Holidays

A Bewitching Day in Salem

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Sorry, but a pun was unavoidable.  Happy Halloween everybody!  Today I’m writing about one of the Halloweeniest places on Earth; Salem, MA.  Salem is somewhere I’ve always really wanted to visit; in fact, it was on my “Places I want to Visit” page until I finally remembered to remove it.  Before this trip, I’d never even been to New England, but I felt sure it would be as atmospheric as Hocus Pocus had led me to believe.  Although some parts of the trip were kind of a bust, I’m happy to say that Salem wasn’t one of them, although it was EXTREMELY touristy, as I was anticipating.

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Salem is not terribly big, and is primarily composed of the following: shops and restaurants, most of with a witch theme, or spooky-sounding name; overpriced museums and haunted houses, again sticking to the witch theme; and some of the most adorable 19th century houses I’ve ever seen.  Some of Hocus Pocus was indeed filmed in Salem, and the overhanging trees perched in the tree-lawns of some of the streets, coupled with the old houses made it feel as though it would be a great place to do some trick-or-treating (although, as the houses lacked the ample front yards and pumpkin-strewn porches of suburban Ohio, it didn’t exactly take me back to my own childhood memories of Halloween night.  Oh, nostalgia).

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Obviously, Salem is famous for the Salem Witch Trials, which is up there on the list of disturbing events in American history, and it’s thus a bit odd that it is a hotspot for modern Wiccans, but then again, Whitby is a goth hangout, and the Dracula of Bram Stoker’s novel wasn’t even real, so maybe not so weird after all.  Although Salem has a long and rich history outside of the witch trials, the whole witch thing really came front and centre sometime around the ’60s, when a few episodes of Bewitched were filmed in Salem (and there’s a Samantha statue in the middle of town), and it was only exacerbated by Hocus Pocus, until it really became the main focus of the town.  There’s lots of opportunities at the local witchcraft shops to have your fortune told, which is not really my cup of tea, mainly because I’m cheap and tend to laugh at inappropriate times in those kinds of situations.  To be honest, I was really into Wicca and “magick” when I was a teenager, so I know perfectly well how to “read” Tarot cards, and sometimes I do, just for fun, but I’m certainly not going to pay for a reading.  Anyway, because museums are really my thing, I went to three of them whilst in Salem, as I wanted to get a mix of the cheesy and serious.

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The first was the Salem Witch Museum, the one in Washington Square (because there are a LOT of witch museums, and they all have similar names).  Because I studied the trials pretty extensively in high school and beyond, I didn’t really want to do a walking tour that would just focus on basic history; I wanted something over-the-top, and this was the place the proprietor of our B&B recommended (she sold me on it when she said it was like the Hall of Presidents in Disneyworld, although there were sadly no animatronics to be found).  You’re not allowed to take pictures, presumably so you can’t show people how lame it is, so we parted with $9.50 and joined the massive queue of people for the next showing.  We were ushered into a large theatre, with manneuquins arranged in various tableaux along the walls.  There’s a recorded narrator, which sounds like it was done in the 1960’s, that tells the basic story of the witch trials, and a spotlight shines on each scene as he discusses it.  There’s a devil with red eyes that glow intermittently, which is the only bit that could even sort of be construed as scary.  Following about half an hour of blathering, we were then directed into a smaller room, and given a tour by a staff member who discussed modern witch hunts and Paganism with us.  I would have probably enjoyed it more if it wasn’t packed with obnoxious teenagers on some sort of field trip (and if the staff didn’t keep asking me if I was with said teenagers).  The whole thing was extremely lame, and very overpriced, but I do like outdated attractions, so I didn’t hate it or anything.  2.5/5.

