Images by Ryan Walsh unless otherwise noted
It’s only the first weekend in October, but Essex Street is already hectic. The narrow sidewalk is a parade of people in costume, pedestrians whose everyday clothes you might categorize as costumes, and ordinary-looking folks in a vague hurry, off to get their witch fix.
They’re all in the right place. Salem is now offering more ways than ever to scratch that occultist desire. Outside of the Hex: Old World Witchery store, teenagers debate whether to venture inside for a tarot reading. On an adjacent corner, groups of friends and families pose with the “Bewitched” statue, a striking bronze replica of the show’s Samantha character riding her broom past a slender moon. At her feet, a plaque lets you know the statue was placed there by the TV Land network.
Further east, past Washington Street, Essex turns into a marketplace where cars are prohibited, but the stores offering witch paraphernalia and psychic readings become more plentiful. Inside a shop called Witch Tees, I overhear two psychic readers talking—one is complaining about tips. “I’ve done 14 readings and only made $15,” she tells her co-worker, shaking her head. “I spent it all on food,” she concludes, a note of disgust in her voice. Outside, the smorgasbord of walking tours promising everything from “ghost orbs” to the “one hundred percent true” scary stories of Salem begin to resemble flocks of birds, somehow instinctively avoiding one another. A pit bull trots by dressed like Batman.
At the popular Gulu Gulu Café, I ask a lifelong resident if the city’s witch tourism has always been a mainstay. “No,”” he says, “it definitely wasn’t anything like this when I was a kid. I don’t even think it was like this in the eighties.” Technically speaking, this all began in September 1692, when 14 women and six men from Salem were hanged (or in one case pressed to death) after being accused of witchcraft. How a national disgrace morphed into a big money tourism jackpot for a small North Shore port town is one of the more unknowable mysteries you’ll encounter in any of these shops selling glimpses of the supernatural.
According to Kate Fox, executive director of Destination Salem, “We estimate 30 percent of our tourism comes in October … Tourism generates more than $100 million spending annually in Salem and sustains more than 700 jobs.” Destination Salem is an initiative of Salem’s Office of Tourism, and Kate’s email answers to my questions are informative but succinct. The office’s motto, “Salem: Still making history” strikes me as perhaps the most passive aggressive way possible to acknowledge the city’s infamous dark history, which has quite literally made its bright, profitable present-day situation possible. But then again, how would you convey that sentiment in a motto?
Looking for answers, I consult Christian Day, who owns two witchcraft shops in Salem, and who claims to be the “World’s Best-Known Warlock.” When Day picks up the phone, his first words are, “Yeah, hold on, I’m gonna give Brian my cape and hat.” Brian is a manager at one of his two Salem stores, Hex: Old World Witchery, and Day is aggravated that he isn’t dressed the part.
“I don’t care! It’s better than that thing that looks like you work at Staples,” Day tells Brian before resuming our interview. “My store manager comes in with a blue Polo shirt like he works at FedEx. And this is what I’m talking about here, our identity, you know people come here expecting a certain thing and this is the magic that we give them. They say it’s commercial and I think to a degree it is, but when you look back at history, at stories of mythology, the witch, the shaman, the medicine person, the healer of the tribe … they always looked different.”
Day is charming, funny, charismatic. I enjoy his unpretentious takes on the very theatrical scene and lifestyle for which he’s become a ringleader in Salem. He runs through a condensed history of the city’s witch tourism: “It started in 1892 with the Daniel Low department store making a silver witch spoon. Then you had the Witch House open in 1948. I think the biggest burst of tourism was the late sixties or early seventies, when they had the episode of ‘Bewitched’ that was filmed in Salem, and that was absolutely huge. And then in 1992, the 300th anniversary of the trials, it just exploded. We’ve seen these growth spurts and it’s never really gone down.” I ask Day if there are residents who don’t care for the “growth spurts,” and he has little sympathy—especially for those who moved here after the tourism boom in the nineties. “If I didn’t like the smell of Chinese food,” Day quips, “I wouldn’t move to Chinatown.”
I arrive on Essex Street and park my car, just in time to witness the end of one of Salem’s many spooky walking tours. The guide is a young man in his mid-twenties, speaking through a small bullhorn. He leaves his tourgoers with parting words: “Thank you for coming out tonight. Now obviously tipping isn’t necessary, but it’s awesome. If you need to know anything about fake witchcraft, real witchcraft, or where to eat, just ask me.”
