The sky is grey and filled with drizzle so British it could only be New England west of the Atlantic. The train slowly fills, stop by stop, with tourists, commuters, and the occasional resident in uniform black. The train pulls in and everyone piles out, following the locals into Salem Town.
Leaving Washington Street for the pedestrianised cobblestone of Essex Street, an English Puritan leaps out of history and beckons with song. In avoidance of playful retellings and expensive tours, Wicked Good Books earns a fortuitous visitor.
Inside, the primary display is comprised of gothic novels and collections. Amongst them are H. P. Lovecraft, whose Arkham is Salem, and whose trips here inspired him, Arthur Miller, whose ‘The Crucible’ takes the town’s Witch Trials as its subject, and Nathaniel Hawthorne.
In search of Hawthorne, the self-guided tour resumes, along Hawthorne Boulevard, past Salem Witch Museum, and through Salem Common. The literary pride of the historic town, Hawthorne was born, schooled, and at intervals and various locations throughout his life, lived here. The very house in which the author was born is now preserved in a new location on the grounds of The House of the Seven Gables.
Also known as the Turner-Ingersoll Mansion, The House of the Seven Gables (built in 1668 by John Turner) was occupied by Hawthorne’s second cousin and neighbour, Susanna Ingersoll, but never the author himself. Ingersoll spoke frequently of the history of the house, encouraging the interest and creativity of her young cousin. The result is the fantastical gothic novel of witchcraft and ghosts, whose main character is arguably the eponymous house itself (The House of the Seven Gables, Hawthorne, 1851).
Having evolved greatly over the years, rising and falling in number of gables, the house has ultimately submitted to its fictitious past. Hepzibah’s cent shop and a secret staircase, for example, were added for the 1910 opening of the site as a museum. Though an important contribution to Salem’s heritage, The House of the Seven Gable’s descent into fiction and reliance upon tourism epitomises what modern day Salem has become.
Bound inland by Salem Harbor on the east, Derby Street is walked slowly, towards evidence of the same dark historic past from which Hawthorne’s narratives took further inspiration. In the minds’ of many, Salem is most readily associated with the Witch Trials of 1692, now determined to have culminated at Proctor’s Ledge. Before the 1921 assertions of local historian Sidney Perley were finally acknowledged 3 years ago, a memorial was constructed in the 90s. Each of the twenty victims of persecution is honoured in stone; their names forever beside the method of execution by which their lives were cruelly ended. Alongside The Witch Trials Memorial lies The Burying Point, Salem’s oldest cemetery founded in 1637. Peering closely, many Hathornes – descendants of the author, who may have inserted the ‘w’ to distance himself from the actions of his ancestors – can be spotted.
Around the corner, the Salem Wax Museum stands proudly opposite its haunted house, Frankenstein’s Castle, voted Salem’s best. Framed by dead Harvest decorations and a large plastic rubbish bin, the attraction serves as an illustration of modern Salem’s obsession with spooky entertainment. Located just metres away from the centuries-old cemetery, it is a stark and tacky monstrosity more suited to an autumnal fun-fair than an important historical town.
Witch City Mall, site of the modestly attended [The] Salem Psychic Fair & Witches Market, is populated with similar sparsity by all sorts of witch-themed tat. Once home to America’s first millionaire (dubbed ‘King Derby’ by Hawthorne in The Scarlet Letter, 1850) the decay of Salem is found in wandering only slightly beyond the stunning American Colonial style architecture of its historic homes, such as The Witch House. Originally built sometime in the 1600s on North Street and now nestled safely on Essex Street, Judge Johnathan Corwin’s home is the last standing structure directly associated with the Witch Trials. A haphazardly composed time-capsule of the 17th century, The Witch House predominantly exists as an iconic tourist destination above all else.
Salem is the mecca for the macabre; to go the week before Halloween was near as dammit a dream come true. Warnings foretold of a carnival town in the depths of autumn but, just a week before its most populous occasion, the expected spectacle was entirely lacking. A complex mixture of sombre history, literary legacy, and unsavoury profiteering, much of Salem is a disappointingly unceremonious and unreservedly commercialised Halloween-town. Despite the veracity of this scathing conclusion, its charm remains undeniable. [Not-so-]cheap thrills exist beside, and because of, memories of a grave past; perhaps it is a testament to perseverance. Perhaps Salem is a phoenix, unabashedly dancing amongst the ashes from which it was reborn. Tackiness begrudgingly tolerated, wholeheartedly: 10/10 would visit again.
And if you’d like to visit [again] too, you can follow in Generally Gothic’s footsteps – the route as described above is mapped out below. For a small town, Salem is home to a lot of history (and tourist traps), whilst remaining easily explored on foot.
What is your experience of Salem? Share in the comment section!
May is The Season of the Witch at Generally Gothic. Keep reading with Witch Watch: Top Ten film recommendations, an Interview with a Witch, and in-depth review of The Love Witch.