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Beth Crowley has fond childhood memories of coming to Salem for haunted happenings each October. “Halloween has always been my favorite holiday, and I completely fell in love with Salem’s magic and charm,” she says. The draw was so strong, Crowley ended up moving to Salem in 2007, eventually founding Witch City Walking Tours. What started as a one-woman operation and side gig has grown into a full-time business that boasts Salem’s bestselling haunted history tour. “We want to give our guests a wider view of Salem than just the witch trials. There was a robust maritime history—at one point Salem was the richest city in the country. There are three centuries of stunning architecture. And of course, all of the ghost stories! There is just so much to learn about Salem, and our goal is for our guests to leave with a deeper understanding of our past and present.”
While there’s much more to Salem, the city will always be synonymous with the 1692 witch trials, a dark chapter of colonial American history during which 20 people were executed for false accusations of witchcraft. The trials are now considered the most tragic case of mass hysteria in the US, and a morbid curiosity about the chilling events hangs over Salem to this day. “Time stopped in 1692,” theorizes Crowley. “I really feel that the souls of the accused and executed still remain in Salem.” She and the other guides at Witch City Walking Tours try to answer the tough questions that remain buried in the past. “Why did the girls become afflicted? Were they faking it? Were they poisoned? Why were people turning on each other?”
Beyond the horrific witch trials, Salem also has a long history as a major seaport. “Countless sailors, captains, and merchants roamed the streets of the city, and it wasn’t always so charming,” Crowley explains. “Imagine all of the bar fights, scandals, and smuggling. There was a crazy amount of murder and mayhem in Salem’s past.”
For chills and thrills any time of year, Crowley points visitors to the Gallows Hill Theater, featuring interactive experiences like after-hours ghost hunting, an underground haunted museum, and a multimedia show with holograms and rumble seats for a fright you can feel. The Witch Dungeon Museum was also a personal favorite of hers as a kid. “If you don’t have time for a longer tour, I always recommend the Salem Trolley,” she adds. “It’s a 1-hour loop, and you see a great amount of the city.”
For a break from the crowds, Crowley recommends the Willows Arcade and Park on Winter Island, just outside of downtown Salem. “You can go play skee ball or arcade games, get a chop suey sandwich from Salem Lowe or popcorn from E.W. Hobbs. You are right on the ocean, and there is even a little beach called Waikiki Beach.”
When you need refreshment after a day of ghost hunting or bewitching lore, pop into the Olde Main Street Pub, a cozy Irish bar that’s perfect for warming up on chilly fall evenings. Order the Poison Apple or Witching Hour martini for a Salem-style spirit.
Another of Crowley’s favorites is the Ledger, which dishes up seasonal New England–style brunch and dinner in a former bank. She’s heard stories directly from the restaurant developer about mysterious orbs and figures caught on video in the basement vault. Try the Living Dead Girl cocktail or Griffin mai tai—a toast to Salem’s seafaring past featuring house-made Privateer rum.
For the ultimate haunted stay in Salem, travelers can splurge on a stylish room at the boutique Merchant Hotel, a Federal-ara mansion that dates back to 1784 and even hosted George Washington for a night. Crowley has heard some hair-raising accounts from the general manager, including the story of the mysterious “Lady in Black” who was captured in a photograph at a hotel party in the 1980s.
The Hawthorne Hotel is another famous haunt with a classic aesthetic and, some say, otherworldly amenities. Reports of shifting furniture, inexplicable noises, and ghostly apparitions abound in its elegant hallways and rooms, as well as the secret top floor accessible only with a special key. The hotel was also used as a filming location for the TV series Bewitched and the film Joy.
Of all the spirited stories in Salem, there are a few that tend to give visitors an extra layer of goosebumps. “One of my favorites is of a woman who we believe to be the very first documented insane woman in the colonies,” says Crowley. While saving the gory details for her tour that focuses on Salem murders, she adds, “It’s one of the creepiest stories, with a huge plot twist at the end.” Another is a ghost named Abigail at the Ropes Mansion, who perished by fire in 1839 and has been perceived roaming the estate by many visitors, including Crowley and some of her tour guests. “My favorite story [about Abigail] is of a guest who told me that her 2-year-old noticed someone in the window of the dark house. He said to her, ‘Mommy, the lady in that window is waving at you.’ But there is no one in the house at night. Young children and animals are especially in tune with seeing spirits.”
If you’re visiting Salem during peak season around Halloween, Crowley advises arriving early or taking public transportation, as parking garages usually fill up by 9am. “My number-one tip when traveling to Salem is don’t plan too much,” she adds. “It can be quite overwhelming with everything going on here, especially in October. Don't overschedule yourself. Take photos, talk to the locals, and just enjoy taking in the sights and sounds of this beautiful 400-year-old city.”
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