A Beginner’s Guide to the Salem Halloween Experience

Julie Sprankles

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One night in late spring, when the temperature dipped to an uncharacteristically cool briskness for the south, I decided to lean into the fall vibes. I made a cup of chai tea, grabbed my favorite oversized throw and sunk into the couch as I cued up Hocus Pocus on Vudu for roughly the 7 millionth time. And as I was watching Book beam a spire of light out of Maxi and Dani’s house, a thought occurred to me: I should go to Salem for Halloween.

Of course, it wasn’t just the thought of visiting Hocus Pocus filming sites that drew me to Salem. I’d been obsessed with the city’s folklore and history for as long as I could remember, having written enough papers and presentations on the Salem Witch Trials during my youth to warrant curiosity from my teachers (if not some behind-the-scenes concern).

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If this sounds familiar, you’re probably plotting your own trip as you read this. In which case, I want to help you avoid making some of the same mistakes my friends and I made in planning our Salem Halloween experience. With that being said, here are five tips to keep in mind as you solidify your first trip to Salem during the most bewitching month of the year.

Booking Your Stay

First things first, start planning early! If you wait until the last minute, you’re either (a) not going to be able to find anywhere to stay in the area or (b) will have to pay an arm and a leg for what you do find. We waited until early summer to book our hotel and, even then, we ended up staying just outside of Salem in the town of Danvers because it was half the price of trying to snag something in Salem proper.

For what it’s worth, we stayed at the Best Western Plus North Shore Hotel and enjoyed it. But had we planned ahead better, we probably would have booked the historic Hawthorne Hotel. And, specifically, we would have tried to get room 325 — which is reportedly the most haunted room — or something on the sixth floor, where other ghost sightings have been reported.

Another bonus of staying in Salem proper is that you wouldn’t need a car, which you’ll be thankful for when you want to get your Salem on and you can’t find any parking. Or, if you do, you have to shell out $20 for it every day.

Timing Your Trip

Since Halloween is the city’s most popular month for tourism, they pack the entire month with Halloween events, activities, food specials, and practically anything else you might expect of the spooky holiday. Plus, a lot of what we wanted to do and see in Salem is present year-round — think the Witch’s Museum, the Hocus Pocus filming locations, etc.

If you want the ultimate Halloween experience, you’ll obviously want to plan to be in town on the actual holiday. There will be special events held over Halloween weekend that don’t take place during the rest of the month so, in that sense, timing it this way really does make it a one-of-a-kind experience. One word of warning, though: It will be crowded. If crowds give you anxiety, the first week might be your best bet for minimizing the madness.

Deciding What to Do

The city is so much more than her dark history so, even if you don’t squeeze in as many haunted happenings as you’d hoped, you’ll be charmed just walking around and exploring. The Salem Haunted Happening’s website has a great event calendar that keeps a running list of all of the events taking place on each day. I would also recommend browsing social media hashtags like #SalemHalloween and #SalemMassachusetts. Doing so really helped us hone in on the shops and restaurants we wanted to hit during our trip.

Some things take place the entire month of October — like the Salem Psychic Fair & Witches’ Market, where we got tarot card readings by actual witches of Salem. There are also several fantastic trolley tours that shuttle you around while giving you a history of the city (some even serve beer and spirits!). For the movie lover, there are horror film screenings and cinema-fests in keeping with the Halloween spirit. The modern witch might like to enjoy a local witches’ circle.

There are so many different ways you could spend your trip to Salem that, ultimately, it will be informed by your personal preferences. The official Salem website and the aforementioned Haunted Happenings are comprehensive resources provided by the city about the most up-to-date attractions. In general, though, here are some of the most popular attractions:

