Despite its dark history, every year Salem, Massachusetts is full of life and energy as thousands of people come to celebrate Halloween. All of the city streets are closed to cars, meaning people can freely walk, crawl, frolick, strut, or whatever else their costume requires. It is a feast for the eyes and an Instagram paradise, with amazing costumes and make-up that rivals anything seen in the biggest budget movies. While the spectacle is certainly something to experience, Halloween in Salem is so much more than that. It is whatever you need it to be.
A cure for invisibility
If you feel like just another face in the crowd or that no one ever even notices you, Halloween in Salem is the antidote. You can put on the most extravagant, witty, or scary costume and proudly parade through the streets. You will be stopped by complete strangers asking to take a selfie with you and you will be all over Instagram. It is a unique chance to shine, to stand out, and to be seen.
…or a chance to disappear
Feeling too exposed lately or that you wish you could dial down your public persona? What better opportunity to do so than to be in a place where disguising yourself is celebrated! In addition to masks of legendary horror movie characters, there are all kinds of beautiful masks to choose from. You could also transform into whatever person or creature you want using make-up. Looking like someone or something else for a night can be very freeing. There may even be a few presidential candidates making a stop in Salem before heading up to New Hampshire or other famous people hiding under masks or make-up.
A chance to make memories
Getting married in Salem on Halloween night is very popular and it’s common to see actual brides and grooms walking around town with their family, guests, and wedding photographers in tow. In speaking with an employee at City Hall, October is when the highest number of marriage licenses are issued in Salem (often over 90). At least these couples are less likely to forget their anniversary!
Whole families also get into the spirit of Halloween in Salem. Many come dressed in themed costumes such as the Addams Family, characters from Star Wars, or a whole group of different characters from other shows or movies. There are also groups of friends who wear costumes such as the Sanderson Sisters from Hocus Pocus, a beloved Halloween classic filmed in and around Salem. Seeing how much fun they are having is infectious.
…or a chance to forget
Salem’s many bars go all out for Halloween night, featuring all kinds of festive drinks, costume contests, and more. Also, simply walking around town makes you feel like you have been transported to a different world. Given the craziness of our own world these days, there is something special about the opportunity to leave it behind for a night.
A chance to experience the expected
When you come to Salem for Halloween, you know you are going to see some truly remarkable costumes and it doesn’t disappoint. Be prepared to be blown away by the level of creativity and detail that goes into them. It’s overwhelming at times but also very inspiring.
…or the unexpected
It didn’t occur to me that there might be Christian protesters in Salem on Halloween night but there are actually a lot. One large group usually sets up right at one end of the pedestrian walkway on Essex Street and features different people preaching through a megaphone. At the other end, people stand holding signs with bible quotes. They are largely left alone to do their thing. This is just one of many examples of what might surprise you.
A chance to have fun
From seeing witty, creative costumes to watching people jump back and scream when a man dressed up as Frankenstein lunges forward towards them, Halloween in Salem has its share of fun sights and sounds. One of the costumes that cracked me up last year was the pack of murderous Teletubbies. Who knew that after singing those happy songs on their show, they picked up chainsaws and went on a killing spree?
If you are looking for a souvenir or are beginning to shop for another holiday coming up, Salem has some truly unique items. I’m not talking about the typical witch kitsch of “My other car is a broom” bumper stickers and “I got stoned in Salem” t-shirts. Looking to make a unique fashion statement? How about some insect jewelry? There are also several places that make custom vampire fangs. Who wants to just buy off the shelf fangs when you can go couture? If getting photos taken is more your style, there are places where you can do a glamor shot session dressed up as a witch or warlock or get your aura photograph taken, along with receiving a report on what your aura colors mean.
…or a chance to be serious
Salem has become a Halloween destination for a deeply sad, disturbing reason. In 1692, 20 people (16 women and 4 men) were tried and executed for witchcraft and over a hundred more were arrested. Many of these prisoners ended up starving or freezing to death in jails throughout Boston and its suburbs, never living to be tried for their alleged crimes. Their accusers were young girls, some of whom testified that a large number of people in their town were witches. As the hysteria reached its peak, no one felt they could challenge the girls’ accounts for fear of being accused and sentenced to death themselves. It was truly a horrific chapter in American history and stands as a powerful warning of how easy it is for neighbors to turn against each other and for people to be wrongfully convicted and executed.
The Salem Witch Trials Memorial is one of the most hauntingly beautiful and heartbreaking places in the city. In a horseshoe-shaped courtyard, 20 slabs protrude out from a stone wall and each bears the name of a victim as well as the date and method of their execution. Visitors leave all kinds of items here, including flowers and messages. One note I saw was written by a descendant of Rebecca Nurse and shared how she wanted her distant relative to know she had been exonerated and that she has not been forgotten. There are also quotes taken from the victims’ court testimony, where they professed their innocence. Nobel Laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel spoke at the August 5, 1992 dedication ceremony, sharing a warning:
“…what we have seen here today is a lesson not about the past only, but also about the present. That whenever a person or a group of persons come and say that they are superior to another group because of their color, race or religion, they will create upheavals with bloodshed accompanying them. With innocence becoming the first victim. For when people are unjustly accused, when people are unjustly imprisoned, when people, men or women or children — for God’s sake I cannot forget that one of those in prison was four years old, with chains — when children are victimized, humiliated, that means there’s something wrong with our society.”
If you are seeking a spot where you can reflect on the injustices of both the past and present, there is no more poignant place to go.
For some people, being in Salem on Halloween has become an annual tradition while for others, it’s a once in a lifetime trip. If you are coming, take a moment to think about what you are hoping to gain from your experience. No matter what your reason is for visiting Salem, may you have a Halloween filled with whatever kind of magic and adventure you need the most.