“Holiday travel” usually makes us think of Thanksgiving or Christmas, when folks traditionally journey home for the holidays, but popular travel times also include the Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends. But what about the other holidays? Where would you go for, say, Presidents Day? Mount Rushmore? Come on, South Dakota is not that alluring in February.
One holiday, however, begs for a road trip: Halloween. We recently returned to Massachusetts (the scene of our adolescence) to participate in the Haunted Happenings in the seaport city of Salem. Spending Halloween in the Witch City, we discovered, is like celebrating Christmas at the North Pole: full of all the pomp and pageantry money can buy.
Salem spends the whole month of October in party mode. That means special events, live shows, music, mayhem, and, of course, more useless stuff on sale than during a Hannah Montana concert. You have to admit that’s pretty scary.
If you know US history, you’ll recognize Salem for its famous (or infamous) 17th century witch trials. But a lot’s happened in the last 350 years. Witch Way is the name of a street now. Laurie Cabot (the city’s “official witch”) ran unsuccessfully for mayor a few years back. Today, Salem is equally renowned for the wayward witches, warlocks, and goth vampires who roam the streets every day of the year. Halloween just brings them out of the knotty pine.
Why stay home handing out candy to ghosts, goblins, and ghouls, when you can run into the real things in Salem? Why dress up in a rented costume to attend a friend’s drinking party when you can go to Salem’s Vampire Ball to hang out with some tasty vamps and vampires for a little active “necking.” Why go to a party with people dressed as witches when you can attend a gala with people who actually are witches? For a price, they’ll read your palm and tell you your future (however short it might be). For a few dollars more, they’ll teach you how to brew potions, make a broom, or use amulets, charms, and tokens for your own devious ends.
Salem in October is overrun with “eerie.” We’re talking about really strange stuff here, not your run-of-the-mill stranger in strange clothes. We were solicited on a city street—not for sex, but for our bodies. They needed two more for their séance. A local turned her innocent courtyard into a torture chamber, complete with a guillotine and gushing blood. We happened upon it during an otherwise normal day. In Salem, during the month of October, almost anything is possible.
The Festival of the Dead includes the Official Salem Witches’ Halloween Ball, a Dinner with the Dead, the Vampires’ Masquerade Ball, the Annual Psychic Fare and Witchcraft Expo, as well as seminars, art exhibitions, and ghost-hunting expeditions. There’s also the Bizarre Bazaar, the Official Salem Séance, parades, costume balls, tours, museums, and more. Salem has sold its soul to the devil of commerce. You can find almost anything for sale—from T-shirts to torture devices, from real antiques to fake eyeballs.
Then again, in Salem, the art of the scam knows no bounds. Many “museums” feature unmoving wax figures given dramatic, flickering light while a guide reads from note cards. Town center now has a monument to that most evil of all witches: Elizabeth Montgomery. The Halloween Parade to kick off the season featured school bands, toilet-seat-clapping members of a local plumbing service, and other equally scary fare.
We tried to behave. Honest. We wanted to see all the city had to offer without resorting to that type of photograph of us standing in front of an historic landmark, as if to say: “We were here!” How cheesy is that?
Ultimately, we broke down and bought stuff. Lots of stuff. Stuff we threw away when we returned home to sanity. Five-dollar T-shirts! Two-dollar refrigerator magnets! Witch costumes! Spell books! Crystals! Knives! Goblets! Fake blood mix! My God, it was an ugly display of shopping frenzy. But we did it for you, so you won’t have to. You’ll thank us someday. In the meantime, want to buy a slightly soiled ritual blade?
Next year, forget about the neighborhood kids and treat yourself. Ditch your friends (figuratively, of course) and travel to Salem, Massachusetts. Bring a funky costume and a full pocketbook. Get ready for fun, but watch your back, for every mummy has a method and every witch has a way.
Lessons Learned: Since October coincides with the foliage season in New England, make it a longer vacation and take a day trip up to the Kangamangus Highway in New Hampshire to view the vibrant color of the White Mountains. If you feel the need to escape the witchcraft weirdness, take the short drive to the quaint harbor town of Marblehead right next door.
How We Saw It
Communication Breakdown: 2
Customer Dis-service: 3
Discomfort Level: 3
Grunge Factor: 1
Inactivity Guide: 2
Spontaneous Consumption: 4
Fun Fraction: 4/5
If You Won’t Listen to Us
Nearest Airport: Logan International Airport (in Boston)
Native Population: 41,000
Normal Attractions: Shopping, architecture, history, Salem Willows Park, Winter Island, Pioneer Village (a working village simulating Salem’s early years), drinking heavily at Salem State College.
Final Point of Interest: Nathanial Hawthorne’s House of Seven Gables is still a popular draw and one of Salem’s best tours.