You can find plenty of all of those things just wandering down Essex Street by yourself. I walk slowly, thumbing a 63-page tourism guide called Haunted Happenings. There’s the “Psychic Fair and Witchcraft Expo,” an attraction that promises an amusingly specific “16 minute adventure,” a shop unfortunately called Salemdipity, and a place that holds a live séance on Friday and Saturday nights. I flip through the guide and read the bio of one psychic, whose lead-off credit is: “Seen on TLC’s ‘What Not to Wear.’” Almost every vendor sells t-shirts, whether it’s germane to their core business or not. Some shirts find playful ways to toy with the city’s history: One features a gaggle of witches on broom sticks and reads, “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.” Others feature the basest puns imaginable: “I got a hand job at Bewitched in Salem” read one, accompanied by an image of palmistry—another just declares, “I got stoned in Salem,” which is one of the most direct instances I find of commerce tied to the idea of Witch Trials as a funny thing, and it’s depressing to behold.
On the one hand, this is all colorful, eccentric fun that is a boon for the municipal economy, a tourism juggernaut that few other locales around New England can compete with. Still, it’s hard to not keep remembering this is all born out of something horrific. Imagine if the premise of Disney World were a massacre conducted by a man dressed up in a mouse costume that occurred 300 years ago. American culture is no stranger to leveraging its darkest moments for comic relief, and my feeling is that this instinct is entirely healthy. At the same time, the distance between tragedy and processing it through humor has grown smaller and smaller. I can’t help but think about a Twitter thread in 1865: It’s moments after Booth assassinated Lincoln, and a slave-owning Southerner trolls, “Otherwise, what did you think of the play, Mrs. Lincoln?” Would any of Salem’s witch tourism be palatable if the trials happened 100 years ago? How about 50? What exactly is the equation for this kind of response’s appropriateness? And is that figure a moving target?
Looking for more local opinions, I call Stacy Tilney, director of communications for the Salem Witch Museum. “I can see how that might seem like competing or conflicting notions,” she says, “but they’re sort of not related. You know, they’re just kind of coincidentally finding themselves in Salem at the same time. I don’t think anyone celebrates the Salem Witch Trial history. You know what I’m saying?”
Sort of, but Christian Day’s whole take stands in somewhat stark contrast to Tilney’s. “Maybe they should celebrate these people’s lives as much as they cry over them,” he says. “I think both are important. I really do. There’s a way we can celebrate these people.”
These seemingly opposing statements represent hints of a city divided. Where this gets really interesting though is where the City of Salem has been forced to mediate between parties and to regulate what some consider to be fantasy. Beth Rennard, the city’s attorney, shows me an ordinance regarding the licensing of psychics and, it’s the most fascinating bureaucratic form I’ve ever seen. From section 14-72 A:
Fortunetelling shall mean the telling of fortunes, forecasting of futures, or reading the past, by means of any occult, psychic power, faculty, force, clairvoyance, cartomancy, psychometry, phrenology, spirits, tea leaves, tarot card, scrying, coins, sticks, dice, sand, coffee grounds, crystal gazing or other such reading, or through mediumship, seership, prophecy, augury, astrology …
This goes on for three pages, and I’m a bit taken aback by the language. Could an attorney really use these definitions in the court of law?
Day says he helped catalyze the altering of ordinances so the number of licensed psychics in town could grow from a few to the nearly 100 who operate here now. He is pleased with the plethora of operating psychics, and once told The New York Times in 2001 he wants Salem to be the “Las Vegas of psychics,” even if many clairvoyants-for-hire have complained the oversaturation makes it hard to earn. As a result, the prices for psychic readings are extraordinarily high—$40 for a 15 minute reading, which significantly outpaces the cost per minute of many therapists and strippers.
Fortunetelling l icenses cost $50, and do serve an important function that has only recently been necessary in Salem: the prohibition of hex removals. Last year, Fatima’s Psychic Studio lost all its licenses after a deluge of complaints, including one from a man who spent in excess of $16,000 trying to remove a curse that his reader identified. Other Fatima clients were told they were “full of evil” and were worked on for smaller, yet still significant, amounts of money. It’s strange to parse the reasons you’re allowed to lose millions at the Hard Rock or Foxwoods, but it’s illegal for a Salem fortuneteller to promises you a better future for a chunk of change.
