11 OCTOBER 2023
Welcome to a non-Comic-Con post. It qualifies as nerdy only by the barest of margins - that being relevance to horror nerds. If you've ever contemplated a visit to Salem, Massachusetts, particularly during the crowded, expensive, yet glorious month of October - something that is becoming more of a mecca every year - read on.
I don't remember when Salem became so crazy, but it was already pretty bad years ago when I lived in Boston. Back then, Salem was a favorite destination of mine in the summer, when its brick sidewalks, tree-lined streets, yet ominous air gave off a small-town-in-a-Ray-Bradbury-story vibe. But I would inevitably get dragged up in October by friends, at which point the carnivalesque chaos would make me nuts.
But here I am, going back. And it's become something akin to Comic-Con in some ways, in that it requires planning almost a year in advance, and many more people want to go than actually can. Whenever I say, "No, I can't go to NYCC, I'll be in Salem," some people get a faraway look and say, "Maybe I should go next year!"
This year, an astounding number of people I know have expressed envy, interest, and determination - so I thought I'd provide some guidance.
Why you might want to go to Salem
Overlooking the fact that the Salem Witch Museum was recently pronounced the #2 tourist trap in America, which to me announces something magnificently tacky, Salem does have a lot to offer for the right people. Are you one of them? You might be if you're interested in...
American history in general and the witch trials in general. You'll have to travel round to surrounding towns like Peabody or Danbury (the site of most of Salem Village back in 1692) to see some sites and ruins of interest, but Salem itself (once Salem Town) does offer some interesting sites. The Witch Dungeon Museum made a huge impression on me when I was young, the aforementioned Witch Museum is a horrifically vulgar affair of wax figures and strange voiceovers, there's the "Witch House" (where Judge Corwin lived - in a different location) and a plaque announcing where the condemned were actually judged. And there are the memorials, the newer one at the recently determined hanging spot behind the Walgreens. The Peabody Essex Museum is offering an exhibit of actual objects from the trials. Point being - you'll find plenty to interest and intrigue if the trials are your thing.
Proctor's Ledge, site of hangings
Paganism and witchcraft. There are so many witch shops in Salem. Also a Witch's Ball on Halloween, plenty of public rites, and for tourists, the occasional "ritual" involving just watching, mostly. I'm not sure if paranormal/ghost hunting falls in this category, but this is another draw for many people - the holy grail being to stay in a "haunted" hotel room. This is an entire YouTube/TikTok genre.
Halloween, horror, and Hocus Pocus. I'm blending these together. Salem has a Halloween museum, several horror museums (with some gorgeous gift shops), the local theatre will play horror classics and some more obscure old films (where else can you see Dracula in Spanish?), and of course there are the Hocus Pocus filming spots. This last seems to be a huge attraction for die-hard fans.
Cosplay. If you've always wanted to strut your stuff on a cool fall day or crisp fall night, rather than a humid convention center, this is your chance! People do dress up as whatever they please, but the majority align with the witch/horror/spooky theme.
Parties and events. Salem and the surrounding areas offer some unique events. You might catch a candlelit seance summoning the ghost of Edgar Allen Poe, a Wiccan burlesque show, true crime dinner theatre in a nearby castle, a Hocus Pocus drag show, a reenactment of the witch trials, etc. These vary year to year. And there are the good old-fashioned parties across town every night, which tends to feel like Goth Mardi Gras every night in late October.
Fall/New England. Maybe you hunger for the type of falling-leaves-and-cider sweater weather autumn shown on TV shows. Maybe you grew up somewhere like that but moved away, like I did, and you wistfully dream of revisiting autumns past. The North Shore of Massachusetts is gorgeous in the fall (so is Vermont) and Salem itself offers some beautiful streets of old Victorian houses decked out with glowing pumpkins for Halloween.
Why you might hate going to Salem
The crowds. Oh my god, the crowds. If you want to do the witch trial stuff and that's it, don't go in October. Go some other time and save your soul. The traffic alone can trap you for hours in your car. And parking? Forget it. Every year they beg people to take the train and not drive in. You can wait hours outside a restaurant. Museums and attractions can sell out within a minute of going live.
It's expensive. Hotel room rates go way up (last year at the Hawthorne was about 400 a night for me; this year, I'm paying about 1000 for 3 nights at the Salem Inn, which isn't terrible, and the bed and breakfasts can hit 700-900 a night or higher) and even things like Ubers can get crazy expensive because traffic is slow.
It's tacky. If you recoil from neon-colored sideshow exhibits and wax figures and torture museums and overpriced spell kits, you may be too refined for Salem! Be proud of your good breeding and leave the vulgarity for the rest of us plebians.
It's exploitive. Is it? I don't know. 1692 was a long time ago. There are valuable lessons to be learned from the trials, lessons about nonconformity and profit-motivated magistrates and scapegoats and misogyny and religion as a political cat's paw and well, I could write a whole essay on that. But there's no denying that the town - which for centuries tried to duck its shameful past - now leans in hard for tourism dollars. Maybe not every citizen, but the town collectively has lurched in that direction.
So if you want to go? Treat this like a popular Con; plan well in advance, and that includes booking a Salem hotel as soon as you can. Popular hotels like the Hawthorne or the more luxurious bed and breakfasts like the Merchant House sell out immediately and can open reservations a year in advance. Once you have your dates and hotel locked down, study what you want to do so you don't waste time on the more tasteless attractions (unless that's your thing.) Your best resources: Season with the Witch by JW Ocher; Derek Millen videos on YouTube; and the Spooky in Salem group on Facebook.
As you get within a month or two, book restaurant reservations where you can (so you don't spend 2 hours in line) and identify the museums, tours, and parties that sell tickets online only. (So many people show up only to discover that everything they wanted to do is already sold out.)
Is it worth it? If it's always Halloween in your heart, if you love a classic New England autumn or vulgar tourist attractions or wax figures of Old Hollywood film monsters - yes, definitely. And consider this selling point: you can blend a Salem trip with a NYCC trip quite easily. Personally 2 days of Salem is enough for me and many others, so if you're a Con nerd and a Halloween/horror fan, consider that action for next fall.