  • Count Orlok’s Nightmare Gallery: There was always a line out the door at Count Orlok’s during our visit so, yeah, you probably want to carve out some time for this one. A cinematic wax museum, it includes over 60 life-sized characters (including Winifred Sanderson!), and they bring in special — real-life — guests during the month of October.
  • Gallow’s Hill Museum: If you want a more modern presentation of Salem’s storied past, this might be the attraction for you. It relies on special effects like ghostly holograms, rumble seats and more to bring the Witch Trials to life.
  • The Old Burying Point Cemetery: Salem’s oldest cemetery serves as the final resting place of some of Salem’s most notable residents, so it’s no small wonder it’s rumored to be rather haunted. While the cemetery will be closed until Nov. 3, 2019 for renovations, still make it a stop — you can take pictures from the gate and see how many “orbs” you caught.
  • Salem Witch Trials Memorial: Symbolically located behind the Old Burying Point, this memorial serves as a place of reflection and remembrance for visitors — and descendants of those who were condemned in 1692. Accordingly, this site mandates gravitas and respect.
  • Salem Witch Museum: One of the most popular attractions in Salem, you can’t miss this one. Like, literally… the building looks like a castle. It offers a two-part historical presentation including life-sized figures and an oral dissertation about the evolution of the witch in culture. Tip: Don’t wait until the last minute and hope to score tickets — these sell out fast the day of, especially around Halloween.
  • The House of the Seven Gables: There’s a reason this is the title of a classic novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne — he spent much time on the property, and his birth home has even been moved to the premises. Although said to be haunted, tours at this beautiful estate are primarily focused on the historic home’s history. However, there are Halloween-themed events held during the month of October.
  • The Witch House: No, a witch did not live in this house. But it is Salem’s only remaining structure with direct ties to the Salem Witch Trials, as it was the home of Witch Trials Judge Jonathan Corwin. The tour is self-guided and more focused on Corwin’s family and the culture of the time. But, if nothing else, you’ll want to get a picture here — especially now that there are pumpkins out front for Halloween.
  • The Witch Dungeon Museum: This award-winning live reenactment is a great reminder that Salem’s history isn’t all fodder for fun Halloween movies. There’s pain and tragedy in the city’s past, and this tour gives you an interesting and important glimpse into that.
  • Witch History Museum: In full disclosure, we skipped this one at the advice of a local. However, if you’re a history buff, you might want to stop in to see this historically accurate live presentation and guided tour.
  • Within the Witching Hour Spell Casting: Offered by the Salem Wax Museum, this special presentation only takes place during the month of October. And, yep, it’s just as cool as it sounds — practicing witches guide you through your own spell.

Making Time for a Little Hocus Pocus

Yeah, yeah, I’m a Hocus Pocus nerd. But I’m betting some of you are too, and you’re going to want the Hocus Pocus low-down. So, here are the spots you’ll want to add to your itinerary:

  • Pioneer Village: You’ll recognize this as the village where Thackery Binx and the townspeople of Salem lived before he was turned into a black cat. It’s located at 310 West Avenue, which is Forest River Park.
  • Phillips Elementary School: Although this building is no longer open to the public, you can at least get pictures outside of what served as Max and Allison’s school in the movie. It’s located on Salem Common at TK.
  • The Ropes Mansion: Remember Alison’s amazing, stately home? Well, in real life, that’s the Ropes Mansion! Bonus? The gardens behind the home are free to visit. The home is located at 318 Essex Street.
  • Old Town Hall: Be forewarned — you might “dance, dance until you die” when you visit the building where Max and Dani’s parents went for that classic “Put a Spell On You” Halloween party scene. It’s located at 161 Essex Street.
  • Salem Common: A lot of the outdoor scenes from the film were shot here, which makes it all the more fun that the town now does screenings of the Hocus Pocus at the site each year.
  • Max & Dani’s House: Since this house is actually a personal residence and really shouldn’t be bothered, we’ll let you do your own digging to discover the address. But, suffice it to say, it’s an iconic sight to behold if you happen to drive by.

Another Hocus Pocus fan fact to consider? Stars from the film, like Kathy Najimy, sometimes schedule appearances in Salem during the month of October. So, keep an eye out!

Making the Most of Your Salem Halloween Experience

Realistically, you won’t be able to fit everything into your trip. Focus on being present for the things you can work into your agenda — and be flexible. Salem has a way of revealing Herself to you in unexpected ways. Other tips? Pack layers for chilly evenings, leave room in your suitcase (you’re going to come home with souvenirs) and don’t forget to venture outside of Essex Street to find some of the city’s coolest shops and restaurants.

Happy Salem Halloween!

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