Among the oldest settlements in New England, Salem, Massachusetts was once the home of rich sea captains and Revolutionary privateers, and became a seafaring power after the Puritan era. Notable examples of our country’s earliest styles of architecture are on display here, as are cultural institutions such as the Peabody Essex Museum – with its world-class collection of art and artifacts. Salem is also the birthplace of both the National Guard and Nathaniel Hawthorne.
None of these things, however, are what people think of when they think of Salem.
The mere mention of this city north of Boston conjures witches, sorcery, and the supernatural. When the residents of Salem held the Witch Trials in 1692, they probably didn’t know they were forever sealing Salem’s fate. During the mass hysteria, 19 people (mostly women) were hanged and one was crushed to death for allegedly practicing witchcraft. So it’s somewhat ironic that, in the modern era, Salem has become a sort of mecca for Wiccan, warlock, and sorcerer types.
Wizard shops, psychics, wax museums, and other hokey tourist traps cater to visitors year round, but in October, Salem turns into full-blown Halloween Town, with a grand parade, street fair, ferris wheel, haunted houses, and so much more. All of which is to say that this historically odd place has undeniable charm – and for anyone who loves Halloween and American history, Salem in October is on their bucket list. Skip the frightfully obvious hocus-pocus, and dig in to the best the city has to offer. Ironic as it is, this historically odd place, as they say in the region, is a wicked good time.
The Witch House
Salem is unusual even among historic New England in that every major early American architectural style – Post-medieval, Georgian, Federal, Greek Revival, and Italianate – is well represented here. Post-medieval buildings are the earliest type found in New England; the first English colonists would have built in this fashion. Massive central chimneys, gabled roofs with steep pitches, and diamond-paned leaded windows are all typical of the style. The Witch House – home to Judge Jonathan Corwin, who oversaw the infamous 1692 Witch Trials – is a stellar example. Tour the home to explore the quotidian details of 17th-century life, as well as the extraordinary events that made Salem famous.
“Cry Innocent: the People vs. Bridget Bishop”
“The year is 1692. Bridget Bishop has been accused of witchcraft and you are on the Puritan jury.” So begins this historical reenactment and interactive theater experience that invites the audience to play along in the testimonies, cross-examinations, and eventual judgements of Salem’s accused citizens. This “empathic imagination” experience encourages the audience to engage with history, so that they “might broaden their understanding of the present and gain a fresh sense of purpose within their own era.”
Peabody Essex Museum
The beginnings of this museum date back to 1799, when a group of Salem sea captains founded the East India Marine Society and filled their headquarters with “natural and artificial curiosities,” collected on their global trips. Today, the museum’s diverse collection of 1.8 million works still includes some of those very first objects, as well as paintings, sculptures, photographs, textiles, and more from the 1700s through the current era. A 2003 expansion made PEM one of the biggest museums on the east coast, with tons to offer art lovers of all stripes.
It’s Alive! from the Kirk Hammett Collection at PEM
Kirk Hammett, best known as the guitarist from Metallica, happens to be an avid collector of classic horror and sci-fi movie posters, which he credits as being part of his own creative inspiration. On display through November 26, It’s Alive! Classic Horror and Sci-Fi Art from the Kirk Hammett Collection shows off dozens of posters, electric guitars, monster masks, and sculptures that recall the golden age of Hollywood and provide some interesting insight into the evolution of the genre.
As one might expect, not just warlocks but also wizards galore roam the streets here. Just steps from the Peabody Essex Museum is Wynott’s Wands, a delightful Harry Potter–inspired shop where any old Muggle can browse the stacks and stacks of boxes containing artfully hand-carved wooden wands.
House of the Seven Gables
Born in Salem on July 4, 1805, Nathaniel Hawthorne would write his world-famous novel The House of the Seven Gables – which explores themes of romance, guilt, atonement, and the supernatural – based on inspiration from his native town, and named for this very house. Built in 1668 on the edge of Salem Harbor for one of the richest families in the Thirteen Colonies, the house is now dedicated to Hawthorne’s life and work, and to local history.
Herb Mackey’s Metal Sculpture Yard
Just beyond the ferry landing, local resident Herb Mackey creates imaginative creatures from found objects. Mackey makes frequent additions to the collection, which lives in his yard, much to the delight of locals and visitors alike.
Salem is filled with Colonial-era burying grounds that feature beautiful headstones with fascinating engraved folk art and lettering. Howard Street Cemetery is said to be where Giles Corey – a victim of the Witch Trials – was gorily pressed to death under the weight of rocks slowly piled upon him after he refused to stand trial. The Broad Street and Charter Street cemeteries also have ties to the hysteria of 1692, with members of the court buried here. Behind the latter is the Witch Trials Memorial, a quiet space commemorating the innocence of those killed and acknowledging the injustice of the events.