Rennard declined to comment any further on the regulation of hex removals, but chances are some greater oversight will eventually be needed. As the Times noted in an article three years ago, tensions have risen to the point of fortuneteller infighting and accusations of dead animals being abandoned outside of storefronts. Meanwhile, I dream of the possibility of a surreal Supreme Court case that debates the legal definition of scrying and augury by coffee grounds.
It’s early October and raining, and tours depart every hour on the hour from nearly a dozen locations. Nevertheless, they’re selling out, and I grab the last available ticket for a spooky walk. Our tour guide steps outside to greet her new ghost-hungry tourists—her steampunk-approved outfit complete with tinted goggles on top of her head, which serve no functional purpose. She asks if everyone is ready, and being someone who always tries to empower those attempting to lead, I say, “Yeah!” and she immediately mocks me for being overenthused. “Whoa, watch out for this guy. He’s already too into it!” Meanwhile, one of my tourmates is having a cellphone dispute with a loved one next to me, and our guide’s attempt to shame her is far less mean-spirited than her takedown of my rally cry.
Our guide encourages the group to take as many photos as we want, and advises us on how to distinguish between a supernatural capture and water on the lens. “Raindrops will appear semi-translucent in your photos,” she explains. “Ghost orbs,” meanwhile, “will look completely solid. A lot of people report getting great shots of ghost orbs on nights just like this.” Everyone looks at all the umbrellas on display and considers what she’s just said, and even the most dedicated believers look a bit skeptical.
We stomp up the street together while our guide moves at a casual pace through the rain. I step a few feet in front of her to maneuver around a puddle: “Uh, hey, you might wanna let the tour guide lead the tour.” It’s official, I don’t like our leader, but continue to follow.
Our first stop is 128 Essex Street, known as The Gardner-Pingree House. Our guide encourages us to gather in close and then proceeds to tell a murder-ghost story with the enthusiasm of someone ordering a sandwich. She spins a yarn about Captain Joseph White, who would drunkenly invite guests over to have a nightcap after blabbing about treasure he hid in the house. The crowd is already three steps ahead of her, probably already bored, but when she finally gets to the part about the haunting, gesturing with one arm to the window where the ghost is often seen, I’m alarmed by the speed at which my mates whip out their phones and start feverishly snapping pics of a dark window. She caps the story with a tidbit: “As you know, the Parker Brothers company originated in Salem. And it’s this very murder which would become the basis of their most famous board game: Clue.”
En route to the next spot, I fact-check her claim on my phone, and before our arrival at the next haunted location I’ve already learned that Clue was based on a game in the United Kingdom called Cluedo, and that the plot has nothing to do with the Gardner-Pingree House murder. For something closer to that story you’ll need a ticket to the theatrical show currently running in Salem called “Goodnight, Captain White,”which is described in ads as a “hysterical interactive whodunnit.”
At our next stop, I move to snap a photo. My iPhone case sports a Ouija board, and so when I pull it out the guide notices and points: “Hey cool phone case!” Everyone in the group turns to look, and I’m no longer an invisible journalistic presence: Now they’re photographing me and my phone case. An older woman next to me turns and asks, without irony—I swear this happened—“Are you a murderer?” The question is so bizarre, so inappropriate, so funny that my reply is a string of stammers and indistinct words. She exits the interaction more convinced I am a murderer than she was before it started.
Our guide tells another half-baked ghost story, points to a few more windows, and leads us all over downtown Salem, where we constantly intersect with other walking spook tours. I figure there must be some kind of schedule or pre-established routes so competing companies don’t run into each other and run the risk of tourists hearing contradictory versions of tall tales. We stop at the estimated location of the place where one of the men accused of witchcraft was pressed to death in 1692 (all the other 19 victims were hanged). Because he refused to register a plea of either innocent or guilty, Sheriff Corwin and some onlookers placed 32 boulders on Corey Giles’ stomach over two days, causing him to slowly die an extraordinarily painful death, but not before he cursed the entire city of Salem. This is the most somber (and true!) moment of the tour.
