Salem is synonymous with Halloween, and the city sees a massive influx of visitors every October. Just last weekend, nearly 160,000 people came to town, forcing parking garages to close early and overwhelming some local businesses.
In short, Salem in October is total chaos — in a fun way.
But it wasn't always that way. In fact, in the years following the notorious Salem witch trials in the late 1600s, witches weren't something you brought up in Salem.
“It was not exactly our finest hour,” said Jim McAlister, a Salem historian. “What happened right after the witch trials is there's this slow healing process. Massachusetts, as a colony, accepted that they had made a mistake. They exonerated people and paid money to their families, etc.”
People in Salem did not necessarily want to identify with the witch trials or the supernatural.
“You don't want to drag that stuff up here,” he said. “You're just trying to get back to normal life. And so people weren't really promoting it. They weren't even talking about it, really.”
And it basically stayed that way for centuries as Salem grew into a kind of normal city.
“One of the things that happened here was Salem, until the early '50s, was this booming retail economy and big industrial economy,” McAlister said. “Downtown, we had like four department stores. We had three five-and-dimes. We had six movie theaters. It was crazy. And then what happens in the '50s is a lot of the industries had started moving out. And then in, I think, '53, the cotton mill closed, which was the major employer in town. They just moved.”
By then, the topic of witches was no longer totally hush-hush.
“The Salem High [mascot] was the witches,” McAlister said. “The yearbook was The Witch, the police and fire trucks, or at least the police at that point, had a witch on a broom for a logo. The Salem News had a witch and a broom.”
But the city's economy wasn't based around witches and Halloween tourism at all, because it didn't need to be.
Until everything changed.
“The mall opened out on the highway in like '58 and all of a sudden downtown Salem, which had been a boomtown, was a ghost town in the next few years,” McAlister said. “So we're in this point where we really need to massage tourism as an industry.”
Then in 1970, the cast of the sitcom “Bewitched” came to Salem.
“That was one of the most popular shows in the country. I remember it. And it brought tremendous publicity to the witch thing,” he said. “And then a couple of years later, the Witch Museum opened and it was the first of these witch attractions, and it would be followed later by three others at least, I don't know how many there are now.”
Laurie Cabot, a Wiccan who claims the title of Salem’s official witch, opened a store in Salem in the early ’70s, too.
“So you have in three years these three mega events that start branding Salem as the 'Witch City',” McAlister said. “It was a time when we really needed it because another mall had opened out on the highway.”
Flash forward another couple of decades, and the movie "Hocus Pocus" — which premiered in 1993 and is set in Salem — became a major hit.
And now the transformation is complete. Every year, hundreds of thousands of people travel to Salem from near and far to take in all the Witch City has to offer. People like Kathleen Miller and her husband, Ryan, who've been coming to Salem in October for a decade with their three children.
“We are Halloween enthusiasts,” Kathleen Miller said. “The kids have all grown up watching like the classic horror movies and love them all. It's a nice short getaway.”
The opportunity to teach kids history is appealing, too, her husband said.
“It's kind of like a combination of a historical vacation, which, you know, is great in terms of education for the kiddos, but then at the same time, it's a lot of fun,” Ryan Miller said. “You get the haunted houses and the museums and those sort of things. So it's just a great little getaway.”
But all that tourism puts a strain on the city.
“October is a year-round planning effort from a logistics and also marketing and communication standpoint,” said Kate Fox, executive director of Destination Salem. “A lot of the hotels sell out a year in advance on weekends in October, so most of our focus has actually evolved into communication around how to visit in October, and less inviting people to come and visit.”
Fox said Halloween means big bucks for Salem — 30% of their annual tourism revenue and millions in spending at local businesses. But it's also turned the town into a completely different place, with Halloween tourism taking up weeks of planning and resources before, during and after the holiday.
“It's a balancing act, and a lot of residents do leave. Long before we had short-term rentals, people were renting their houses to the visitors who wanted to come into Salem,” Fox said. “We've also seen a lot of turnover in our resident community where newer people are moving here because they came here as tourists.”
Salem has transformed and is still transforming. But as McAllister will tell you, it's still about a lot more than just Halloween.
“The witch trials are just such a small piece of the pie here,” he said. “Every generation and every aspect of American life and all the famous people that came through here — it's crazy. It's just crazy.”
Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone, lived in Salem. So did Nathaniel Hawthorne, and the Parker brothers, who made the game Monopoly.
“Amelia Earhart taught English as a second language to foreign [language]-speaking employees at Parker Brothers,” McAllister said. “It just goes on forever, you know? So that's the stuff that excites me.”
Want to know how to celebrate Halloween in Salem like a local? Check out our recent interview with Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll.