Between 1692 and 1693, 20 people were executed (19 hanged, and one pressed to death by heavy stones placed on a board atop his body) in Salem, Mass., after being convicted of witchcraft. Many others were arrested; another five of the accused died in prison. At the center of the trials (for which the transcripts can be read here) was a small group of young girls who, claiming “affliction” or supernatural possession, made the accusations in an escalating series of public fits.
A number of theories have been presented for the girls’ behavior (including a type of poisoning caused by eating rye bread or sleep paralysis), but the events in Salem are most commonly understood as an episode of mass hysteria, or simply a delusion that quickly spread and lost control. The court that held the trials was dissolved shortly after the hangings.
Today, the city is home to a number of historical sites and museums related to the trials, as well as a number of Wiccan- and witchcraft-themed shops. Nearly 1 million tourists visit the city every year, many during Salem’s annual Halloween celebration, Haunted Happenings.
It was late March, the quiet off-season, when I first visited Salem. Some (though not all) of the attractions were closed to the public, and the cobbled roads that become lined with vendors on Halloween were mostly empty. I have wanted to go there since I was 11, so I have had about 16 years to imagine what it would be like. I was wrong about some stuff (permanent full moon) but right about others (higher than average number of people wearing chokers). It is fascinating. Here is what I saw.
1. HEX Old World Witchery Store
Why It’s Spooky: Literally dozens of purchasable products for hexing people.
Salem is home to a number of witch- and psychic-dedicated stores, all with great names like HEX and OMEN and THE BROOM CLOSET. (If I were a witchcraft/magic potion supplier who wanted to open a store in Salem, here are some things I might call it: CHARMED, or INCENSED, or BESOM BUDDIES.* [*Besom is a witch term for broom. Haha.]) I went to HEX, because above the doorway was a sign that read “Cast a spell over the witches’ altar!”
Inside was a treasure trove of magic candles, spell kits, and Voodoo dolls. A nice pierced man behind the counter told me to feel free to ask questions. He did not act like it was weird when I held up a witches’ bag (a little pouch filled with herbs specific to the desired effect) for “money” and asked him “so what do you do with this to make it work?” I stood for a long time in front of the wall of candles trying to decide what to buy. In the end I pick one out for my roommate (who is kind of messy) called “Clean House,” which I think is really funny. (“This is funny, isn’t it?” I say when I give it to her. “It’s funny,” she agrees, mirthlessly.)
At HEX you can also buy a vagina candle, which is pretty much what it sounds like, and which promises to “destroy the sexual appetite of another woman.” There are no penis candles for sale, because of the patriarchy I’m guessing.
2. Old Burying Point Cemetery
Why It’s Spooky: Well, it is a very old cemetery. Also who lives in that house?
After buying my magic candle, I went to the graveyard where a few people associated with the Salem Witch Trials court are buried. (The location of the victims’ graves is unknown; people accused of witchcraft would not have been allowed burials in consecrated ground.) It began to rain as SOON as I walked into the graveyard, so I went to the CVS around the corner and bought a crappy umbrella to replace my broken crappy umbrella. When I got back, a group of four women (wearing fishnets, bandannas, interesting jewelry; one of them was wearing a pentagram sweatshirt) was huddling over a gravestone, holding up a recorder (collecting EVP). I hovered around them, probably very obviously eavesdropping, until I heard one of the women say, “That sounded like a child’s voice, right? A little girl.” Then I walked quickly away.
3. Salem Witch Trials Memorial
Why It’s Spooky: [self-explanatory]
Just outside Old Burying Point Cemetery is a memorial to the victims of the trials, each of whom has a designated stone built into a half-circular walking path. On each is written the date and manner of execution. While I was taking this picture, the group of women I’d seen in the cemetery came over to the memorial to hang around the stone allotted to Bridget Bishop, who I think is their favorite.
4. 3D Time Travel Machine
Why It’s Spooky: Rooms filled with mannequins in the dark. Some of them move.
After leaving the memorial, I came upon a storefront with a sign advertising a “3D Time Travel” tour through historical Salem, which when you think about it is a lot to offer for a mere $10. Inside, I took 3D glasses from a bin and walked into a small black-lit corridor splashed with neon paint. I stood there while a recording told me about Salem’s history as a port city. After walking through a few more rooms, I became increasingly confused by this establishment’s conception of “3D.” They have displays that are already actually three-dimensional. You can’t just invite someone over to your house, make them put on 3D glasses, turn off the lights, and say “welcome to my 3D house.”
My expert travel tip for this exhibit is to have Skittles with you. After the witch trial portion (which is almost unbelievably tasteless, with animatronic mannequins being hanged and pressed), things get pretty dry. The Skittles look mildly interesting in the 3D glasses/black lighting, and that will keep you occupied until you reach 1991, which, curiously, is where the time machine stops.
5. The Salem Witch Museum
Why It’s Spooky: Light-up displays of suffering mannequins.
Here I paid $9 to sit in a large, dark, barn-like room, in which various displays were set into the wall about 20 feet above the audience. A recording described the lead-up to the trials, the trials themselves, and a little about the aftermath, all while the relevant displays lit up individually. I was getting sick of mannequins at this point. Anyone who knows anything about the Salem Witch Trials is not likely to hear anything here they haven’t heard (or read) before, and the recording seems rather outdated in its narrative depiction of the events. But in the second part of the tour, a woman explained paganism and Wicca, and the unfair stereotyping of women involved with both, and the parallels between the witch trials and other persecutory events in U.S. history. She also asked if anyone knew where the practice of drawing witches with green faces began, and after a few moments of silence I said I did (1939’s The Wizard of Oz), and then I glanced around the room to see if anyone was looking at me in sheer amazement. (No.)
6. Magic Parlor Tarot Readings
Why It’s Spooky: You have $30 less than you did before. Where did it go?
I chose The Magic Parlor for my obligatory Salem tarot reading because it was recommended to me by another shop owner. The readers there have been doing tarot readings for more than 20 years; the woman who read mine appeared to be in her late sixties or early seventies. She wore thick metallic blue eyeliner all around both eyes and calld herself “an old witch.” My reading was 20 minutes and encompassed a variety of topics, none of which I am going to repeat here because there is something about being alone with a witch in a tiny, overheated cubby sectioned off by draped fabrics that makes you ask very embarrassing questions. The reader told me lots of nice things that will happen to me and I nodded, like, “Thank you, that does sound true.”
The tarot reader also asked me if my roommate was moody, and I texted her right after the reading to tell her so. She did not respond but I am pretty sure she thought it was funny.
Correction: An earlier version of this post used a picture of mannequins in the Salem Wax Museum instead of the mannequins in the Salem Witch Museum; this post has been updated with the correct picture.