In Salem, every day seems to be Halloween. On a normal afternoon, women in black cloaks and pointy hats can be seen walking through the shopping mall past windows full of pumpkins and skeletons.
Half an hour’s drive north of Boston, Salem is the spooks and spells capital of America. It is a town of haunted houses, witchcraft shops and scary cemeteries. There’s even a picture of a witch riding a broomstick on the side of the police cars.
It’s all good fun now, but it wasn’t back in 1692 when Salem first got its reputation as the Witch City. When local girls started falling ill for no apparent reason, their doctor decided that the cause must be witchcraft. Salem embarked on a hunt to find the witches responsible, with over 150 people accused of practicing the devil’s magic. Neighbours pointed the finger at each other, and some men even accused their wives. Confessing and naming other witches was the only way to escape prison – or worse.
During a crazy three month period, 19 people were hanged and one was tortured to death in a graveyard. Many of the convictions were based on little more than hysterical claims of being visited in dreams.
It’s fair to say that the courts sentencing the poor victims would hate what Salem has become today. Every October, the Haunted Happenings festival attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors. On Halloween night it’s almost impossible to move through the people in ghoulish fancy dress costumes.
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The town also has dozens of paranormal-themed museums. Some are little more than fairground-style haunted houses, but Count Orlok’s Nightmare Gallery is full of famous monsters from horror movies. As creepy music plays in the background, the path takes you through the likes of Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, the Mummy and the Creature From The Black Lagoon. It’s full of interesting stories about the shooting of the films – such as just how long the actors had to spend in make-up to become the chilling characters.
The Salem Witch Village covers the history of witchcraft. Many witches in the middle ages were simply women who lived in the countryside and were quite good with herbs. Some of these herbs – such as camomile and aloe vera – are used as medicine today. But if villagers were going to these ‘wise women’ for cures, they weren’t giving money to doctors and the church. For the authorities, the best way of keeping the power was to portray the wise women as evil and make visiting them illegal.
The image of a green-faced old crone riding a broomstick started with these propaganda campaigns. The green comes from the herbs, the haggard face from spending so much time out in the sun gardening them, and the broomstick was part of a traditional fertility ritual. It was thought at the time that the higher a wise woman could jump on a broomstick, the bigger the crops would be.
But Salem wouldn’t be truly spooky without a few ghosts, and the best time to track them down is at night. The Salem Night Tour goes through many of the spots linked to the madness in 1692 – including the memorial to the victims next to the Old Burying Point cemetery. The graveyard is supposedly haunted by the ghost of Blackbeard the Pirate, who plundered ships along the coastline from Salem before being beheaded.
Swanky restaurant 43 Church is allegedly haunted by the ghost of Bridget Bishop, the first woman to be hanged in the Witch Trials. The story goes that she liked a drink while she was alive, and hasn’t led death stop her raiding the wine stores.
Then there’s Gardner-Pingree House, where a Captain Joseph White was murdered in his bedroom with a dagger and a piece of lead piping. It was the inspiration for Clue – the American version of Cluedo. But the ghost of his murderer is said to come back every night to re-enact his dastardly crime.
Well, you didn’t think the supernatural spirits in America’s Halloween hotspot would behave themselves after dark, did you?
All content copyright David Whitley.