Salem–America’s Halloween Town

On the Road, Seasonal, Traditions
on September 30, 2007

On a blustery October night, a cloaked figure turns down a dimly lit alleyway in Salem, Mass. (pop. 40,407). An attentive crowd follows, mirroring the mysterious person’s every twist and turn before reaching one of America’s oldest cemeteries to learn its spooky history.

“I love entertaining our guests with ghost stories, but also telling them about the history of Salem,” says Justine Curley, who serves as the mysterious guide on the Haunted Footsteps Ghost Tour, one of many activities offered during the city’s monthlong Halloween celebration known as Haunted Happenings.

For 25 years, Salem has hosted the family-friendly observance of all things eerie and ethereal, drawing 300,000 visitors annually to an event that’s billed as America’s Halloween Festival. “It’s the largest Halloween festival in the country,” says Biff Michaud, CEO of the Salem Witch Museum and founder of Haunted Happenings. “We get visitors from all over the country and the world. They all want to be in Salem for Halloween.”

Salem, infamous for its witch trials of the late 1600s, has embraced its past. Today, the town is known as “The Witch City,” where the Salem High School mascot is a witch. The local newspaper, The Salem News, sports a witch on its masthead, as do the doors of Salem police cars.

Haunted Happenings began as a one-day festival in 1982 as a way to create a safe, family-friendly atmosphere where children of all ages could come together and celebrate Halloween.

The festival kicks off with the Grand Parade, a costume extravaganza featuring students from local grade schools and colleges dressed in costumes ranging from Superman and Harry Potter to Cinderella and Power Rangers.

Klaus and Belen Morgenstern of nearby Lynn, Mass., have attended the event for four years and find Salem the ideal place to spend an October evening. “We love to walk up and down the streets and look at all the different costumes,” says Belen, 33.

The festival also includes costume parties and balls, haunted houses and storytelling. All of the activities complement Salem’s numerous witch-themed museums, historic homes and tour companies. Salem hasn’t always embraced its infamous past. As recently as the early 1980s, townspeople preferred to forget the witch trials that took place in 1692 when 20 innocent people were executed, and hundreds more falsely imprisoned.

“People just didn’t talk about it,” Michaud says.

Still, Michaud views Haunted Happenings not just as a Halloween celebration, but also as a vehicle to educate the public about what really happened during the witch hysteria. Not surprisingly, many of Salem’s museums tell at least part of the story. At the Witch Dungeon Museum, for instance, actors re-create an actual trial, based on an original 1692 court document.

The events of the witch trials are not the sole item on Salem’s Halloween resume. The town also is home to a number of dwellings purported to be haunted, including the Gardner-Pingree House, a 200-year-old mansion said to be inhabited by the spirit of a sea captain. And then there is the elegant Hawthorne Hotel, where some visitors claim to have shared their room with a ghostly guest.

For historian Jim McAllister, though, Salem is much more than a collection of ghosts and graveyards. “For hundreds of years we were one of the most important ports in the New World,” he says.

In fact, a replica of a late 18th-century tall ship, The Friendship, bobs in Salem Harbor as a reminder of the town’s seafaring past. Even The Friendship takes on a mystical air in October, as storytellers regale tourists on board the ship with tales of mystery and mayhem on the high seas.

One more happening that makes Salem eerily special, especially on Halloween.

Sean Conneely is a writer in Red Feather Lakes, Colo.