• Emily N. King

The Spookification of Salem

This past weekend, I made a pilgrimage to the beautiful city of Boston, Massachusetts, and not just because it's the setting of one of my favorite Bethesda games (much to the chagrin of my traveling companions, who learned a great deal about Fallout 4 against their will). Of course, with Halloween around the corner, we couldn't resist the thrall of Salem and dedicated our entire Saturday to exploring its many streets, shops, and historical landmarks.


After perusing Wicked Good Books and having breakfast at the Ugly Mug Café (featuring one of the most delightful lattes I've ever had, thank you Loud Lisa's Sweet Insomnia), we joined up with our walking tour, appropriately named "Sinister Stories of Salem." This was our way of squeezing as much history out of the town as we could in the short amount of time we had to enjoy it, and with lines wrapped around the block for every single museum, I'm grateful we had the chance to see some of Salem's most chilling sights, complete with narration, complimentary hand warmers, and some lemon Gibralters from Ye Olde Pepper Companie, the oldest operating candy shop in America (from which I later procured some amazing peanut butter cups).


My favorite part about the Sinister Stories tour was not the sights themselves----it was the fact that our wonderful tour guide did nothing to glorify the Witch Trials or pretend it was anything other than an unjust tragedy. His commentary was both chilling and sad while still managing to make us laugh, but never at the expense of the victims. We admired the architecture of Salem and even spent time wandering through a graveyard, made even more eerie by the rain that fell around us in a veil of mist (I had never been more grateful for hand warmers in my entire life).


The cobblestone streets (made difficult to traverse by my poor choice of chunky heeled Pilgrim--esque shoes) eventually led us back to the main stretch of Essex Street, which had been barricaded off for the sake of a large-scale October festival. Vendors of food, jewelry, clothing, and more had pitched tents along the road, and shops such as Witch City Wicks and The Coven's Cottage were packed so tightly that bouncers stood at their respective entrances.


I won't lie----being a bouncer for a candle shop sounds kind of ideal, and I might need to make some career adjustments.


It was easy to get caught up in the fun of the fair. Plenty of folks were dressed in costume (including several dogs) and the smell of incense burned through the rain. After our tour, we visited the park and a coffee shop before stopping off at Ye Olde Pepper Companie for the aforementioned peanut butter cups. We stocked up on souvenirs, took pictures outside the famous House of the Seven Gables, and looked out at the Salem harbor with all the distant melancholy of an 18th century widow whose husband died at sea. Finally, we ate dinner at a café aptly named "Witch's Brew" and participated in a tarot reading before hopping on the train back to our Airbnb.


It was only once we had distanced ourselves from Salem and the excitement of the festival that I realized how strange it had been.


Sure, there were plenty of opportunities to take historical tours and visit museums, but the commodification of the tragedy that was the Salem Witch Trials through this festival had been nothing short of overwhelming. Like, imagine being one of the women or men who was executed in 1692 and coming back to find that people have pitched tents to sell shirts that say "I GOT STONED IN SALEM" and "A BEWITCHING GOOD TIME." Imagine people lining up down the block to sign up for the chance to see your ghost. Imagine children lining up to take pictures with people dressed as exaggerated versions of the Wicked Witch of the West.


I would haunt the hell out of that place.


Overall, aside from the festival's uncomfortable capitalization on a vicious tragedy, Salem was a lovely and historic city with plenty of opportunities for eating, shopping, and most importantly, learning. If you ever have the chance to visit, I recommend going during a month where people aren't dressed up like Jack Skellington and traipsing up and down the street...


Unless that's just how Salem is.


You have to appreciate a good literary landmark.

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