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Next, I visited a more serious museum, in the form of the Salem Museum.  This is housed in the old town hall, and is more of a historical society, with free admission.  The walls were hung with informational posters, and there were a few cases with objects from Salem’s history, but there wasn’t a lot in there, and pretty much served as an overview of Salem’s history.  They did make the bold claim (ok, via a quote) that Nathaniel Hawthorne was handsomer than Lord Byron, which I have to dispute, though I suppose Hawthorne had the advantage of not being a drunken, syphilitic libertine.  I do feel guilty about skipping the House of the Seven Gables, but I’ve never read the book, nor The Scarlet Letter, so I felt I wouldn’t be able to appreciate it properly (it is a glaring omission, considering I was an English major, (I’ll get round to it eventually!), but I do remember being creeped out by “The Minister’s Black Veil,” if that’s any help!).

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Salem was also where Parker Brothers was founded, so the museum had a room at the back devoted to the history of the company, which was by far the best part.  I LOVE board games, and I’d really like to start collecting antique ones if I ever have any sort of income, so I enjoyed looking at all the Victorian morality games, and the various versions of Monopoly manufactured over the years.  I should also mention that there is a man dressed as a pirate who runs the gift shop/greets people (I mean, he does work there, he’s not just a random weirdo or something), and that part of a witch-hunt play thing takes place in the attic of the museum building, so you may suddenly see an angry mob coming towards you, screaming “Witch, witch!” so be prepared for that.  2.5/5

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Thirdly, there’s Count Orlok’s Nightmare Gallery, commonly agreed to be the best waxworks in town, and you know I love a good wax museum.  Unfortunately, Count Orlok’s kind of defeats the purpose of visiting a wax museum by not allowing photography.  I mean, why go through the trouble of making replicas of famous movie characters if you’re not allowed to get your picture taken with them?  What’s the point?  Still, I did pony up $8 for it, and in fairness, they were very good waxworks (note: zombie above was not done by Count Orlok’s), which made the no-photo thing even more galling.  My favourite was of course Winifred Sanderson, but there was also Beetlejuice, lots of characters from Hammer horror, life masks of Bela Lugosi et al, and lots of other modern monsters.  They only had a few of the Universal monsters, and Dracula and Frankenstein were not among them, and they didn’t have anything from the Evil Dead series, which is my favourite horror trilogy (really, all I can handle is over-the-top cheesy horror, anything actually scary just gives me horrible nightmares), but that might be for the best as I think I might have cried if I couldn’t get a photo with Ash.  During October, they run a haunted house in the afternoons where people jump out at you, but it’s pretty small in there, and I wanted to be able to actually look at stuff uninterrupted, so keep in mind that you have to visit before 2:30 if you feel the same.  3/5, I would have rated it higher but for the stupid photography rule.

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There’s lots of other stuff to do around town; I hear the Witches and Seafarers Wax Museum is hilariously crap, but I didn’t feel like blowing more money, and I was scared they wouldn’t allow photos either.  There is an old-timey photo studio that does witch portraits; obviously, I couldn’t resist, but they have my boyfriend in them too, and he’d be extremely embarrassed if I posted them on here.  I had really good pizza and ice cream from Flying Saucer Pizza and the Salem Screamery, respectively.  Of course, I also paid a visit to the cemetery, which is a lovely, if sadly unkempt New England style graveyard with verse and death’s heads on many of the old stones.  Simon Bradstreet, husband of the Puritan poet Anne Bradstreet is buried here, as is John Hathorne, great-great-grandfather of Nathaniel, and one of the douchiest judges in the witch trials, which is probably the reason why Nathaniel changed the spelling of his surname.

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Next to the cemetery is the witch memorial, so you can pay solemn tribute to the victims of the hysteria. It’s probably one of the few sites relatively untainted by modern tourism left in Salem, although that said, I didn’t go in the Witch House, the only remaining site directly connected to the trials.  But, when in Salem, it’s best to just give in to the touristy madness, and take advantage of all the activities around town in October.  I’m glad I finally got the chance to visit, even though Binx never turned up.