Just as our guide finishes the tale and we’re left to ruminate on the terror in silence, she breaks to tells us that a lot of people report seeing Mr.Giles right before something awful happens in Salem. One online review I read of a walking tour reported that their guide suggested Giles appeared right before 9/11, which seems like a truly tasteless bit of mythology. It’s the perfunctory manner in which these details are delivered that make my tour so depressing. These stories aren’t even exciting or mysterious to our leader.
Our tour ends soon after at the official Witch Trial Memorial, dedicated by Nobel Laureate (and author of the Holocaust memoir Night) Elie Wiesel in 1992. This sober memorial consists of a rectangular patch of grass lined with trees; outside of the green is a dirt path dotted with concrete benches, each one memorializing an individual death during the trials. Tonight, someone has placed a single white rose on all of them. It’s a respectful acknowledgment of the heinous acts, marred by our guide’s seamless segues into anecdotes about the sighting of the ghost of a small boy nearby.
On the way back to my lodging in Salem that night, I encounter a short figure draped in black robes standing still on a street corner. There’s little foot traffic, and I think, “This is the kind of oddity I was hoping for, something strange for strange’s sake.” I get closer, only for the human underneath to pop out with a proposition, “Visit the Chambers of Terror!” He hands me a brochure for a nearby haunted house, and drops his plastic sickle in the process.
It occurs to me that one of the attractors of this type of offbeat tourism could be that the general public is starved for ritual. And in fact, recent scientific research has suggested that rituals, both small and large, can be extremely effective, enhancing the quality of a person’s life. I have a strong urge to end the night with a palm reading. On Essex Street, I ask one storefront psychic about getting a shorter reading for a smaller fee. She looks at me with disdain and tells me, “Try one of those places down by the wharf.” Settling for a ritual that will set me back $40 feels unappealing to me at the moment, and frankly, the way she refers to the wharf area worries me. I head off to bed instead.
The next the morning, a local resident named Ed, who put me up for the evening, talks about the city he grew up in. “Salem is rich in literary, cultural, and marine history, with a world-class museum and historic sites,” he beams. He doesn’t particularly begrudge the witch tourism, but describes it as “set in relief to this history.” He also speaks of economic stimulus. “Salem was in a state of distress just a few decades ago” Ed says. “Now it thrives.”
Ed puts me in touch with Chris Sicuranza, the vice president of Go Out Loud, an organization promoting Salem’s cultural activities and “modern equality.” Sicuranza brings to my attention one of the more promising recent developments in Salem. “Earlier this year we passed our Non-Discrimination Act,” he explains, “which caused uproar later in the year when we terminated our contract with [Christian-centric] Gordon College over their anti-LGBT outlooks in a public domain.” This strikes me as a significant milestone in context, something in balance with the definition of modern witchcraft that people like Day describe, and an ideal counter-response to the intolerance that made Salem infamous.
There is little reason I can see to insist the relationship with Salem’s past become a significant national or even statewide cause. After all, there are countless present day horrors to account for. But this cauldron of reactions to one topic is an absurd mixture—the historical next to the commercial, the gruesome next to the memorial. All of it focused on a 322-year-old epicenter. There is a trajectory that points to Salem actually resembling a “haunted Las Vegas” in two decades. In this regard, surprisingly, Day and Tilney seem to be on the same page. Tilney views the circus of interests and expressions as part of an ongoing conversation happening in Salem right now. Likewise, Day explains, “I’ve seen this animosity between the different factions. Between the architecture people, the literary people, the art people, the maritime people, the witch people, the 1692 witch people, the haunted house people. But Salem is actually all of those things.”
On my drive out of town I pull over to the side of the road, going for a last try at authenticity by visiting the location of the hangings. The specific site is in dispute, but the Internet leads me to Gallows Hill. At the end of Witch Hill Road, there’s a quaint park at the bottom of a hill. I climb to the top of the small peak and look around. No markers, plaques, or landmarks.
It’s peaceful. There’s nothing to remind you of the atrocities of the past or the carnival of the present. While I’m considering that, I look up, and think about what it would be like to end here, this place the last thing you would see. In the distance, in black spray paint on a white water tower, is the silhouette of a witch riding a broom stick, her pointed hat the letter “A” in the word SALEM.