The celebration of Halloween dates as far back as the 10th century. The Gaelic tradition of Samhain brought the vegetable carving celebration to life, with the pagan festival honouring All Hallows Eve continuing the October tradition. Considered by some as the night when the veil between the living and spirit world is thinnest, all manner of traditions have evolved into the spectacles witnessed today.
In the United States, the most popular destination around Halloween, is the colonial town of Salem, Massachusetts. From its solemn history and media fuelled adaptations, Salem is known as the witch city. Around 100,000 visitors are expected to arrive in Salem this week for the Haunted Happenings tour of this cultural town and its inhabitants who have embraced the legacy Salem holds.
With a vibrant urban community and an energetic award winning downtown shopping district, there is more to the witch city than meets the eye. The Peabody Essex Museum is a pioneer in terms of Asian art and culture and early maritime trade and whaling. Its collection of Indian, Chinese, Japanese and Korean porcelain and artwork are among the finest in the US.
Surrounding the Massachusetts Bay, Salem harbour was once the main hub of the spice trade with the East Indies and is now a Mecca for activity from both a commercial and tourist standpoint. A replica of a 3-mast East Indiaman trading ship was reconstructed and is moored in the Salem harbour.
The Pioneer village, created in 1930, was the first living history museum in the United States. This 3 acre puritan village welcomes visitor participation into the day-to-day activities usually carried out by one of the town’s earliest settlers.
With tourism being the backbone of Salem’s economy, its historical value has been vital in attracting visitors. The most famous of these historical accounts is of course the Salem Witch Trials of 1692. One of the most famous examples of religious extremism and mass hysteria, the fateful Salem Witch trials pioneered new laws in abolishing spectral evidence, the use of dreams, visions and heresy in court. Accusations and superstitions saw 20 women unjustly tried of witchcraft with consequences that became renowned over the course of American history.
The Witch House, originally home to Judge John Corwin, is the only building still standing with direct ties to the Salem Witch Trials. Now incorporated into the Haunted Happenings tour, this Georgian style house displays the original architectural style.
Evidence of the townspeople’s acceptance of their witchcraft heritage is visible in today’s Salem. Police vehicles are adorned with witch logos, one of the local schools have been named Witchcraft Heights Elementary and a large wiccan and new age community has developed in Massachusetts.
With All Hallows Eve being an important event in the wiccan calendar and the highlight of the Haunted Happenings tour being Halloween night, large firework displays, costume balls and street parties are held throughout Salem, with many taking moments to reflect on the lives that were taken through the Witch Trials.
Salem is a prime example of a community adapting and embracing the historic nature of their town. They aim to strike a balance between remembering and honouring those that were affected by the trials, alongside the superstition and legend that was created. Salem is striving toward being a place that blends an important supernatural history with modern urbanisation and evolution of the current day.
Although the Salem Witch Trials has loose associations with All Hallows eve, Salem uses this holiday as a platform to educate visitors on the history of witches and superstition. Thanks to popular book, film and TV adaptations, witches have become synonymous for all things mystical and supernatural, making the witch city of Salem, the home of Halloween.
What might be learnt from Salem’s fateful history and the effects of superstition?