I recently took a trip to Salem, Massachusetts, to explore the famously spooky town as the locals prepared for Halloween.
While several of my friends are Halloween enthusiasts, I’ve always declared myself more of a Thanksgiving girl. I decided that if anything could convince me to get into the Halloween spirit, it would be a trip to Salem with three of my friends.
Salem is known for being the location of the 1692 Salem witch trials, which saw 20 people executed on false accusations of practicing witchcraft, and more recently, as the setting of the “Hocus Pocus” series. It’s a popular destination for people looking to embrace the Halloween spirit.
Here are a few things that piqued my curiosity about all-things Halloween and made the trip a memorable one.
I thought I was prepared for crowds, but I couldn’t believe how many people showed up to celebrate Halloween.
I knew that my friends and I chose a crowded month to visit Salem, but I was shocked at the number of people in town. Especially big crowds gathered in front of popular landmarks, like the Salem Witch Museum and Town Hall.
Downtown Salem was so crowded that it was difficult to navigate from one destination to the next. My friends and I shared our locations with each other on our phones because we kept getting separated in the crowds.
I wanted to stop at Sea Level Oyster Bar for lobster, but the popular eatery did not take reservations and the line stretched down the block. We decided to skip it and try the lobster at Turner’s Seafood the next day. Luckily, I’d made reservations a month in advance for several other restaurants, so we were able to enjoy most of our meals without worrying about the lines.
I was surprised that one of my favorite childhood TV characters had a connection to Salem.
While walking on Essex Street on my first day in Salem, I came across a sculpture of Samantha Stephens from the 1960s sitcom “Bewitched.” Samantha appealed to me as a kid because she stood apart from scarier onscreen witches, like The Wicked Witch of the West from “The Wizard of Oz.”
The bronze statue shows Samantha riding a broomstick with a crescent moon behind her. While taking pictures of the statue, I heard locals talking about Bewitched’s connection to the town, and they told me the sitcom filmed several episodes in Salem in 1970. It was a nice surprise to see my favorite fictional witch commemorated by the town.
I learned that the only original building remaining from the witch trials era was the historic Witch House.
As we walked along Essex Street on the first day of the trip, we passed the Witch House in the McIntire Historic District. One of my friends who visited Salem last year told us she’d learned that it’s the last remaining building with a link to the Salem Witch Trials.
The Witch House, also known as the Jonathan Corwin House, was once the home of Judge Jonathan Corwin, the judge who oversaw the Salem Witch Trials. Given the emphasis on the Salem Witch Trials in the town, I was surprised that this was the only structure preserved from that time.
A tour guide I met in Salem later told me that the 1914 Great Salem Fire destroyed most of the historic buildings, with the exception of the Witch House. Due to the Witch House’s popularity, we weren’t able to get tickets to go inside, but it was interesting to see the only structure that has been in town since the 1600s.
At night, displays were transformed with lights and appeared more sinister.
At night, many Halloween displays were lit up, as though locals wanted us to feel the full spirit of Halloween after dark.
There were also concealed decorations in several homes that we had to look for closely to catch — I noticed one hidden ghost peering out of the top window of a home in downtown Salem.
There were tons of Halloween souvenirs for sale around town, including handmade items from local artisans in pop-up tents.
I was looking forward to visiting witchy shops and buying souvenirs, and was intrigued by the number of local artisans in festive Halloween costumes who set up pop-up shops around town.
The Haunted Happenings Marketplace in Salem Common had witchcraft wares like black hats, crystals, and bottles of herbs. Some of the stalls also sold regular homemade items like candy, soap, and jewelry.
At another marketplace near Town Hall, we browsed the various tents and I enjoyed mingling with locals, who gave enthusiastic advice about what to see in town and offered directions to other attractions. I ended up buying some crystals and postcards for my family to commemorate the trip.
I appreciated how Salem’s history was highlighted around town, especially through reenactments of the witch trial arrests.
As a visitor, watching locals perform witch trial reenactments in front of Town Hall made me feel even more immersed in Salem’s history. I watched a local woman get dragged to Town Hall on accusations of witchcraft, while protesting her innocence.
It was discomforting and shocking to watch the arrests, knowing that the victims were unfairly persecuted and suffered horrific deaths. The reenactment made me feel uneasy, but it also showed me that Salem’s history is still at the heart of the town, and the Halloween celebrations are a close second.
I’d expected a traditional walk-through from the Salem Witch Museum tour, but the experience ended up being much more immersive.
