For 11 months of the year, Salem, MA, looks like a lot of other New England villages, with its brick buildings and wood-frame houses painted in Colonial-era colors. But when autumn leaves begin to fall, Salem becomes the Halloween capital of America, as more than 250,000 visitors -- many of them families with small children -- crowd the streets in costume.
Now in its 26th year, Salem's Haunted Happenings celebration includes a series of ghost-story hours at historic houses, a reenactment of Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Spirits of the Gables," and a costume ball. Very young visitors can take part in a costume parade, children's brunch, scarecrow-decorating contest, and jack-o'-lantern festival.
Haunted Happenings started as a one-day event for local children, but it's grown into a three-week celebration for people from all over the world," explains Kate Fox, executive director of Destination Salem, which welcomes a million visitors to this riverfront city of 40,000 each year. In fact, Fox reports with a laugh, the village of Salem has only 300 hotel rooms available, many of which are booked a year in advance for the month of October. Easy rail and ferry access from Boston -- the half-hour train ride costs only $2.50 for adults and $1.25 for kids -- and a variety of inns and motels in the Salem area allow thousands more to enjoy the festivities.
"It's sort of like a family version of Mardi Gras," says Carol Manley, director of marketing at Salem's Hawthorne Hotel, which plays host to a costume brunch each year. "People get to live out their fantasies with very elaborate costumes. I love the look of surprise on children's faces when they see adults walking down the street dressed as the Village People."
Salem, of course, is best known as the home of the witch trials of 1692, and as Fox points out, "Halloween doesn't have anything to do with that historic event." But Salem's witch connection somehow became associated with Halloween, and the city has found ways to mix history and spooky fun. Visitors can take candlelight walking tours of the town and hear history-based legends and ghost stories in various homes and museums. (For a complete schedule of 2001 events, go to www.salem hauntedhappenings.com or call 877-SALEM-MA.)
A big aim of this year's festival is to make it even more focused on families and young children," says Fox, who became a mom herself in April. As a nod to the season's foliage, an enormous leaf pile will be assembled for kids to play in, and little ones will be invited to look for needles (actually plastic toys) in a haystack. Add in puppet shows and kids' concerts, and a Halloween trip to Salem becomes a memorable way for families to spend a crisp fall day.
Copyright © 2001. Reprinted with permission from the October 2001 issue of Child magazine.