Salem, MA

October 15, 2008 — You know that bit of awkwardness you feel when you’re pretty sure no introductions are necessary between two people, yet it’s still your social responsibility to assume otherwise and make a half-hearted attempt? Well...Reader, meet Salem, Massachusetts.

My original intent for this article was to put together an informative two-part summation of the witch-fest that is Salem. After all, there’s quite a bit of historic, cultural, and general oddity to this town, and I would need at least that much space to even do the topic slight injustice. Then I realized that at this time of year, even your most staid local paper will probably be running a piece on this popular tourist destination, so I need to differentiate myself somehow. And I probably should start doing that by not using phrases like “popular tourist destination.”

So I’ll forego all the historical background about the witch trials of 1692 and all the self-righteous caveats about its current exploitation in the town and tell you exactly how I do one article or less.

First, I always go in October. Interest in cauldron-hunched hags seems more excusable in that month, and it is also, as a result, the time of year when Salem celebrates its month-long Haunted Happenings, a Halloween-tinted (nay, dyed) celebration when special events are scheduled, stores and attractions stay open later, wares are priced more expensively, street vendors proliferate, and the usual skim of witchiness that always overlays the town is given a second coat.

It’s also, of course, the time of year when it’s the most crowded. In fact, the closer you get to the end of the month, the more Bacchanalic the place becomes until it officially achieves madhouse status on H-Day. Which is why I go early in the month, on a week day preferably, to celebrate the Halloween season in general. One day I’ll have to celebrate Halloween night itself in Salem, I guess. Until then, I’ll stick to observing it sedately, with Halloween specials on the television, candy corn between my teeth, and goblin children at my door.

Still, putting up with a certain level of crowdedness is worth it to experience Salem in Autumn, when the weather is crisp, the leaves are aflame, and it’s much more enjoyable to walk down the Essex Street Pedestrian Mall with a plate of fried dough or hunker down on the Common to arrow through the digital shots you’ve so far imprisoned on your camera. Plus, I’ve got to be honest...there are going to be times while you’re in the town that you’ll feel a little silly for being there, and the crowds will make you feel less so, even if half of the people are wearing conical black hats and matching cloaks.

My first stop is always the Salem Witch Museum across from the Salem Common on Washington Square North. Not to go into it, though. Just to hang out around it. With its reddish medieval-looking exterior, striking statue of the town’s founder, and autumn decorations, it’s Salem on a postcard, and if you kill some time there and then skip the rest of the town you can still pretty much say you did Salem.

The one time I actually did go into the Witch Museum, I found it horribly misnamed. The museum’s a little one-room show involving an encircling diorama of life-size figures in scenes that are sequentially lighted and narrated to tell the story of the Salem witch trials. It’s a decent little show, but with such a great facade and all-encompassing name, it’s a bit of a let-down and not really worth the amount of money you have to pay to experience it...which is a running theme in Salem.

The truth is, there are much better ways of finding out the true story of the witch trials than going to Salem or any of its attractions, even if that attraction does include period-dressed mannequins and a half hour worth of narration. However, you can go into the gift shop for free, and that’ll help set the mood you need to explore the rest of the town.

Outside the museum looms the towering statue of Roger Conant, the founder and first governor of Salem. It’s a great dramatic statue with a billowing cloak that makes the first settler of Salem look like a superhero. I’ve written entire articles on statues, but that’s pretty much all I have for this one.

Salem is a harbor town, and if it didn’t have witches, it would probably put more of its eggs in its maritime history basket. Derby Street parallels the water, and I usually walk it both for that reason and because it drops me off outside a candy store called Ye Olde Pepper Companie (keep it down, spell check). The place claims to be the oldest candy company in the country, but it holds a special place in my life because it was here that I discovered clove drops. I like to pretend that discovery changed my life, but in reality, it usually just makes the rest of my visit in Salem a bit more clove-flavored.

Across from the Ye Olde Pepper Companie is the House of the Seven Gables, the inspiration for the Nathaniel Hawthorne novel of the same name. Hawthorne lived in Salem, and his life and works are another basket for Salem’s eggs that would be more ballyhooed if it weren’t for the spotlight-hogging witch trials. I’ve already covered this attraction here on O.T.I.S. It’s another place in Salem that I usually go to but don’t go in.

However, after I posted that article, I received enough responses encouraging me to actually take the tour that I ended up doing so on my most recent trip. I've got to admit, it wasn’t bad. I also got to check off “use a secret passageway” off my lifetime to-do list, but I still got that prickly, slightly panicked feeling in my skull that the world was passing me by while I was on the tour. I'll just never like group tours, I guess. Also covered in that article is the impressive Nathaniel Hawthorne statue on Hawthorne Avenue that depicts him as yet another member of the Justice League of Salem.