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Sleepy Hollow, New York: Cemetery Tour and the Old Dutch Church

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In the interest of keeping things as Halloweeny as possible around here, I’m going to go ahead and write about Sleepy Hollow, even though I didn’t visit any museums or historic houses there, so it’ll be a slight departure from my usual review/critique format.  Sleepy Hollow is of course famous for being the setting for Washington Irving‘s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, as well as for various films and a terrible-looking TV show.  Naturally, Sleepy Hollow chooses to capitalise on this; in fact, they only changed their name to Sleepy Hollow in 1996; the village was formerly known as North Tarrytown

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Although Sleepy Hollow doesn’t quite go all out for Halloween to the extent that Salem does (of which more in my next post), there’s certainly no shortage of Halloween-themed attractions in the surrounding area, from theJack O’Lantern Blaze, to Horseman’s Hollow, and Jay Ghoul’s House of Curiosities.  The village of Sleepy Hollow isn’t all that big, so the main things to see are the Old Dutch Church and the cemetery, which offers a load of different tours.  Because the “Murder and Mayhem”tour was already sold out when I tried to book some weeks ago, we ended up on the “Classic Lantern Tour,” from ten until midnight, which cost $25.

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I do love the rare opportunity to venture round a cemetery by night, and I adore the smell of oil lamps, which were handed out at the start of the tour, but I do think I would have preferred one of the specialised tours.  Our tour was more of a generic overview, with stops at the graves of some of the famous “residents,” like one of the Rockefellers (though not John D, he’s in Lake View!)  and of course Washington Irving, but much of it was devoted to architecture, which I would have found more interesting if I hadn’t already been to a variety of Victorian cemeteries.  Our guide told us a fascinating story about some guy whose wife died under mysterious circumstances, and mentioned that the “Murder and Mayhem” tour featured a lot more of that sort of thing, so I think that’s definitely the tour to take if it’s available!  I did enjoy the chance to see inside one of the vaults, which was obviously empty, but still delightfully claustrophobic.

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The only really scary part of the experience was when we were stopped in an area ringed by angel statues, as there were three of them, and I had to keep trying to stare in all directions so none of them sneaked up behind me.  Even creepier is the fact that there used to be four angels, but one of them was knocked over and is currently in storage, or so they claim…  Doctor Who has just made me completely freaked out by the things.

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We’d stopped by the village earlier in the day so we could check out the Old Dutch Church, which was having its annual “Old Dutch Fest,” which meant that there was a costumed guide in the church.  Unfortunately, the church is right by a main road, and there was a lot of traffic noise coming in the open doors, so I couldn’t hear much of what he was saying, but what I did catch, about the role of the church and village in the Revolutionary War, was very interesting.  The interior of the church is quite plain, as you might expect, and there’s no altar. 

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Sleepy Hollow does a nice job of decorating for the season around town, with the highlight being the scarecrows made by local schoolchildren, but there’s also a big Headless Horseman statue in the centre of town, and the local manor house, Philipsburg, also does its part.

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We snapped a few pictures from afar, but didn’t pay to enter because we were visiting the FDR Museum that afternoon, and I certainly wasn’t going to “tarry” around (ha!) with FDR a-waitin’ (which will also be the subject of a future post, don’t worry!).  Sleepy Hollow was the perfect thing to get me in the Halloween spirit (as if I needed help), and the cemetery was pretty excellent, sculpture and mausoleum-wise, and it’s only about 28 miles from New York City (see below), so well-worth investigating if you’re a New Yorker.  I’m really more of a town girl than a city girl at heart anyway, though Sleepy Hollow’s proximity to NYC gives it less of a village feel than I was expecting.  Still, it was nice to walk in the hoof prints of the Headless Horseman…

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Special October Post: Spooky Suggestions for Halloween!

I don’t like to play favourites (actually, I don’t know why I said that, because I totally do), but Halloween is probably my most beloved holiday…at least in terms of atmosphere and decor.  With that in mind, I do write about a lot of weird/creepy places on here, so I thought I’d link you to some of them in one central location, in case you’re looking for places to visit in October.  Like the content of the blog itself, most of the places are in the UK or Ohio, but there are some options for Continental Europeans as well!

