Perched atop a broomstick at the intersection of Essex and Washington streets, Samantha Stephens smiles at passersby, many of whom stop to get a picture with her or come in for a closer look.
Cast in bronze, the witch who married a mortal not only attracts fans of the long-running 1960s TV series “Bewitched” but pretty much everyone else who visits Salem.
An unofficial mascot, the statue stirred up controversy when it was unveiled in 2005 as many locals felt it made a mockery of the witch trials; a dark chapter in the city’s history when 20 men and women were executed for practicing witchcraft in 1692.
It’s that macabre history, however, that draws thousands of visitors each year and, for the most part, Salem doesn’t seem to mind.
If anything, it has embraced its past and you needn’t look far to find witch-related retailers, tours, attractions, museums and images on everything from police cars and taxis, to streetlights and storefronts.
It’s witch season in Salem, 365 days a year.
Though tourists visit the city in a constant ebb and flow, the overwhelming majority show up in October. On weekends they arrive by the busload, snarling traffic and filling the streets.
That’s when there’s a palpable current of excitement and the spirit of Halloween permeates Salem. Shop windows are dressed with ghosts, jack-o’-lanterns and spooky scenes. Ghoulishly costumed mannequins stand watch outside of restaurants while the real-life variety wander among the crowds just for fun or to score a tip from eager photo-takers.
It’s Salem’s Mardi Gras (sans the beads and booze) and the attraction is undeniable.
Getting To Know Salem
Depending on your preference, there are countless ways to enjoy Salem. A good place to start is by understanding its history through tours and attractions.
“Bewitched After Dark” offers guided walking tours to some of the most noteworthy sites associated with the witch trials.
Co-owner and guide Jeff Page is quick to note that he doesn’t run ghost tours, but rather provides an in-depth, historical look at the witch trials and their lasting impact.
“People want to believe in ghost stories more than the here and now,” he said. “But this is a case of history being more frightening than fiction; people don’t realize the extent of how brutal it was.”
Along the tour is a stop at the Salem Witch Trials Memorial, a quiet spot surrounded by trees that houses 20 granite benches; one for each man and women executed. Many are laid with flowers and it’s a sobering reminder that tragedy lies at the heart of the carnival-like atmosphere.
“Cry Innocent” is a live, 45-minute performance in which the audience serves as a Puritan jury tasked with deciding the fate of an accused witch.
Based on the true story of Salem resident Bridget Bishop, the show begins with her staged arrest on the street and ends with a verdict at Salem’s Old Town Hall. “Jurors” are invited to ask questions throughout the trial and then decide for themselves if there’s enough evidence to convict.
The real Bridget Bishop was found guilty of witchcraft in June 1692 and hanged eight days later.
Notable historic sites include the Charter Street Cemetery, also known as The Burying Point. It’s the city’s oldest burying ground and contains the remains of a Mayflower pilgrim along with John Hathorne, one of the witchcraft trial judges.
The Jonathan Corwin home, also called the Witch House, is the only structure in Salem with direct ties to the trial. It’s on Essex Street and stands out with its pointy gables and distinctive architecture. Corwin, another of the judges, purchased the house in the mid-1600s.
Built in 1668, The House of the Seven Gables remains the oldest surviving 17th-century wooden mansion in New England and is the inspiration for Nathanial Hawthorne’s celebrated novel by the same name.
Constituting its own national historic district on the National Register of Historic Places, it’s open daily and guided tours are available.
Finally, the Pickering House, on Broad Street, is not only Salem’s oldest house, but it has been inhabited solely by Pickering family members for more than 350 years, giving it the distinction of being America’s oldest home.
A Salem Trolley tour takes you past most of these and other important historic sites during hourlong tours that run all day. Evening ghost tours (Salem Trolley’s Tales & Tombstones) are also available throughout the month of October.