Once I have some hard candy to chip my teeth on and the smell of dead sea things in my nose, I then back-track along the painted red line that is the Salem Heritage Trail toward the epicenter of Salem’s Haunted Happenings shenanigans to see the Witch Trial Memorial and The Burying Point cemetery on Charter Street. Or, more accurately, to go through the Witch Trial Memorial to see the The Burying Point cemetery.

The memorial is merely an open space surrounded by a low wall with inset stone ledges for benches around the perimeter and some barely visible witch trial victim quotes engraved on the paving stones of the threshold of the enclosure. It’s a subtle memorial that makes you forget that you’re even at a memorial...which is problematic, I think...and funny.

Created in 1637, The Burying Point cemetery beside the memorial is pretty much as old as American cemeteries get. In it are buried a couple historical notables including a Mayflower passenger and John Hathorne, one of the villains of the witch trial hysteria and great-a-few-times grandfather of the already mentioned Nathaniel Hawthorne. The cemetery is small, open, and filled with those thin tombstones popular in those times, many of which feature that classic winged skull motif that looks like an Edward Gorey doodle.

Now, I’ve been to more cemeteries than is probably proper, but this is definitely one of the stranger cemetery experiences I’ve had. Normally, I feel half out of place at the graveyards I visit, which I guess I should clarify, I visit for aesthetic, historic, or cultural reasons. Maybe one or two morbid ones, as well. Regardless, I still often feel like if I’m not visiting a dead relative, I don’t really belong there.

However, at The Burying Point, it’s literally like a party, which I guess often still implies a place where I don’t belong. In this case everybody’s welcome to mingle among the gravestones while eating carnival-type foodstuffs and treading festively above the dead. This convivial atmosphere is due to the fact that in October it’s hemmed in by Salem’s “Haunted Neighborhood,” an area that features haunted house attractions, wax museums, and vendors selling those aforementioned carnival-type foodstuffs. As a result, funhouse screams, ware hawking, and teenagers loudly overreacting to each other are the soundtrack for your cemetery stroll.

Throughout my meanderings about the town, I do go into gift shops. They’re everywhere in Salem. One of the better places for it is the Essex Street Pedestrian Mall, which, in addition to stores, has various tented vendors and street performers lining the way during Haunted Happenings. It was here that I first discovered mead, which has since become a favorite liquor of mine on a list that’s becoming so long that the word favorite has started to lose its meaning.

At the end of this lane is the Bewitched statue, sponsored by the cable channel TV Land in its ongoing quest to make classic TV more permanent than it should be. Now, I absolutely (and I don’t use this word lightly) dislike the statue. I’m not totally sure why. Maybe it’s because it’s a horrible likeness of Elizabeth Montgomery, who I think I had a crush on when I watched the show in summer syndication as a child. Maybe I expected her to be dressed as a witch instead of a house dress for purposes of enstatuation. Maybe it’s the cheesy-looking textures of the statue. Or maybe it’s because the entire thing looks like it should be a weather-vane than a statue.

The first time I saw it, I had planned to take a picture with it, but was so disappointed that I didn’t even take one of it by itself. And that says a lot because I once took a picture of a seal carcass on a beach a few months back just because I encountered it. I can’t believe you clicked on that. For the sake of article completeness, I took a picture of the statue on my last venture into the town. I’m starting to get used to it, but I will always remember my initial disappointment. That is also what I plan to say about life on my deathbed.

And that’s pretty much it. I usually skip the rest of the museums and attractions. The Witch House sounds cooler than what it really is, I’m saving the Peabody Essex Museum for another time, and anything else with the words “museum” (or “tour,” for that matter) in its name has a good chance of being overpriced, underwhelming, and cobbled together from household materials. Salem generally has a pretty liberal definition of "museum."

So now you know exactly who not to do Salem with. Other people wring way more enjoyment from all the various events happening in the town at this time of year. I know this because I feel like I’m surrounded by them every time I go. I think it comes down to the fact that I’m both easily conflicted and very inconsistent on where I stand in regards to the cheesy.

On one hand, I’m embarrassed by the whole Wiccan, New Age silliness that pervades a lot of the town, as well as the painfully touristy bits...even though those touristy bits give me something to do. On the other hand, I dig it when towns form identities beyond stupid sports teams and generic historical worth, and I dig the more macabre aspects of the town...which I’m also embarrassed about. In the end, though, it’s a great Fall town, and that makes it a great town to me.


UPDATE: I have a new favorite place in Salem: Count Orlok's Nightmare Gallery. If you find yourself in Salem, love horror movies, or just want to spell yourself a bit from witches, this is a place you'll want to check out to make your Salem visit complete.