Halloween Blitz Day 8: Halloween in Salem

I love Halloween attractions because unlike bars they’re creative and unlike museums and concerts they’re interactive. So this year I’m doing a Halloween blitz! The Events INSIDER team and I are visiting 28 attractions in 10 days, going indoors, outdoors, and as far away as New Hampshire and Connecticut. Click and scroll to the bottom to see my list of 160 Halloween attractions and more creative October events than anyplace else!

Day 8: Thursday, October 31, 2013. Where else would you go for Halloween if not Salem, Massachusetts for the Haunted Happenings. We took the Haunted Harbor Cruise, learned about the Salem Witch Trials through the plays Cry Innocent!, Legacy of the Hanging Judge, and Spirit of the Gables, and toured the Witch Mansion Haunted House.

Haunted Harbor Cruise (3.5 stars)

The Haunted Harbor Cruise is a Halloween themed tour of Salem harbor that lasts for more than an hour, run by Mahi Cruises, which runs tours all season. During the day they give narrated historic tours of the harbor, including corporate events, and in the evening they run booze cruises and cocktail tours with DJs or live music, where the point is not to learn but just to let go.

The ship has a maximum capacity of 150 and is often sold out on the weekends, but when we went, Thursday, a work day, there was plenty of space for everyone. Alcohol was available and they grill hot dogs and hamburgers to order. The two level ship had decorations from From Art to Zombies in Danvers, which makes high quality Halloween crafts all year round. The ship is available for weddings, birthday parties, and other private functions.

A bit of slack must be given to the Haunted Harbor Cruise because this was only their second year doing anything like this, and the boat itself is newly restored. This is a brand new business. That being said, the decorations were minimal and the boat had a party atmosphere, not a spooky one. Only one of the crew had an elaborate costume: a gorilla, a conflicting choice because it wasn’t practical to wear a full-face mask working a ship. A conflict in vision was emblematic of the entire experience.

The first conflict was the view. The point of a boat tour is to let the sights inspire and calm you, but the music added to the engine noise made the decks a bit too loud to relax. We had to raise our voices rather than enjoy a normal conversation with friends. Also conflicting were the Halloween tales. If read as a script, they would be engaging and well researched, but told over the public address system, they seemed more like a historical tour than a ghost story. No attempt was made to get people into a circle to talk theatrically, to make it more of a performance than a story. I suggested to the narrator that, like close-up magicians who wander and entertain small groups of people, that he might tell stories to small groups personally rather than over the sound system with the boat’s strange acoustics — it was quite difficult to hear what he was saying and pay the kind of close attention that is required for a performance to be engaging and for him to startle you with a yell.

A big plus was their having a facepainter on board, who painted both kids and adults and gave me a great skeleton face. This upped my lame costume considerably. Counterbalancing that, it was disappointing that they had a fortune teller on board who told me that she believed in the magic of her cowrie shells. Playing up ghosts and fortunes for fun is one thing, but making money from urging people to make big life decisions from your spirit world rather than take responsibility for their own decisions… that is harmful. I was glad that the Halloween tales however were definitely on the “for fun” side. In the stories there was none of that silliness on walking ghost tours where the tour guide asks you to take a photo and interpret every blemish as a ghost. We learned about the Misery Islands and saw the first lighthouse to be staffed by a woman. We heard about pirates, revenge, and love on the high seas, to the extent that we could follow.

Speaking with the crew it’s clear that they are smart people who will work out the kinks in their attraction, aligning all of its elements for a unified experience (celebratory vs. relaxed, spooky vs. informative, personal vs. distant) and that their reviews will rise. For now, I can only give the cruise a 3.5 stars. I only wish I had eaten hamburgers on board. Don’t have lunch before you go!

Legacy of the Hanging Judge, Salem MA (5 stars)

The Legacy of the Hanging Judge is more than just a performance that brings the horrors of the 1692 Salem witch trials to life. It’s also historically accurate and takes place in a historic home, The House of the Seven Gables, where Nathaniel Hawthorne lived. You’ll recall him from high school as one of America’s most important old timey authors. Rather than sit you down in a large venue, with the actors placed on stage, your group of sixteen people are led into a small entranceway for an intimate and up close performance from a single actor. Five minutes later, you are led into the next small room to meet another actor, and so on through all the rooms of the house. (Meanwhile, behind you, another group is being led into the room you just left, to maximize how many can see the show.)

What a show! Through practice going back at least a decade, this performance has found the perfect balance. You learn a lot but not so much that it overwhelms you. (After all, you are standing up for the entire show and people get tired. Even the brainiest of us only want so much history.) Rather than get flooded with names and dates, you learn a lot about the motivations of the people — and their regrets afterwards. We even get to meet Nathaniel Hawthorne, who well than a century after his ancestor was a judge at the trials feels a family guilt. Quotes on the walls give us a sound bite of Hawthorne as well and we get to meet the spooky girls whose accusations began the whole thing. Apparently much of the witch hysteria came from old feuds between people. Hey, which of us doesn’t have an old romantic partner or boss we might be tempted to throw under the bus if it was witch-burning time? Well, we’d like to think that we wouldn’t of course, but in those few times in the United States that a riot breaks out, plenty of people go a-stealing. And we love to gossip about Obama being “muslim” and hate celebrities online with our anonymous and rude comments. Maybe as modern people we have more in common with those in the past that we think.