On the second day of our trip, we went on a tour of the Salem Witch Museum located at Salem Common. This is a popular attraction, so I purchased tickets at midnight the night before our tour. I expected a traditional museum walk-through with exhibits of artifacts and informational plaques, but it ended up being a much more immersive experience.
After entering the museum, we were brought to the first exhibit — an auditorium where we sat on swivel chairs while watching scenes from the Salem witch trials being portrayed on stage with mannequins. A chilling voiceover narrated each scene and special effects lighting illuminated various characters, in a unique format that was bone-chilling.
I appreciated this exhibit because it allowed me to focus on the history and feel the weight of the subject matter. The attention to detail made me further appreciate Salem’s commitment to preserving its history and culture.
The second part of the tour explored the depiction of witches throughout time and pop culture. I was surprised to learn that giving witches green skin became popular after the producers of the 1939 film “The Wizard of Oz ” painted the Wicked Witch of the West’s face green — a detail that wasn’t in the book — to get more out of the new Technicolor film technology.
I saw more Hocus Pocus-themed souvenirs and costumes than I expected while walking in downtown Salem.
Several local shopkeepers told me they were surprised by the number of visitors they’d seen this season, and one attributed the boom to this year’s release of “Hocus Pocus 2,“ which she said helped renew the town’s status as a Halloween destination.
The original “Hocus Pocus” debuted nearly 30 years ago, so I was surprised to see merchandise for the franchise displayed prominently around town. During my trip, I saw some familiar locations from the “Hocus Pocus” movies, like the Ropes Mansion and Town Hall.
Local shops had lots of movie-themed merchandise on hand, like dolls, cookbooks, and mugs. I saw many revelers in the crowds dressed up as the three Sanderson sisters from the movies, and even a “Hocus Pocus” souvenir display at the Salem Witch Museum.
I found an unexpectedly peaceful garden and pond behind the Ropes Mansion, with no Halloween decor in sight.
One of the most unique places I visited was the garden at the Ropes Mansion, located in the McIntire Historic District. The property was a filming location for “Hocus Pocus,” so I saw many visitors lined up to take pictures in front of the landmark house, which was built in the 1720s. However, I found it surprising that there was no line to enter the garden and no Halloween decorations there, a contrast to most other Halloween-themed places in the town.
I spent some time walking around the garden, which was a relaxing break from the Halloween excitement. The one-acre garden was covered with rectangular flower beds and winding paths filled with flowers. I passed beds of hydrangeas, roses, lilies, and dahlias, and read signs with information about the different species of plants and trees.
In the garden, I also passed a koi pond. Another visitor encouraged me to walk up to the edge of the pond, so I could see a school of carp swimming between the lily pads. It was an unexpected, restful moment of quiet before our sightseeing continued.
I was surprised to find a dry fountain that showed the changing geography of Salem over the last 250 years.
Another interesting stop on the walk through Main Street was the East India Square Fountain. It was dry during our visit, but a Salem tour guide told me it’s usually filled with water.
A plaque next to the fountain explained that it was built in 1976 to symbolize Salem’s history as a port city trading with the Far East. It’s designed as a topographical map, depicting Salem’s 18th century coastline on the top level of the fountain and the town’s contemporary coastline on the bottom level.
Looking at the two levels, I could see how much the coastline had been filled in since the 1700s. I thought this was a neat landmark to showcase Salem’s history outside of the witch trials and Halloween lore.
The Salem Witch Trials Memorial honored victims who died more than 300 years ago, but visitors still placed tokens like flowers and coins at the site.
On the second day of our trip, we found the Salem Witch Trials Memorial on Liberty Street in downtown Salem, which recognizes the victims of the trials in 1692. Stone walls several feet high and 20 granite benches surrounded the space (one for each of the victims), with a grassy lawn in the middle.
The granite benches are carved with the victims’ names, dates of death, and manner of execution. I was surprised to discover tokens like flowers, coins, and handwritten letters placed on the benches to honor the victims’ lives and memories. As we stood near the benches and reflected on the tragic history, the mood felt more somber than at some of the other places in town. In keeping with local custom, I left a coin behind on victim Margaret Scott’s memorial on my way out.
Although it was a short trip, visiting Salem definitely boosted my Halloween spirit.
Between Salem’s festive decor, history, and enthusiastic locals, it was hard not to get caught up in the Halloween spirit, even for a skeptic like me.