES magazine, entitled “The Salem Witch Trials: The True Witch Hunt of 1692 and Its Legacy.” I have not had a chance to read it, but the photography is wonderful (leave it to LIFE Magazine). Thought you might want to check it out!

  • Nancy

    Hey, Donna, as I was waiting in line to get my flu shot, I spotted a magazine (which I purchased), a special issue of LIFE EXPLORES called “The True Witch Hunt of 1692 and Its Legacy Today.” I haven’t had a chance to look through it carefully, but the photography is excellent (leave it to LIFE). Thought you might wish to take a gander!

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