Salem, MA

My partner moved here from the Southwest a few years back, having never spent time here before, and I’m always surprised at all the things I take for granted about New England living. “Look at all these red brick buildings!” she’d exclaim. Until then I hadn’t considered that it’s possible for every town in America to NOT be peppered with 250-year-old red brick buildings, but here I am learning something new. “Have you ever been to Salem?” I asked her. She had not. “Wanna go?”

My partner has been a follower of alternative religious traditions for most of her adult life, so I thought she’d be interested in such a trip. Site of a notorious mass-hysteria “witch hunt” in the late 17th Century, one of the darker footnotes in the history of Colonial America, fueled by difficult conditions, contemporary belief and fear of the occult, greed and rivalries within the leading families of the area. Salem has become an epicenter of occult tourism in the Northeast, known as The Witch City, even the local police vehicles have witches on broomsticks built into their logo.

Plus, she has some gothy’er sensibilities, the style appeals to her, and Salem is basically a Northeastern “Mecca” for grown-up goths. They’re pretty much everywhere ’round here.

There are things to know about Salem. First, it’s a very touristy town. A lot of people call it a “Tourist Trap,” which is ridiculous. A “Trap” would indicate that it’s a place with little to no value beyond taking money from suckers. That’s stupid. There are certainly tourist traps, like the shitty tiny one-room “museums,” multiple competing ghost walks and ghost hunts, and no shortage of expensive fortune tellers and tarot readers. There are also a lot of genuinely interesting witchy shops and attractions, several museums and art galleries, and then there’s the whole historical aspect. That’s another thing to know about Salem, that it’s a town with two faces. There’s the touristy witchy aspect, but then it’s also a colonial port town with a long and rich history, and the streets are thick with 300 and even 400-year-old buildings. The Peabody Essex Museum is one of the top 20 art museums in the United States, with about 1.3 million pieces in its holdings, most of which reflect the city’s maritime and trade history. The city is also home to many old and historic houses, including the famed House of Seven Gables.

What else to know? Don’t go in October. That’s high spook season, all the prices in town go up, the streets are flooded with gothy cosplay types, lines are long and the place is basically a madhouse. Of course, if it’s the carnival atmosphere you are interested in, a gothic Mardi Gras, and don’t mind the crowded streets and high prices, then go ahead, you’ll probably like it. Just be sure to book well in advance, and pack your camera… which everyone has with them and out all the time because “cell phones” and “Instagram.” Pretty much all of Salem’s historic district is completely walkable, so you could just park the car (I won’t say “Pahk the kah”) and forget about it for the day, problem solved.

We got a room at The Hawthorne, a very nice hotel in the heart of the historic district, reputedly haunted though I’ve never witnessed anything when I stayed here previously. Fingers crossed! It was rainy on our first evening, so we carried stick umbrellas and participated in one of the many “ghost tours” that stream through town day and night. So many, in fact, that our group had to wait at a few locations as other tour groups were there giving their schtick (a bit of which can be debunked with a simple Google search). It was fun, though our tour guide was a bit long-winded, relished in the more depressing aspects of the locations, and occasionally patted herself on the back for what an especially amazing tour guide she is. Everyone was fairly tired by the end of this tour, but we knew which haunted restaurants to eat at this week! No ghosts spotted at any of them, mind you, but the food was excellent just about everywhere we ate.

While we didn’t see or witness any ghostish goings on, one funny thing happened while eating in Lyceum Hall. We sat at a window seat and every 10 minutes a different ghost tour would walk past, its costumed tour guide talking about the place through their mini loudspeaker. Constant flow of humanity following the leader. One group, however, was armed with those little machines they use on ghost hunter type TV shows to detect… I don’t know what. Changes in temperatures? Something about ions? I have no idea, but when the tour group got to the front of our haunted restaurant something must have happened to their little machines because they all started pointing at them excitedly and then pointing at the restaurant where we casually watched them with a glass of wine in hand. They happily wandered off to find their next brush with the paranormal, and I tucked into my hake marsala.

The next days were nicer, so I loaded up with, arguably, too many cameras, and we hits the streets for shopping and museum’ing and exploring. My partner bought a new hat at Emporium 32, great shop by the way, knowing she’d be the subject of dozens of my photos this week. It’s true, by the end of the week I had 11 filled rolls of film, I imagine she was on half of them judging by the number of times I’d say something like “Wow what a great tree… hey, do me a favor and go sit there for a sec (snap-snap).” An attractive partner with a sizeable wardrobe and a healthy sense of vanity is a hobby photographer’s dream, she never seems to mind being pressed into modelling service at a moment’s notice.