As if that weren’t enough, this is no show of amateurs. Accomplished actors bring us into their world, making us laugh or be startled in fright. One tiny flaw might be that they don’t show the causes of the accusations as well as Cry Innocent did. Legacy of the Hanging Judge is perfect theatre: arty, unique, creative in all dimensions. If you see only one thing in Salem, it should be this.

Spirit of the Gables, Salem MA (4.5 stars)

Spirit of the Gables is a similar show that also takes place at the House of the Seven Gables and again you are led through room and room. This time instead of being true to history, the play follows the plot of one of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s books, the House of the Seven Gables. While the acting was even better, we were told up front not to interact with the actors yet the lines of dialogue had them asking the audience questions. That was a conflict. And they chose not to end the story, presumably to inspire us to read the book, which is understandable, but hey, let’s not be a poor sport that people don’t read books anymore. Please add an ending to your show! It’s better than Hawthorne going unrecognized. Kudos to an impressive if not quite perfect show, which even includes an outdoor component. I looked but could not find photos of the actual show on their website.

Cry Innocent!, Salem MA (3.5 stars)

Cry Innocent! answers the biggest question in Salem: how could the Salem Witch Trials of 1692 have happened? What led the townspeople to execute so many innocent people? So they get an automatic bump up in their rating for taking on such an important topic and being historically accurate. That is fantastic. That being said, my rating of 3.5 stars is up from what was only a 3-star show.

The show itself was slightly repetitive and could have been half the length. Cast members portray old timey villagers with grievances and delusions against Bridget Bishop, who stands accused of being a witch. The historical accuracy of these accusations has led the production to make the dialogue deep and brainy — for which they should be applauded! But unfortunately, the acoustics in the giant town hall caused echoes such that the actors simply could not be understood. A play should not have nuances if the venue doesn’t allow for nuances. Afterwards, I spoke with one of the organizers who was aware of the acoustic problems. Unfortunately, because their venue is the historic Old Salem Town Hall, fire codes are severe and they are not permitted to hang up fabrics to baffle the sound. But I did notice that on the first floor they have built an entire museum with things hung on the walls and wonder if a solution really is genuinely impossible or just needs more thinking. Perhaps they could have taken a trick from The House of the Seven Gables and broken the play into four acts: one in the basement, one outside, one downstairs, and one upstairs, each of which could have a smaller audience. The smaller your audience, the less trouble with raised voices and echoes. Or perhaps the show should be moved into a different venue.

I was also struck by the odd combination of a very serious topic: an innocent person about to lose her life, versus all the humor in the play. Certainly the humor was well needed to entertain us as we didn’t quite understand the intricacies of the accusations, but it was a conflict with the subject matter. Kudos however, to the troupe for allowing plenty of audience interaction. The audience was glad to play along. When asked to make a comment, I even got to accuse someone of also being a witch.

There is tremendous potential in Cry Innocent, which runs the June to October and I am certain that their venue limitations can be overcome with time and that they will find the right balance between brainy and accessible, and between serious and entertaining. Despite my reservations, nowhere else in Salem have more learned something that goes beyond names and dates to the heart of why people sometimes turn on each other.

Terror in the Village, Salem MA

I’m sad that our group did not venture out to Terror in the Village because of the rain. After 7 days of Halloween adventures without a break, and being on foot all day, our enthusiasm for Halloween finally gave in to our doubt. I think that if we had been certain that it would be awesome, we definitely would have gone, but the official website gives no photos and we just didn’t have the heart for a long trek in the rain if we weren’t more sure. Its all-outdoor location was bound to be muddy, and it is not located close to Salem’s downtown. You need to ride a bus there, or drive (but driving to Salem on Halloween is not recommended). You could also walk, although it may take more than a half hour.

That being said, I have been to this location before, and can vouch that it is beautiful. During the day it is a living history museum that shows how the original settlers of Salem lived. (And I believe that like Plimoth Plantation it is on the site or near the site of the actual settlement.)

I’m certain that the walk through the dark and the acting of the troupe would have been worth the trouble of getting there and maybe also raving about if the event is good! Perhaps next year they can arrange a shuttle (or help us poor visitors figure out the buses which are not mentioned — times and a map would be nice) or partner up with a venue in town or even Mahi Cruises to be more accessible. It is a problem that many Halloween destinations have: renting a space is expensive the closer into town you go. That’s why the Boston metro area has only one or two haunted attractions close enough to the city to be easily accessible by public transit. Cry Innocent has a little booth in the main Salem square to sell tickets and get people into their venue, so perhaps Terror at the Village could try that.