Salem’s “Haunted Happenings” starts Oct. 1 and is a monthlong festival of events including parades, costume contests, parties, outdoor movies and a host of other activities for adults and families alike. There are also séances, psychic fairs, a witches’ ball and a carnival that begins in mid-October and runs through the day after Halloween.
Fear enthusiasts will likely line up at one of the four haunted houses in Salem, but for anyone who prefers scary movies to being scared, visit Count Orlok’s Nightmare Gallery, a horror movie wax museum. Boasting more than 60 life-sized reproductions made by Hollywood special effects artists, the museum is home to some of horror films’ greatest monsters including Frankenstein, Freddy Krueger and Count Dracula. Admission is a steal at just $7 for adults and $5 for kids.
As Salem is home to a relatively large witch and pagan population, it’s not surprising to find a bounty of witch shops there, including The Coven’s Cottage, Hex: Old World Witchery, Crow Haven Corner and several others. Whether you seek true love or want to put a hex on your ex, you shouldn’t have to look far to find the necessary ingredients for spells or anything else you need to conjure up a little sorcery.
Already stocked up on caldron supplies? Don’t worry, there’s plenty of other shopping in town. A host of stores along Essex Street offers everything from Halloween-related items, jewelry, books and souvenirs to anything and everything witchy.
To experience an alien abduction of the food kind, visit the Flying Saucer Pizza Company. Decorated with space movie posters and paraphernalia, it’s eclectic, fun and the pizza is, ahem, out of this world. Ordering the award-winning “Mars Attacks” pie is seriously mandatory (it’ll leave you positively spellbound) as is one their signature Scarlet Witch margaritas.
Drink more than a couple, however, and you’ll need to pocket your car keys and find a broomstick to take you home.
Before You Go
The fervor in Salem really ramps up around Columbus Day and builds to a crescendo through Halloween, said Kate Fox, executive director of Destination Salem. “If people are looking for a large celebration with street fairs and wall to wall people, costume and people watching in October, then Salem is the best ever,” she said.
But crowds mean traffic and sold-out attractions, so there are a few things to keep in mind.
With only a handful of hotels in town, rooms are typically booked more than a year in advance and Fox recommends booking early or reserving rooms at hotels in neighboring communities like Danvers or Peabody.
Finding parking can be difficult during the height of the season. There are garages and public parking lots throughout Salem, but they fill up quickly on weekends.
Arriving before noon is the best way to secure a spot or consider taking the train in via the Newburyport/ Rockport line. The Salem Fast Ferry (leaving from Long Wharf in Boston) is another option, and takes about an hour each way.
It’s not uncommon to find most tours and ticketed attractions sold out for the entire month of October, so make reservations and buy tickets for the things that you know you’d like to do in advance. Also expect long lines at destinations like the Salem Witch Museum, Witch House, House of the Seven Gables and many of the popular retail shops.
For shorter wait times and reduced crowds consider visiting during the week, but then again, you might miss out on the spectacle that is Salem on an October weekend.
“It’s really fun, it’s as simple as that,” said Fox. “There’s something for all ages which is the reason people from all over the world make this their October destination.”
For more, visit Destination Salem, www.salem.org; Bewitched After Dark Walking Tours www.bewitchedafterdark.com; Salem Trolley, www.salemtrolley.com; Cry Innocent, www.cryinnocentsalem.com; The Burying Point Cemetery, www.salemweb.com/guide; Jonathan Corwin House -Salem Witch House, www.salemweb.com/witchhouse; The Pickering House, www.pickeringhouse.org; House of the Seven Gables, www.7gables.org; Haunted Happenings, www.hauntedhappenings.org; Count Orlok’s Nightmare Gallery, www.nightmaregallery.com; The Coven’s Cottage, www.thecovenscottage.com; Hex: Old World Witchery, www.hexwitch.com; Crow Haven Corner, www.crowhavencorner.net; Flying Saucer Pizza Company, www.livelongandpizza.com; Salem Parking & Transportation, www.salem.org/plan/parking