Salem, Massachusetts: The New England town with the darkest past

"Don't worry, I'm the scariest thing here," jokes the guide at Salem Witch Village. This isn't saying a lot. Clad in hooded top, surf shorts and flip-flops, he looks less a teller of gory tales in a "museum" of lumpen waxworks than a man who has taken a wrong turn on his way to the beach. But at least he has made more effort with his appearance than the "exhibits" – a hangman and his rickety gallows, a medieval torture victim on a dusty rack, a dragon sitting next to the fire exit.

Mr Dress-Down Friday is one of the modern faces of Salem, the Massachusetts town whose name still casts a shadow thanks to the madness that tore it apart in the late 17th-century. Between February 1692 and May 1693 it was the centre of a hysterical judicial process that saw 26 people convicted of witchcraft – 19 were hanged – and many more accused.

Yet three centuries on, Salem has, ironically, embraced the very bête noire it was seeking to expel in those 16 dark months. Not literally – you won't see pale maidens dancing with the devil on its streets. But you will encounter all manner of Hallowe'en-shaped attractions – gaudy frightfests keen to trade on the town's notoriety.

The word "witch" crops up endlessly in the six blocks that once formed the colonial Salem. Almost every shop touts occult-themed products. Anyone wanting a pentagram T-shirt, a plastic skull or a sign that says "Parking For Witches Only: All Others Will Be Toad" is in the right town. A new-age emporium, Angelica Of The Angels, advertises séances "Every Friday and Saturday, 7-9". Even Salem Cycle has a logo of a witch on a bike.

Just as odd is the statue of Samantha Stephens, the suburban witch played by Elizabeth Montgomery in the US sitcom Bewitched. Seeing it at the corner of Essex Street, I feel unnerved at the tacit suggestion that a Sixties TV series and a legalised massacre are the same thing. Because the events of 1692 were tragic – a superstitious community, isolated on the edge of an unknown continent, devouring itself. Petty disputes morphed into accusations of diabolical deeds, the insanity stoked by the mischief and malice of the star "witnesses" – a group of bored teenage girls willing to condemn any who crossed them.

The panic has become a metaphor for persecution and paranoia, notably in The Crucible, Arthur Miller's 1953 play, which used the trials as an allegory for the fear of Communist influence that infected US government in the Fifties.

It takes me a while to unearth solid traces of 1692. The Witch House, though heavily restored, is the only surviving building of the time. The former home of Jonathan Corwin, one of the judges, it throws out echoes of the era – creaking floorboards and photostat transcripts of trial "evidence" in spidery scrawl. At the Old Town Hall, a live re-enactment, Cry Innocent, recalls the fate of Bridget Bishop, the first of those convicted to be executed.

But it is this battle between fact and fantasy that makes Salem such a fascinating place to visit. Certainly, it is worth a day trip from Boston, 20 miles to the south – not least if you are travelling with children, whose presence should ensure that the likes of Count Orlok's Nightmare Gallery are transformed from tacky boltholes to palaces of ghoulish thrills.

And if you look carefully, a charming New England town is trying to peep out. The Peabody Essex Museum does art and architecture; the Salem Regional Visitor Center explores the history of the town and region beyond 1692; Jaho is the sort of cosy coffee lounge at which America excels. And the harbour is a reminder that Salem still has a maritime role – as it did before the trials sealed its image.

In the end, though, I too succumb to the hysteria – by supping a pint of Pumpkinhead at Salem Beer Works, a microbrewery that makes 40 speciality ales. There is a definite taste of Halloween to its potency. But then, in a town where it is Halloween every day, it would be churlish to drink anything else.

Travel essentials: Salem

Getting there

* American Airlines (08457 789 789; aa.com) and its partner British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) together fly six times a day from Heathrow to Boston; in addition, Virgin Atlantic (0844 209 7777; virgin-atlantic.com) flies daily on the same route.

Staying there

* The Salem Waterfront Hotel at 225 Derby Street (001 978 740 8788; salemwaterfronthotel.com) has double rooms starting from $129 (£82).



More information

* salem.org

* discovernewengland.org

Life and Style
Small winemakers say the restriction makes it hard to sell overseas
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jerry Hall (Hand out press photograph provided by jackstanley@theambassadors.com)
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
Clare Balding
peopleClare Balding on how women's football is shaking up sport
Sport
Lewis Hamtilon and pole-sitter Nico Rosberg
SportShould F1's most aggressive driver curb his instincts in title decider?
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Sport
premier leagueMatch report: Arsenal 1 Man United 2
Arts and Entertainment
Kirk Cameron is begging his Facebook fans to give him positive reviews
film
News
i100
Sport
Jonny May scores for England
rugby unionEngland 28 Samoa 9: Wing scores twice to help England record their first win in six
Life and Style
fashionThe Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Sport
Tony Bellew (left) and Nathan Cleverly clash at the Echo Arena in Liverpool
boxingLate surge sees Liverpudlian move into world title contention
Voices
Neil Findlay
voicesThe vilification of the potential Scottish Labour leader Neil Findlay shows how one-note politics is today, says DJ Taylor
Life and Style
food + drinkMeat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector
News
i100
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Advisor

    £8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Excellent opportunities are available for par...

    Investigo: IT Auditor

    £60000 - £75000 per annum + Benefits : Investigo: A global leading travel busi...

    Recruitment Genius: Chef De Partie x 2

    £16000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This charming and contemporary ...

    Recruitment Genius: Membership Sales Advisor - OTE £20,000 Uncapped

    £15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing fitness cha...

    Day In a Page

    Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

    Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

    Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
    Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

    The last Christians in Iraq

    After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
    Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Britain braced for Black Friday
    Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

    From America's dad to date-rape drugs

    Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

    The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
    Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
    Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

    Flogging vlogging

    First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

    US channels wage comedy star wars
    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

    When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible
    Look what's mushrooming now! Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector

    Look what's mushrooming now!

    Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector
    Neil Findlay is more a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

    More a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

    The vilification of the potential Scottish Labour leader Neil Findlay shows how one-note politics is today, says DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Tenderstem broccoli omelette; Fried eggs with Mexican-style tomato and chilli sauce; Pan-fried cavolo nero with soft-boiled egg

    Oeuf quake

    Bill Granger's cracking egg recipes
    Terry Venables: Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back

    Terry Venables column

    Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back
    Michael Calvin: Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

    Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

    Those at the top are allowing the same issues to go unchallenged, says Michael Calvin