In 1692, a wave of hysteria swept over Massachusetts, causing widespread panic and fear and leaving 25 or more people dead. The cause? Alleged witchcraft. It's hard to comprehend anyone being genuinely terrified of witches now (unless you've been watching too many scary movies with the lights off), but New England's religious strictness, and the nature of society in general back then (plus the fact that everyone may or may not have been tripping balls on a form of LSD) made the town prime for some sort of supernatural panic.
Long story short, several young girls in the town began to complain that they were being tormented by the spirits of townspeople who had "made pacts with the Devil" in exchange for witch powers-- overall, they accused over a hundred people of witchcraft. Nineteen innocents were hanged, one man was pressed to death by stones for refusing to plead, and countless others died in jail awaiting trial. Ironically, many who plead guilty to the accusations were saved.
Even though that was over 300 years ago, the town still has quite the reputation for being a settlement with supernatural significance. History buffs and new age, spiritual witches call Salem home, and make the town an interesting little place to visit.
Salem's most recent memorial to the dark events is the Proctor's Ledge Witch Execution Memorial. In 2016, it was confirmed that the hangings of the accused witches took place not on Gallows Hill as many thought, but on Proctor's Ledge, a rocky outcropping below the hill. In 2017, a new memorial was dedicated on the site. It has the names of the 19 hanged on a granite wall and an oak tree.
There's also "America's Oldest Home", the Pickering House. Built in the 1600s, it was owned by the Pickering family for hundreds of years, with each generation adding their own flair. Learn about the historic property and the illustrious Pickering Family, some of whom were Patriots, soldiers, and government officials.
Take a tour of The Witch House, which was owned by Judge Jonathan Corwin, one of the judges during the trials. It's the only structure still standing in Salem that has direct ties to the trials, so it's the best picture you'll get of life at the time. It's more focused on straight history than the trials, but the historic home is an important stop nonetheless. Plus, the building is undeniably creepy looking!
Salem isn't all gloomy and dark and serious. See the city's lighter side at the Bewitched Statue, a memorial to the main character from the famed TV series, Samantha Stevens (played by Elizabeth Montgomery). The show's 7th season filmed several episodes on location in Salem, and many credit the show with helping the town reconcile its dark past with a kitschy and tourist-friendly attitude. It's thanks to the show that we have Salem as we know it today!
Bewitched After Dark Walking Tours takes you from Salem's beginnings, through the witch trials, the Colonial period, and to present day, all led by a modern, practicing witch who can give you the inside scoop on what witchcraft really involves. And, if you're more into ghosts than witches, you'll stop by some of the towns more famous paranormal hotspots as well.
The Salem Witch Trials Memorials is a great place to take a moment to sit down and reflect on the weight of the whole witch panic. Seeing the names and death dates of the wrongfully convicted and executed really hammers home how heavy the Salem Witch Trials were.
Recreating the Salem Witch Trials of 1692, the Salem Witch Museum gives an overview of the history of the trials. The museum uses stages with life-sized dolls to recreate what it was like to be on trial for witchcraft. The performance is a little kitschy and a lot dramatic, but the information is accurate if you're looking for an overview of the trials.
Strike out on your own ghost hunt and stake out the Howard Street Cemetery, allegedly haunted by Giles Corey, one of the accused witches. He was the man pressed to death (a board was put over him as he laid down, and heavy rocks were piled onto it until he was crush to death) for refusing to plead guilty or not guilty to witchcraft... The reason he refused to plead? If he stood trial and was convicted he would lose his farm and his sons-in-law would have no claim to his property, which would become the property of the state.
Salem's spooky past has inspired many, from Arthur Miller (who wrote The Crucible, for anyone who didn't have to read the play in high school) to Ryan Murphy (Naturally, Salem plays a role in American Horror Story: Coven). Most famous of all, it inspired famed author Nathaniel Hawthorne. He wrote a Gothic novel called "The House of the Seven Gables", inspired by his ancestors, who lived in this very house and, who in earlier days, had played a role in the Salem Witch Trials (he was descended from one of the judges who presided over the trials.) Tour the house and soak in the dark, supernatural vibes.
Count Orlok's Nightmare Gallery is a completely off-the-wall and more geared towards fans of horror movies than actual witches and real-life hauntings, but it's an incredibly fun stop for those who love classic horror and kitsch, featuring life-sized recreations of monsters done by Hollywood effects artists.
For more fun in Salem, check out our guide to Hocus Pocus filming locations!