Why you need to visit witch capital Salem, Massachussets at Halloween: A real life town of horror

The United States takes Halloween very, very seriously.

If you haven't pimped  your house with pumpkins, ghosts, giant spiders and skeletons, then Houston, we have a problem.

But for Massachusetts' witch capital Salem, Halloween is a year-round business.

Those with goth leanings can visit any time of the year and get a pair of vamp fangs fitted, peruse a wand shop, get your fortune told by a witch, or buy ingredients for a spell.

Come Halloween, and things are ramped up. Retailers decorate their stores like a grizzly Christmas on steroids; and events are held daily.

I'm visiting Salem in early October, peak Halloween, which leaves me little choice but to embrace the Halloween spirit and discover more about the city's sullied history.

In brief, the Salem witch trials were held over a mere four months in 1693, in what was arguably the deadliest mass hysteria of all time. Twenty "witches" were executed, and 200 accused left jails overflowing.

One of the best places to find out more is the Witch House, the only actual building left directly tied to the trials and now a museum.

The foreboding puritan-era home suggests what crazy fun times life in Salem in the 1600s was like. Considered a mansion, the house belonged to Judge Jonathan Corwin, who made preliminary inquiries into the initial reports of witchcraft.

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A tour of the Witch House illustrates what a stellar time it was to be alive and female during 17th-century New England. If childbirth didn't kill you, then cooking probably would have. Long, billowing skirts and huge open fires were not a winning combination, and when women's dresses caught fire, it would cause terrible burns, which would then get infected, killing them. This was the second biggest cause of death at the time.

It also details some of the crazy superstitions of the time: if a cow doesn't give you milk, it meant witches were stealing it in the night. And drinking warm human blood was a completely normal way of restoring strength and vitality.

While this whets the witching appetite, those fishing for more gory details are better served visiting the Witch Dungeon, which contains a replica of the dungeon in which the accused were imprisoned.

By the time I get to the third witch-themed institution, the whole story is pretty drummed in. The museum alleges to take itself a little more seriously but falls a little flat with the slightly dated and melodramatic retelling the story, and I'm more interested in their timeline of witches throughout history, detailed right down to today's wicans.

 However I did discovered an interesting fact – in 1706 one of the protagonists of the mass hysteria admitted her guilt and sought atonement, basically stating what we all knew in the first place: There is no such thing as witches.

But that doesn't stop Salem attracting the weird kids, the wicans and the paranormal investigators, who arrive en masse each October to revel in the city's bloodied history and come looking for ghosts. You'll recognise them as they're probably (in some cases, hopefully) wearing Halloween costumes.

Haunted mansions and other vestiges of horror cash in on the events of 17th-century New England, and you can round the day off with a ghost tour revealing elements of Salem's sordid past.

Our lively guide booms how faces and apparitions appear nightly on mobile phone pictures taken of the historic houses around its town centre from the nightly walks.

The tour takes in the Old Burying Point, one of several cemeteries housing graves of those involved in the Salem witch trials. The guide points out that while the victims themselves would have been buried in unmarked graves, several jurors involved in the trials are buried here.

It also houses Salem's most famous tree – the "lightning tree'' – which grows from the grave of Caleb Pickman, who died by lightning strike in 1737. The tree has been repeatedly struck by lightning, some say up to five times, which is obvious by its missing branches and blackened trunk.

Even the most staunch of cynics would have a hard time finding nothing spooky about that.

The writer was a guest of Discover New England

MORE INFO

Traveller.com.au/northamerica

GETTING THERE

Virgin Australia codeshare with Delta Airlines. Fly with Virgin to LAX, then onto Boston with Delta. See virgin.com au; delta.com

DINING

Salem has a burgeoning food scene and great seafood. Finz is a local favourite right on the seafront hipfinz.com. In Salem, the traditional woodfired pizzas at Bambolina's are excellent bambolinarestaurant.com/

STAY

Experience one of Salem's historic houses at the Salem Inn, which has three bed and breakfast options in the heart of downtown Salem. 
saleminnma.com

See also: Haunted hotels - the world's ten scariest places to stay

See also: The world's most terrifying place to spend Christmas

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