Today is Halloween, or All Hallows’ Eve, a day in which the dead are traditionally believed to walk among the living. Communities all across the country throw Halloween parties and parades, but Salem, Massachusetts, goes all out. It started with “Haunted Happenings” in the 1980s, a celebration that took place over a single weekend. But more and more happenings were added to the events calendar every year, until they filled the entire month of October, and now a quarter of a million tourists flock to Salem to celebrate the monthlong Festival of the Dead. There’s a psychic fair and witchcraft expo every day. Psychic mediums deliver messages from departed loved ones — or an expert can teach you how to communicate with the dead on your own. Witch doctors and hoodoo practitioners explain the art of graveyard conjuring. There are séances and cemetery tours. You can solemnly honor your lost loved ones at the Dumb Supper, a feast with the dead. And the whole thing culminates with The Official Salem Witches’ Halloween Ball at the historic Hawthorne Hotel.
Salem has had a complicated relationship with witches ever since the infamous witch trials of 1692. Over the course of a year, nearly 200 residents of Essex County were falsely accused of witchcraft; 19 people were hanged and one man was tortured to death. For generations after the trials, the residents of Salem Town and Salem Village just wanted to put the tragedy behind them — so much so that Salem Village changed its name to Danvers. But some modern-day pagans and Wicca practitioners have turned Salem into a pilgrimage site, so the city ironically, and somewhat uneasily, has made witchcraft part of its marketing strategy. Author J.W. Ocker wrote about this phenomenon in A Season with the Witch: The Magic and Mayhem of Halloween in Salem, Massachusetts (2016). He says: “The Witches, capital W, religious Witches, they balk a little bit at the Halloween witch, because it’s ugly and it’s a stereotype, and it has all these historical associations with it. Then there are people like the historians who balk at the religious witches, who kind of co-opt the cause of the accused witches by saying that they were almost martyrs for the cause. Then there’s the city trying to make everyone happy.”