In Salem, Massachusetts, there are taxi cars painted a cauldron-slime green and branded “Witch City Taxi.” The city’s mascot is an ominous flying witch. Everything here is, indeed, a bit witchy: Welcome to America’s hub of all-things Halloween. The New England city’s spooky attitude is no coincidence. It is, after all, where the Salem Witch Trials took place from 1692 to 1693 in the then-Puritanical community.
The city’s past may be dark, but fast-forward several centuries and Salem transforms into a fun, freaky-kitsch vacation destination that attracts more than 500,000 curious tourists each year. Local commuter lines are filled with people dropping Rs and sucking down sugar-soaked Dunkin’ Donuts coffees, only now wearing witch hats or animal ears. Parking lots become places for couples to slip into capes or to reapply face paint before they step out into the dressed-up wild.
On the last weekend of October, I headed to Salem with photographer Chris Maggio to see the commotion. The Boston Red Sox were playing in the World Series (they won!) and a torrential Nor’easter (or “Nor’easta,” if you’re from these parts) was about to hit. These two weekend events meant crowds of Halloweengoers were lost in a fog of plastic ponchos, with a Sox hat here or there. On Saturday, Maggio and I met at the giant statue of Roger Conant, one of the first settlers of the area. Conant’s colonial-era contemporaries are alive and well, at least in the form of wide-brim-hat-wearing 17th-century period actors from the live play Cry Innocent. They swarm the streets and lure people to Old Town Hall, where they can view a private witch trial for $25. The show technically lasts for 45 minutes, but according to one actor, who told me in his Old English drawl, the length really depends on the severity of the cross-examination.
A few steps away, we found the Witch City Mall, a tiny shopping center on Essex Street. Inside, there are stands heaped with Salem-themed hoodies in every highlighter hue, an area with fold-out chairs designated for palm reading, a lone smoke shop named VapeLife, and a Polish bakery that smells like pierogies. It is also the home of the photo studio Witch Pix. The space is open year-round and lets customers dress up as witches, wizards, and warlocks to get their portraits taken in front of saturated sunsets and mystical forest backdrops. According to owner Hope Hitchcock, it is a “white glove” service, which means that the staff picks out the clothing and styles the patrons. Fun fact: The broomsticks are from the same supplier as the film Bewitched.
On Sunday, the rain stopped and people shed their ponchos. Costumes were on full display. Standouts included a woman with a painted mouth of fun house teeth that stretched from her lower lip to neck and a bald man who wore dainty devil’s horn nubs on his head. One person wore a very life-like mask of Bette Midler’s character from the 1993 blockbuster hit Hocus Pocus. That movie turns 25 this year and was partially shot in Salem. How cool is that? I’d say it’s wicked cool.