If you are a 1990s kid like me, some of your favourite memories revolve around Halloween.
I especially love all the old Disney movies like Halloween Town and Hocus Pocus. Hocus Pocus was filmed in Salem, Mass. and I dreamed of going there my entire life.
In 2016, I finally got the chance to do just that! I drove ten hours from my hometown in Virginia to the small town of Rockport, about 30 minutes from Salem. I stayed at a cute little bed and breakfast there which has since closed. Nora, the woman who ran it, showed me so much kindness and I have never forgotten her.
I spent three days in Massachusetts with two of those being Salem days. It was the most magical experience of my life, and I spent the next several years dreaming of going back.
Last October, I finally got my chance. I went on a road trip with a friend, and we spent two days there. We saw all the shops and several museums. We also went on two-night tours which were filled with rich history and chilling stories.
A dark history
Salem was founded in 1626 by Roger Conant and Immigrants from Cape Ann. The settlers called it Salem because that was the word for Peace in Hebrew. If you know anything about Salem, you know the peace didn’t last very long.
Before the witch trials, there were many issues with the colony. It was a constant game of tug-of-war with England. Salem wanted the ability to self-rule without England butting in. They were granted a Charter in 1629 giving them autonomy. This may have felt like a win at the moment, but in less than a year, England was threatening charter revocation. The colonists began preparing for a war and the governor, John Endicott, cut the cross out of the English flag as a sign of defiance.
For many years the Massachusetts Bay Colony would continuously violate the terms of their charter. This included trading with other countries, creating money without the king’s image on it, melting down English coins to make their own, and creating laws that were not in line with England’s religious-based laws. This led to an actual charter revocation in 1684. It wasn’t revoked prior to this probably because England had bigger fish to fry, they were dealing with the Great Plague of London, the Great London fire, and the war with Holland. Things continued to go downhill for Salem after their charter was revoked.
In 1675, the famous witch house was completed. Judge Jonathan Corwin was the primary resident of this home. Not only was he the judge for the Salem Witch trials, but some preliminary questioning was conducted in his home. This home is the only one that is still standing today that is directly connected to the Salem Witch trials. They say this home is haunted by the innocent spirits of the people who were hanged during these trials.
When you dig deeper into the Witch trials and the role that Corwin played in them, you see how truly unjust and rigged the whole situation was. One of Corwin’s own children was affected early on by this so-called “witchcraft outbreak”. His own Mother-in-law was among the accused, and nothing ever happened to her because of his position and her money.
The witch house was moved at one point. The house that originally sat on this lot was the home of Roger Williams who was the pastor of the Salem Church in 1634. He believed that Native Americans should be paid for their land and that church and state should be separate. He was convicted of sedition and heresy because of those beliefs. He fled in 1636 and founded Rhode Island.
People who visit the Salem Witch House (a.k.a. Judge Corwin’s home) claim to hear the disembodied voices of many spirits. Every time they inspect the rooms where the voices are coming from, there is no one to be found. This house is also known for its cold spots, which I can actually attest to. I of course am not sure about the ghost claims, but the house has an eerie feel. That could be due to how old the structure is and the fact that you can see the lower levels through the upper-level floors. Some visitors are sure that they have been grabbed and touched by spirits haunting the museum. Ghost investigators have even claimed that their equipment runs out of battery and malfunctions in the house, but then works perfectly fine once they leave.
The trials started in 1692 and by the end, 24 people died. Nineteen were hanged, one was pressed to death and four died in prison. Several families were torn apart. There was much guilt and grief when it was all over, and the town attempted to apologize for it by declaring a day of fasting and contemplation. In 1702 the general court declared that the trials had been unlawful. Ann Putnam and Samuel Sewall both apologized for the roles they played in the tragedy. Some of the families of the victims were also given money. In 1957, Massachusetts apologized publicly for the trials. Those that had been convicted were not fully exonerated until 2001.
The Salem Witch Trials played a big part in changing the U.S. court procedures including the right to legal representation. Salem spent a long time not being a wealthy community like it is today due to tourism. For most of its history, Salem hid in the shadows ashamed of its dark past.
In 1970, the TV series “Bewitched” came to town and filmed several episodes in Salem. This included an episode where Samantha goes back in time and is put on trial. After this, Salem began to embrace its past and became incredibly tourist-friendly. Their Haunted Happenings Festival began in 1982 and became a huge month-long Halloween celebration. Some people are still not happy about this, but I believe it’s important to acknowledge what happened and admit that it’s wrong. It’s also important to know that the people killed were not witches, but rather victims of rumours, hatred and the government mixing with religion. We can use that past to educate people, which is exactly what Salem is still doing today.
Of course, once I got home, I wanted more. I couldn’t stop thinking about all the things I learned on the tour, and I wanted to know more. Not just about the ghosts, but where the ghosts came from.
Salem hits home
I have a bit of a tie to the witch trials. I am a Virginia native and there is a strong connection between the witch trials and Virginia. People have a very strong misconception that Salem is the home of the witch trials and while it was incredibly sad and tragic, it wasn’t even the biggest or longest!
The Würzburg witch trials took place from 1625 to 1631. It was the biggest mass trial and execution ever seen in Europe. This was one of the largest witch trials in history. Over 1,000 people were executed.
The Virginia witch trials lasted 104 years, from 1626 to 1730. Virginia was the first colony to have formal accusations of witchcraft and the first formal witch trial. Virginia was also the last mainland colony to hold a witchcraft trial in 1730.
Let’s not forget the Satanic Panic that hit the U.S. in the 1980s and ’90s. It made its way to Richmond too! In 1988, there was concern over Dungeons and Dragons, due to the story of Michigan State University student James Dallas Egbert III’s first attempted suicide in 1979, and eventual death in ‘80.
Egbert’s interest in D&D led to stories about him allegedly playing a live-action version in his university’s steam tunnels. Eventually, the rumours evolved into him playing a ritualistic version of Dungeons and Dragons.
And there were more stories from across the U.S., including the McMartin preschool trials and Michelle Remembers. Even though everything was unfounded, it did not stop the media from running with fantastical stories!
Satanic panic is alive and well. But, we don’t have to worry much about witches and demons. We do, however, have to worry about our neighbours and herd mentality.
If you ever find a few spare days in autumn, I highly suggest visiting Salem, Massachusetts. The feeling you get walking around the busy streets and shops is unparalleled.
The air is crisp and smells like Halloween. Everyone is so friendly and giddy. You can go to Salem with all of your weird interests and ghastly costumes and be completely accepted.
There is so much history to be discovered there and plenty of frights as well. It has something for everyone and definitely lives up to its mystical reputation.
My favourite place in the whole world is Salem, Massachusetts, and that’s for a very good reason.