Who wouldn’t want to spend all of October in Salem? That’s the first thing I thought when I ran across J.W. Ocker’s book, “A Season with the Witch: The Magic and Mayhem of Halloween in Salem, Massachusetts”.
Well, quite a few people, it turns out. That’s one of the bits of knowledge I took away from reading “A Season with the Witch.” Salem is much more than Witch City and the site of the trials of those accused of being a witch in 1692.
(For the record, it wasn’t even the site of the alleged witchcraft that caused the trials – that happened in present-day Danvers, among other neighboring townships, which is five miles north of Salem. Details I had since forgotten from high school U.S. history…or details I never learned. I’m not sure which.)
It’s a city trying to be many different things to many different people. Salem boasts a world-class art museum, the Peabody Essex Museum or PEM, despite being 30 minutes north of Boston. It has a rich maritime history, including appearances by pirates. It is home to present-day Witches. And for some, it’s simply home.
So how do all these elements come together to create a place Halloween-lovers around the world flock to every October?
Well, they do and they don’t to some extent. But now I’m getting ahead of myself, so let’s take a step back for a moment.
I probably never would have picked up this book if it hadn’t been related to Halloween. A book just about Salem would have felt more like homework than something to pique my interest. And I wouldn’t have been interested in it had I not started a Halloween blog, an idea put off for at least two years before I made it a reality, oddly enough, two months before J.W. Ocker began his journey to write this book.
So discovering it in my favorite local bookstore and reading it feels like the most magical sort of happenstance.
The book itself is about Ocker’s stay in Salem during October 2015. He moved his family there to experience Halloween in a place that many consider the epicenter of Halloween in America.
Yes, there are plenty of Halloween hot spots namedropped, like Salem’s Haunted Happenings or the Witch History Museum, and the book serves as a guide on how to do October 31st in Salem. But for me, reading this book was a true glimpse into everyday life in a place many of us put on a pedestal and think of as magical.
Spoiler alert: it’s not. It’s just another American city with a lot of strange things happening there.
As the book opens, we naturally begin where anyone would with a trip to Salem: landmarks from the Witch Trials…or rather, what hints are left of them. We journey on to some of the cheesier “museums” and tourist attractions in the city celebrating the spooky side of life.
Ocker teaches us about pirates and the city’s rich maritime history. He pokes around at PEM, discussing the incredible exhibits the museum has put together, as well as traveling exhibits they manage to secure despite proximity to Boston’s own set of museums. He even asks a few questions about items allegedly in the museum’s possession, including Blackbeard’s skull (yes, really) which doesn’t thrill his interviewee.
The book also journeys through what it means to be a witch in modern Salem, the fictitious witches who have haunted the city over the years and what it’s like to work for the city side of Witch City. And American author Nathaniel Hawthorne makes constant appearances through the entire journey, given he was born in and then lived in Salem, on and off, for his entire life.
“A Season with the Witch” delves into so much more than just the Halloween activities that occur in the city during October that by the time I got to the penultimate chapter, aptly titled “H-Day”, I almost felt like I didn’t need to read it. I was sold. I wanted to go to this city full of American history iced with modern-day spookiness to experience it all, October 31st be damned.
If you are interested in Salem, I highly encourage you to pick up a copy of “A Season with the Witch”. This iconic city is about so much more than witches, and you would be cheating yourself if you only went with the Witch Trials, Halloween or the spooky side of life in mind. Ocker will give you a treasure map to all the best spots, spooky and otherwise, to make sure you do it up right.
(That’s not an affiliate link, by the way.)
What is your must-see in Salem?
I’d love to hear it – leave your spot in the comment…or tell me why you’re dying to visit!
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