Is Salem the Scariest Town in America — or Just a Big Tourist Trap?


Picturesque (but scary!) Salem Harbor (Getty Images)

Salem is supposed to be witch central, but really it’s more like capitalism central. Banking on the spooky history of the witch trials that took place there in the late 17th century, Salem is making the most of its mystique. There are dozens of tours and activities to choose from (all walkable), and just about everyone is vying for your attention — and your money.

The Salem Maritime National Historic Site visitor center (2 New Liberty Street), a nice-looking and organized place, should be everyone’s first stop. The folks there are helpful in getting you oriented and seeing what is happening and being featured for that day.


Museum Place Mall (Getty Images)

When my friend Alli and I arrived in Salem early Friday afternoon on Columbus Day weekend, the first attraction we hit was a movie — because of course one needs more sitting after being in the car all day. “The History of Halloween 3D” (tickets are $9 for adults, and $7.50 for seniors, children, and students) is shown in a local indie movie theater, CinemaSalem, located in a shopping mall called Museum Place Mall; it also features a Mexican place called iTaco and has the faint smell of incense. As the name indicates, this 35-minute movie is in 3D, offers an up-close-and-personal history of the holiday and its commercialization, particularly as it reflects on Salem, which is de facto Halloween central. It was a bit corny but provided good context and history.

Related: You Can Buy Your Very Own Ghost Town (Just in Time for Halloween)


The Salem Open Market is like a witch bachelorette party. (New England Open Markets/Flickr)

On Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays, the main street of Salem, Essex Street, turns into an outdoor market, selling wares and food. It was like one big bachelorette party to which everyone wore a witch costume. In other words, great people (and witch) watching, but incredibly congested.

Salem at night is a completely different story. The crowds clear away, and you’re left with beautiful cobblestone streets and crisp air and the smell of being close to the water. Plus, there’s a certain kind of beauty about seeing groups holding candlesticks.


A spooky band playing at Gulu-Gulu Café (Dex/Flickr)

We ducked into the Gulu-Gulu Café to grab some food and decide what to see of the Salem Haunted Happenings, aka October in Salem, aka their Super Bowl — the month-long celebration of Halloween and fall in New England.

Pro tip: Book in advance for anything in October in Salem. I think even if Samantha Stephens from “Bewitched” (Salem favorite and subject of a local statue) came back and wanted to squeeze in a last-minute tour, they wouldn’t do it. If you do make a last-minute trip, you won’t necessarily get to see the main attractions, but you can still have a great time.


Is that a ghost spotted in the cemetery during a tour? (Salem Historical Tours)

The wonderful people at Salem Historical Tours took us on their Haunted Footsteps Ghost Tour (90 minutes; day tours are $10 for adults, $6 for kids; evening tours are $14 for adults, $10 for kids; both offer discounts for students and military). We couldn’t have been happier.

Related: Visit If You Dare! The Most Terrifying Haunted Houses in America

The jovial guide, Giovanni Alabiso, took us to the big Salem hits, one of which is the Old Burying Point, in the Charter Street Cemetery. It dates from 1637, making it one of the oldest cemeteries in Salem — and the country. We also hit the Gardner-Pingree House, the site of a notorious murder that inspired writers Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allen Poe, among others. Giovanni also filled us in on all the spooky and nonhaunted histories, even telling us which local restaurants and hotels were haunted (Rockafellas restaurant and The Hawthorne Hotel) and which weren’t (ghosts don’t dig the Holiday Inn, apparently).


The House of the Seven Gables was built in 1668. (James Walsh/Flickr)

Our last activity of the night was the best: the House of the Seven Gables (115 Derby Street; $15 per person per tour). The farthest away from the center of the action — it’s about a half mile from the visitor center — it forces one to go past the harbor and to see more of the quaint areas of town.

Our reservations were at 8:20 p.m. for the Legacy of the Hanging Judge tour and 9:10 p.m. for the Spirits of the Gables. Both tours were walks through houses — Hawthorne’s birthplace, dating back to around 1750, and the House of the Seven Gables (built in 1668, it was owned by a cousin of Nathaniel Hawthorne and is said to have inspired his book of the same name). The first tour was all about how Hawthorne ancestors hung the innocent women accused as witches, with re-enactor appearances by Hawthorne, accused witches, and the judge relative, among others. The spirits tour brought to life the characters from “The House of the Seven Gables” novel.

After these tours I was slightly creeped out. My friend was a pillar of strength, of course, but I was slightly terrified to walk back through the eerily quiet streets (by then it was about 10 p.m.) to the car garage.

Related: 5 Spooky Cities That Go All Out for Halloween

We drove the 15 minutes away to the Holiday Inn Hotel & Suites Boston-Peabody (1 Newbury Street, Peabody; two-night minimums on the weekends in October ; $199 to $229 per night). It was the closest we could reserve to get to Salem, but it ended up being a brilliant choice — quiet, clean, and relatively inexpensive. Plus, no ghosts. Nothing scary about that.

Watch: Spooky Halloween Cocktails

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