Witch Mansion Haunted House, Salem MA (2 stars)

The Witch Mansion Haunted House is a haunted attraction in downtown Salem whose main benefit is convenience. If you have never been into a haunted house before, they are open daily, July through October. Unfortunately, the brief, 7-minute journey came with low production quality in its effects and, with one exception involving a rhyming actor, basic performances.

At Events INSIDER, we don’t like reviewers who seem to get a big ego boost from talking down a show they didn’t like. We exist to support the arts, not to be snarky and tear artists down. That being said, the Witch Mansion Haunted House was the least of the attractions that we visited on our tour. While below average quality can be excused for amateurs doing their best (see my reviews of Field of Screams and Dark Manor, for example), the professional quality of the advertising at Witch Mansion shows that if they wanted to up their theatrical component, they have the management savvy to do it. So really this is another of those commercial ventures that puts all their energy into marketing rather than the kind of quality performance that would inspire word-of-mouth. Salem is for tourists, most of whom are newly arrived and don’t know anyone who has even been to Salem. So who cares about word of mouth, right?

How to do Salem right, avoiding tourist traps, is the subject of the next section in this article.

Haunted Happenings, Salem MA (4.5 stars)

Haunted Happenings is the name that the Salem Tourism Office gives to all the events and destinations in Salem and the region during October. It’s quite big!

Let me say this frankly: Salem is a lot of fun during Halloween time but you have to choose carefully. Avoid the most hyped tourist traps and bars, which seem to overwhelm the humble traveler when partying students are out in force. But it is possible to do Salem right. Visit the USS Friendship, the reproduction trading ship from old timey days, which you can ogle even if it was strangely closed for boarding. See the House of the Seven Gables and their shows. Eat dinner in town and buy tickets to one of the masquerade balls. But avoid the haunted houses — those in town are too commercial, except that you should definitely see Terror in the Village.

I would also see the Salem Witch Museum and the Pirate Museum, and go from shop to shop browsing all the curious goods. It’s also fun just to stroll around town, to watch people and see their magnificent costumes. Just walking around town we also got to be front and center for a TV news spot. You should definitely go into the Peabody Essex Museum as well, which is a top New England museum and does not focus on the witch trials. But note that these attractions are open all year, so you don’t necessarily need to do them on Halloween or even in October.

Salem is a place of conflicts. The businesses want as much as much tourism as possible, but the rest of the locals just want the tourists gone. So the city of Salem produces an outdoor stage of music. If you are smart, do not drive to Salem. Instead, take the commuter rail and by the end of the evening (9:30pm) position yourself by the outdoor stage which is near the train stop. That is also the best place to watch the fireworks from that “end the night” before an official curfew and police politely hustle you out of our city! so that you don’t get too drunk and cause vandalism or whatever they are afraid of: loud noise keeping people awake I guess.

Another conflict in Salem is the belief in the paranormal. The main lesson of the Salem witch trials is that when you listen to people with crazy ideas (that witches exist, that spells work and curses too) it leads to bad things like executions. And yet, a community of Wiccans have embraced Salem as their home, and you’ll find tarot card readings and stores with potions all around. If it’s just for fun, this is fine, but when someone is making money telling you that this rock crystal will heal you, or that your grandmother is sending her love from beyond the grave, that’s predatory. That’s con man stuff, and fortune telling is actually illegal in much of the country, maybe Salem too. The game is that if you ask officially, a tarot card reader knows the laws and will say it’s just for fun, but if you prefer to be stupid and ask informally, they will assure you that it’s all real, pay $30 please. Anyway, that’s always the worst part of Salem to me. I love Halloween so much, but not taking advantage of the gullible. The best way to honor the innocents killed in Salem would be to give up superstitious thinking, but I feel sometimes that nobody gets that but me.

Towards the end of Halloween night the place did get flooded with college students in amateur costumes, boozing it up. If you have kids or just want to keep your sanity, visiting Salem mid-month is perhaps wiser. Although you’ll find a few things early in October really the big stuff does not get going until mid-October. Visiting the 3rd weekend of October is perhaps ideal if you’re not crowd-loving. You’ll get to experience everything except the outdoor stage and fireworks. Earlier in the month, you’ll find kids parades, an outdoor carnival, outdoor movies, and just enjoying the beauty of nature. Those are real treats. Really, Salem is a great place to visit any time of the year.

In short, Salem has a little for everyone. While I can’t give it a full 5 stars because I do wish it had a few more brainy / arty attractions to add to its bars and potion stores, depending on your point of view and savvy about choosing your activities, it is 5 stars all the way.

See More

See all 160 Haunted Attractions and tons of Halloween events and much more at www.EventsINSIDER.com. And click ‘subscribe’ to subscribe to the blog and read more about the Halloween blitz!