By Zalina Alvi
Walk down any street in historic Salem, Massachusetts, and you will find witch shops, memorials, museums, and tours offering a glimpse into the city’s storied past.
Everywhere you turn, there are reminders that Salem is a town for witches – both real and fictional. (Case in point: Salem’s Witchcraft Heights Elementary School.)
The infamous witch hunt may have been revealed to be a tragic hoax – one that claimed the lives of fourteen women and six men – but since then Salem has attracted hundreds of practicing Witches from around the world.
And its reputation as Witch City opened the door to a world of similarly themed tourist attractions.
Salem’s Witch Mania
The strange thing about Salem’s witch-mania, however, is that there are two very different sides to this coin. On one side, you have a long history of real Witches who were drawn to Salem’s history and who have found a place where they can practice their beliefs in the Craft openly.
Congregating in a handful of shops in the city’s historic center, both male and female Witches from many walks of life offer psychic readings, live spell castings and tools of the trade that include potions, crystals, gazing balls and tarot cards.
In one such shop, a second-degree priest within the Cabot Kent Hermetic Temple named John Cabot Griffin used his skills to offer insight into my aura and offered invaluable advice about my personal hopes and aspirations.
As a disciple of Laurie Cabot, known as the “Official Witch of Salem,” Griffin also stressed the importance of respecting Salem’s large Witch population.
“We all come here because this is our community, and it really is due in part to Laurie Cabot coming here and becoming an open Witch,” Griffin said.
Salem’s First Witch Shop
Cabot opened the city’s first Witch shop in 1971 and until 2012, ran a shop called The Cat, the Crow, and the Crown. As the founder of the Cabot Tradition of the Science of Witchcraft and the Witches’ League for Public Awareness, she is credited with popularizing Witchcraft in the United States. The store is now closed but there are four other witchcraft shops in Salem in 2020.
An Amusement Park?
Despite all this, the first impression experienced by most visitors to Salem is that of an amusement park for the supernatural: In a four-block radius, you can visit a store filled to the brim with Harry Potter merchandise, buy a wand named after a character from Twilight, or even have your picture taken next to a statue of Samantha from Bewitched.
The city has also attracted the likes of Count Orlok’s Nightmare Gallery – a wax museum dedicated to movie monsters – and the 40 Whacks Museum – dedicated to the infamous murderer Lizzie Borden, who actually committed the (alleged) crimes 70 miles south of Salem in Fall River, Massachusetts.
For these reasons, the city explodes during the month of October with tourists looking for a spooky good time leading up to Halloween -– Salem’s biggest day of the year. But movie monsters and ax murderers have very little to do with Witches, so what brought attractions such as these to Salem?
Despite some attempts by tour guides and, often, the city itself to foster a sense of respect for the very real and very legitimate practice of the Craft and Wicca in Salem, the city continues to draw spectators interested in indulging a superficial interest in the supernatural.
The amazing thing about Salem, though, is the precarious balance that has been achieved by its two seemingly contradictory sides. With the right frame of mind, you can enjoy the ‘amusement park’ nature of the city, all the while respecting the beliefs of its many Witches. And any Witch you encounter while exploring historic Salem will point you in the right direction.
Zalina Alvi is a contributing editor for Verge Magazine, North America’s resource for working, studying and volunteering abroad. Her work has been published in Outpost magazine, Canadian Immigrant magazine, The York West Advocate and The Molokai Dispatch in Kaunakakai, Hawaii. You can find samples of her work at zalinaalvi.com.