Walking around the city after dark was also fun, because of all the old buildings and the narrow, atmospheric port town streets. It felt safe enough considering it was a tourist town and there were always other people around, two out-of-towners could walk aimlessly down whatever street struck our fancy at night, safe as can be. There was also a fair amount of time spent looking for a bar or two that I recall enjoying from a previous visit, only to find other bars we liked even more. I don’t go to a lot of bars but if I’m on vacation and everything is walking distance to the hotel? Let’s tie a few on!

Speaking of walking, we did a lot of it. We’d walk around looking for interesting things to take photos of, then walk around looking for the best angles, by the end of the day my Fibbit (spelling is intentional) logged 20,000 steps taken. I generally prefer walking when I’m vacationing, as I hope to find more things to grab my camera’s attention that I wouldn’t ordinarily find behind the wheel of a car, but it makes me pretty sore by the end of the day.

We went with goals in mind. She wanted to shop at the witchy shops and eat oysters, our friends wanted to shop at the witchy shops and go to the museums, I wanted to take pictures with the historical backdrop and I wanted to eat my body weight in fried fish. I love seafood. I live in a city on a large lake, but for some reason fish isn’t a big seller here. Granted, Lake Champlain is fairly polluted and you’d not want to eat anything that comes out of it anymore, but you think our proximity to bodies of water would have more of an effect on the food culture in general. Be that as it may, when I go to coastal towns I want nothing more than to eat seafood. I failed at eating 160 pounds of fish, I’m afraid, but I think I had at least three or four pounds of it. I’ll have to get the rest another time.

Several museums and museum type exhibits littered the area. Some were definite tourist traps, charging $20 to walk in and look at a single room full of ouija boards or $25 to walk in and look at four or five wax figures in a room, then back out to the gift shop. Others, like the Salem Witch Museum, House of Seven Gables, The Jonathan Corwin house, and the Peabody Essex Museum have a more broad appeal. Even that ghost tour we took in the rain offered stories rich with the city’s history.

I don’t ordinarily do much shopping on vacation. I’m mostly interested in shooting photos and eating well. However this was our first trip outside the region since the pandemic, so I felt like embracing all aspects of being a tourist, shopping included. There are no shortages of places to spend your money in Salem. There’s the witchy shops and the souvenir shops as well as a number of other interesting places to leave your money on the counter. My partner bought hats and clothing primarily, I bought prints and other hang’ables, and did so with shameless abandon. Essex Street is the main touristy shopping district, shops there must pay a premium in rents to capitalize on the tourist traffic. We would sit and watch the people wander through town in Salem-themed shirts and these particular pointed semi-witchy hats that were for sale just about everywhere, and wonder why you would do that? I mean wearing your Salem stuff IN Salem is like buying a shirt at a concert merch table, and then wearing the shirt during the actual concert. Everyone knows, you wear that when you get home, letting your chest act as the bumper sticker on a car or luggage that proclaims proudly “Hey! I go places!”

Since it was our first good outing in a couple years, I packed fairly heavy in the camera department. I packed way more film than necessary. Way more. As for cameras I packed not one, not two, n… four. I packed four cameras. Why on Earth would I need four cameras? The answer, of course, was that I didn’t need them. I -wanted- to use them. Not for the photos but the pure enjoyment of using these wonderful machines I’ve been obsessively collecting. However in the end I only used two: My Nikon F4 and a Yashica-Mat. The F4 takes amazing photos, but it’s a bit big and heavy to sling over your shoulder for 20,000 steps. Ideally I should have used something smaller, like an OM-2 or a rangefinder, but no. I wanted the Nikon. It was a good choice, I relished every occasion I could swing it up and snap the shutter and hear the “wuh-Zerp” of the film advance motor (this one wuh-Zerps, they all have their own unique voice). Getting the photo is only one part of a photo walk like this, it’s also important that the shooting of these photos is equally fulfilling. My hobby isn’t the photos, it’s the creation of them.

Of course, as true as that is, I’m going to go ahead and share a lot of those photos right here.

This was a good trip. After a few days we traveled further north to further fulfill our vacationy needs. The Massachusetts North Shore is a great area to visit, stuffed with culture and history, beaches and harbors, wetlands and marshes, and many attractive seaside towns to wander around in. I’ve not spent too much time north of Salem, but I hope to return to see more of those areas in future excursions. There is still so much fish I’ve not yet eaten.