Most of the year, Salem, Massachusetts is just like any other city. Sure, residents may hail bright green taxis and cheer on the Witches at Friday night football games, but like any other town, average folks still buy groceries, pay parking tickets, and check out library books.
But in October, something strange happens to this small city of approximately 40,000 residents. Half a million people descend upon Salem over the course of the month to revel in its history and celebrate Halloween without restraint by way of Haunted Happenings, Salem Horror Fest, and other spooky events! New York may be known as the city that never sleeps, but during the tenth month of the year, this expression is also true for Salem.
While the city is operating a little differently this year (in some cases opting for online parties and virtual 5Ks), that doesn’t mean that you can’t delight in the spirit of Salem. If you’re uncomfortable with the prospect of traveling to the Witch City during this pandemic, then the media we’re talking about in this post will help to transport you there.
Now, let’s send forth our spirits to celebrate Halloween in Salem!
A Season with the Witch
If you want someone to hold your hand and guide you through this strange city, J.W. Ocker is up for the task. Ocker’s family spent an entire month in Salem—living and breathing the wicked air—and then he wrote a book about his experiences.
A Season with the Witch covers all things Salem, including popular tourist attractions, fictional witches, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and so much more. My favorite thing about this book is that it doesn’t shy away from the city’s dark history, and Ocker offers a thorough analysis of the opposing viewpoints on how to properly honor that history while turning a profit.
Also, don’t forget about Salem’s pirates! Remember, before the fibs of children resulted in the deaths of innocent men and women during the witch trials, Salem was a just a New England port town that traded a lot of pepper. (Thanks for that spicy history lesson, Mr. Ocker.)
One note: As of 2020, some sections of the book do need to be updated. For example, the Peabody Essex Museum (or as the locals call it, the PEM) is no longer focused on non-witch trials history; in fact, for the first time, they’re hosting a new exhibit about the Salem witch trials! Count Orlok’s Nightmare Gallery—Salem’s wicked monster museum—also now has prime real estate on Essex Street. However, the book is still relevant and well-researched. Even if you’re from Salem, you’ll probably learn at least one new thing from Ocker’s book about the city you call home.
Tics. Seizures. Something is afflicting the girls of St. Joan’s Academy. Could the stress of a highly competitive high school environment be causing the strange symptoms and mystery ailments, or could something more sinister be afoot, like the paranoia that swept the nearby town of Salem more than 300 years before?
Yes, I said “nearby town.” I have a confession to make: Conversion takes place in Danvers, Massachusetts—formerly Salem Village—which is approximately six miles from the Witch City.
However, it’s still deserving of a spot on this list for two reasons: First, you can’t talk about Salem’s history without acknowledging surrounding towns like Danvers and Peabody, places many of the witch trials victims called home. Second, the book’s author, Katherine Howe, is one of the foremost authorities on the history of all things witchy and Salem-related. Howe is a distant relative of Elizabeth Howe and Elizabeth Proctor, two women who were persecuted during the 1692 trials.
Conversion takes the mass hysteria and tragedy of the Salem witch trials and presents it to readers in a contemporary setting. And if the plot of Conversion doesn’t sound plausible to you, perhaps you should take a moment to read the disturbing tale of the girls of Le Roy, New York, which happened as recently as 2012.
Some residents find the influx of tourists to be exhausting, which is why it’s necessary to find the humor in the situation—after all, it’s Halloween!
If you’re not from the Salem area and have wanted to take in the sights of the Witch City without having to dodge monsters, tourists, protestors, and Satan (who panhandles for… hugs), watch Mass Hysteria (2019).
This 66-minute movie follows five Salem witch trials reenactors as they are pursued by a sick, angry mob after a tourist mysteriously dies. The film has a special brand of humor that may only appeal to viewers who live in Salem (or frequent the city on weekends) and can attest to the city’s quirkiness, particularly during October, but it made me giggle. If you’ve been to Salem during October, you won’t—not for one second—believe that the story takes place on Halloween night because of the lack of people. BUT between the fire and brimstone preacher in the immaculate white suit to the trolley carrying an assortment of tourists—including a bachelorette party, drunk frat bros, and punk-rock foreigners—the film captures the strange spooky cocktail that is Salem. The scenes with Louis Cancelmi, which are pure magic, accurately capture the small rivalries between the various tour and reenactment groups that are all vying for the attention of visitors while trying to maintain Salem’s respectability.
There are certainly moments when Mass Hysteria feels like five theater actors running around Salem at 3:00 a.m. in late November, long after the October crowds have dispersed, but that’s part of its charm. Mass Hysteria may or may not make you giggle, but at the very least, I hope you’ll appreciate the snappy scene cuts and quick zooms (largely inspired by Shaun of the Dead), some gross practical effects (there’s A LOT of vomit), and the cobblestone walkways and red brick buildings that line the Essex Street Pedestrian Mall.
More Salem-Set Stories
There is a long list of movies and TV shows that were filmed in Salem (here’s the complete list), but, for your sake, I tried to refrain from rhapsodizing about the obvious ones, like Hocus Pocus. (Keep your fingers crossed that our three favorite witches revisit their old stomping grounds in the highly anticipated sequel!) Or perhaps I’m just trying to do my part to ensure that a virgin doesn’t light the black flame candle this Halloween.
For those who can’t make it to Salem this year, don’t worry—you can still support your favorite vendors via the Haunted Happenings virtual marketplace.
And remember: Salem has weathered storms and wars and actual witch hunts; the city will survive this pandemic, too.