Salem, Massachusetts is already geared up for its month long Haunted Happenings. The Salem Police Department is expecting crowds of up to 100,000 to visit the Witch City the night of Halloween alone, and numbers almost as large the weekend before.
Salem is considered the most popular destination for Halloween due to its haunting past, but how have the Salem Witch Trials of 1692 transformed Salem and when did it become such a popular Halloween destination?
The city of Salem created its first celebration of Haunted Happenings thirty years ago, and it continues to grow every year.
The growth of Haunted Happenings [from a one-day event to the month-long festival it is today] paralleled the growth of Halloween as a popular holiday for all ages, said Kate Fox, Executive Director of Destination Salem, which heads the marketing of the Haunted Happenings.
Salem Witch Trials play an important role both in the activities and sights of the fall in Salem.
We use the Halloween celebration as a platform to both entertain and educate our visitors who are interested in the Salem Witch Trials, said Fox.
For Stacy Tilney, the Director of Communications at the Salem Witch Museum, Halloween is a secular holiday separated from the Salem witch history.
The two distinct stories simply exist side by side within the same city, Tilney said.
The History of Halloween
Halloween traditions started long before the Salem Witch trials. According to Director of Education at Salem Witch Museum, Alison D'Amario, October was the typical month of harvest and many would celebrate by holding large gatherings of the community and feasting on the fall bounty. During this time of the month -- and particularly on the current day of Halloween -- people also held beliefs that the distance between the spiritual and physical world was very thin; making the allure of contact with the supernatural not only frightening, but also exciting.
The earliest of these traditions can be seen in the 10th century Gaelic festival known as Samhain. The original jack-o-lanterns came from this tradition as turnips, rather than pumpkins. The Pagans' festival of All-Hallows-Even (evening) or All Souls Day continued the tradition and led to what is now considered Halloween.
Witches in History
The theory of witches was created by suspicion of those who remained Pagan, instead of converting to Christianity. People began to suspect certain women of making evil potions in the woods.
In the Medieval Ages, it was believed that women were more likely to be witches, as women are more susceptible to evil than men. The stereotypical idea of the witch comes from this period, often seen in medieval style clothes.
The idea of witchcraft didn't begin in Salem, it was carried over from England into the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Most of what is known of the Salem Witch Trials begins with two young girls falling ill with an unknown disease. It was then assumed that the girls had been bewitched by an evil spirit.
Soon, scapegoats throughout the towns were being accused of witchcraft. Some were marginalized by society through economic status or color, while others like Rebecca Nurse were members of church and at the center of society. 20 locals were soon put to death in the famous trials. Most of the trials actually didn't take place in Salem the town, but in neighboring Salem Village, which is now known as Danvers.
Witches reentered popular culture with Arthur Miller's 1952 play The Crucible, where he drew similarities between the anti-communism hysteria of the current time with the panic of being named a witch in 1692.
Popular media certainly helped to transform the black magic witch into the iconic witch, with a tall black hat and flying broom. One of the most popular examples is the transformation of a witch into a wife in the series Bewitched, which began in 1964.
Today, witches are some of the most-loved characters in popular culture. For example, take Hermione Granger of the Harry Potter series or the newly discovered witch, Layfette Reynolds, from HBO's hit True Blood.
Halloween Festivities in Salem Today
A trip to Salem today could go one of two ways - embarking on tours of historical sites and museums or visiting fun-filled costume balls and scary haunted houses.
Kate Fox, Executive Director of Destination Salem, said that this year's top must-dos include both the historical and the fun. The first is a walking tour to hear all about the spooky history of Salem. She recommended either the Salem Night Tour or the Witch Walk. The second must-do is a Halloween costume ball, either at the Hawthorne Hotel, known for being haunted, or the Official Witches Ball.
New events this year include a Radio 92.9 stage with live music from Oct. 28-Oct. 31, more family fun events in the Salem Common, and new films about the Salem Witch Trials at Cinema Salem.
Historical sites to visit include the Salem Witch Museum, Salem Witch House (home of Witchcraft Trials judge Jonathan Corwin), and the Salem Witch Trials Memorial, among others. The memorial was dedicated by Holocaust survivor and author Elie Wiesel in August 1992 to remember not only the 14 women and six men executed, but to reflect upon how society can better itself.
We find that many visitors do take time out of their revelry to pause and remember the victims of 1692, Fox said.
Salem Witches Today
The witches of Salem didn't end in the 17th century. Currently, Salem is home to a large and active witch population.
Halloween is their New Year's Eve, and a sacred holiday on the Wiccan calendar, Fox said. Because of this, there are several public celebrations of Samhain at the end of October, as well as a couple of circles that remember those condemned for being witches in the 17th century.
If you plan to make the trip
If you plan on going to Salem this Halloween, there are a few important things to know. One of the most important is that streets close in Salem at 10:30 p.m. on Halloween; people can continue their celebration in bars and indoors. Also, fines triple that night, so it's probably not worth trying to get away with it.
To avoid the hassle, take public transportation. Boston's MBTA commuter rail, leaving from North Station, will drop passengers at the Salem stop. Walk up the stairs and left, following the mobs into downtown.