The selling of scary
Locals are grumbling that a historic city 'turns into Spooky World'
Scott Perkins (center left) and his wife Vicki Perkins (far right) dressed up for the Halloween celebrations on Essex Street in downtown Salem on Sunday. (Globe Staff Photo / Dominic Chavez)
SALEM - The broomstick-riding mistress of Halloween is everywhere in this city of witches - on the police cruisers' emblem, the high school mascot, and the masthead of a local newspaper. Visitors can buy Witch City shot glasses and pointy hats; visit The Witch House, the city-owned home of a witch trials judge; or buy Wychcraft beer.
But, as an expected 75,000 people converge on Salem for Halloween tonight, an increasing number of locals are grumbling that area businesses, and perhaps even Salem's mayor, have commercialized a quaint city also known for Nathaniel Hawthorne and the Peabody Essex Museum.
During October, Salem "turns into Spooky World, which is difficult because everyone walks around the street . . . like you're at Disney World," said longtime resident Michael Szczuka, who owns a dry-cleaning business near the main Halloween retail street. "Our downtown has become an amusement park area - a honky-tonk, really."
Each year, Szczuka closes shop near the end of October and heads to Hyannis for Halloween because "every kid who wants to get drunk or rowdy thinks that Salem's the place to go that night."
It started in the early 1980s, when the Chamber of Commerce began drawing tourists to Salem with a weekend Halloween celebration called Haunted Happenings. The revelry now spans the month and will culminate tonight, when about 200 police officers will be on hand to control the crowds.
The event has gotten so big that highway signs on the Massachusetts Turnpike and Interstate 93 give travelers the "best route" to Salem, and the MBTA runs extra trains into town on weekends. Mayor Kimberly Driscoll said signs also direct motorists on Routes 128 and 62 as a collaborative effort with Beverly, Danvers, and Peabody - communities, she said, that in the past have been "inundated with motorists" trying to get to Salem.
This month, banners with Driscoll's name have welcomed tourists to Haunted Happenings. Driscoll also has promoted a carnival on Derby Street and a discount card that offers deals through April - efforts that she said are designed to draw crowds to different parts of the city and bring tourists back after Halloween ends. This year, the city enacted a psychic licensing ordinance and has approved 70 psychics and 15 psychic establishments for work this Halloween season, to better control who does business in Salem.
"The witch is the hook," Driscoll said. But "we want you to leave knowing something else: What a quaint city, what an awesome walking city, nice restaurants . . ."
While shopkeepers and some residents praise the marketing approach and the city's increased involvement in managing the event, others say that the growth of Haunted Happenings not only has disrupted their lives, but has left visitors with a skewed view of Salem's history by burying the real horror of 1692, when 19 people were tried as witches and killed.
"The lack of interest in that and the commercializing of the occult part of it - these women weren't even witches . . . it's absurd," said Pamela Schmidt, who has lived in Salem for more than 20 years. She said she doesn't much mind the spectacle but wonders what people are thinking as they leave Salem.
"It's almost like a Mardi Gras idea of Halloween," Schmidt said. "They go into graveyards and photograph themselves among the gravestones. . . . I don't think they spend any time getting a historical message."
The masses pack Essex Street on the days leading up to Halloween, looking to have their tarot cards and auras read, or to run scared through haunted houses. They pose for pictures with ghouls and disemboweled doctors, dragonmasters and Star Wars-type villains. All around, vendors hawk magic shows and candle-lit graveyard tours, "terror tickets" and psychic fairs.
"That's a freaky one," Nicole Liuzza of Easton said Sunday as she and her family searched through the graveyard for a place to snap a photograph.
"There's a dead body in there, you guys, a skeleton. How does that make you feel?" brother-in-law Chad Diamond of Taunton said as family members arranged themselves on someone's crypt.
"Probably most of the residents don't like that we're here - trouncing all over the grave sites and just, you know, belittling probably some of their relatives and whatnot," Diamond said minutes after a picture was snapped. "I would say a lot of the other residents probably like that we're here. It brings a lot of money into the area."
Self-described "Halloween buffs" Kim West and Vanessa Kingsbury, who was sporting purple horns and pointed teeth, traveled from Long Island to attend a spell-casting and check out the Salem Witch Museum.
"I didn't think it would be so quaint," West said.
"We were expecting ruckus in the streets," Kingsbury said.
Ajay Cooper of Concord, N.H., provided some of that as he stumbled through the streets as a deranged and bloodied doctor, sometimes scaring children and clowning for tourists with cameras.
Salem police expect the revelry to peak tonight, and plan to have about 200 officers - many from surrounding communities - on foot, horseback, bike, motorcycle, and scooter-like vehicle. "If your costume has something that can be construed as a weapon, please do not bring it," said police Captain John Jodoin. "Every year we confiscate numerous swords, clubs. . . . Last year, we took a chainsaw away from a guy."
Business owners are delighted. "It's like 75 percent of my business is in October," Samantha's Costume Shop owner Laurie Landess said Sunday.
Down the street, self-proclaimed professional Salem witch Christian Day sorted "Festival of the Dead" T-shirts and monitored the goings-on at his psychic fair.
"It's insane. It's the best it's ever been," Day said of the crowds. "Yesterday, there was not a psychic that was not back-to-back-to-back" with customers.
But even revelers understood how some could be annoyed.
Robin Whelton, a native of Salem, reflected on the quandary while hanging out on the Common with friends - all dressed as Harry Potter characters.
"Salem is a really fun place to live in October if you can get into the spirit of the holiday," she said. "If you have to deal with the traffic and get anywhere or be anywhere, if you want to go out to dinner on a quiet night, that's impossible in October."