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Mansfield Reformatory in Ohio is the subject of one of my most popular posts (right after the Arnold Museum, of course), and it is a really cool place – it’s so dilapidated and dark inside, you feel as though you’re trespassing, even though you’re not.  In the month of October they are open for special ghost events and their haunted house, but I do think it’s also well worth visiting during their summer season, when you’re left on your own to explore.

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On the subject of jails (or gaols), the Cork County Gaol in Ireland is another cool one.  They not only have audio tours on Walkmans (in the colour of your choosing!) but also have wax figures, and re-created cells.  The whole building is damp and cold, as if you can still feel the misery of the prisoners held here.

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Kelvedon Hatch in Essex is creepy in a nuclear apocalypse sense – we were the only visitors on the day we went, and there’s not even an admissions desk, so we were really able to get the experience of being the last survivors of a nuclear holocaust.  Plus, you’re trapped underground, and you’ve no idea what might be waiting at the other end of the tunnel!

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Eyam, in Derbyshire, is a village that was completely decimated by the 1665 plague, carried here from London via fleas in a box of cloth.  Most of the original plague houses remain, and the village is home to a nice little museum all about the epidemic.  It’s also quite near to Bakewell, so you can stop for a seasonally appropriate tea afterwards.

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The Dr. Guislain Museum in Gent, Belgium, is housed in a still working mental institution.  Need I say more?  Well, the extremely excellent museum includes art done by the mentally ill, and horrible torture devices used to “treat” mental patients of yore.  A must-see if you’re in Belgium!

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I also adore the Royal London Hospital Museum in Whitechapel.  I’m really interested in Joseph Merrick’s life, and the museum is THE place to see his skeleton and some of his possessions.  Lots of other medical stuff too, and the museum is free!

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If you’re creeped out by dolls, then Pollock’s Toy Museum in London is not the place for you (unless you’re trying to scare yourself, which I guess is pretty much the point of this whole post, so never mind).  Split between a Victorian and a Georgian house, which are side by side, Pollock’s involves a journey up narrow, winding staircases to view cases crammed with sad-eyed Victorian toys.   Just watch out for the doll room!

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Even though almost nothing is in English, the Police Museum of Copenhagen is still incredible (and incredibly gory).  The wall of murder weapons is not to be missed, even if it raises more questions than it answers (what IS the deal with that meat grinder?!).

Finally, here’s some other places I LOVE (some of which can be found in my Favourite Places page), but haven’t got around to blogging about yet:

Mutter Museum, Philadelphia: The best medical museum I’ve seen yet (and I’ve seen a lot, as you’ve probably gathered).  There’s a giant colon, a lady whose fat turned to soap, and the liver from the original Siamese twins.

Thackray Museum, Leeds: Love the Thackray! They are the gold standard in authentic smells, and wax figures, and what I’ve compared every “street of yesteryear” to since (most of the other ones have been found lacking).  Oh yeah, did I mention it’s a medical museum?

Hunterian Museum, London: Yet another medical museum (sorry, I know I have a problem), this one excels at stuff in jars.  And has some cool war medicine stuff.

Museum Vrolik, Amsterdam: This is the last medical museum (for now), I promise!  Museum Vrolik specialises in weird fetuses, including cyclopes, all manner of conjoined twins, and genetic abnormalities you never knew existed.

Museum of Witchcraft, Boscastle: I probably shouldn’t be putting this museum in a Halloween roundup, because they aim to distance themselves from old stereotypes of witches, but this place is awesome, and I wanted to give it a mention.  Lots of witchy paraphernalia in a very picturesque village.

Hever Castle, Kent: This was Anne Boleyn’s childhood home, and even though the interior hasn’t been done any favours by the owners since, the exterior is still lovely, as are the gardens,  They have a yew maze, and do some autumnal decorating, but I am pretty much including it here because I spotted ghost cupcakes in their tearoom, and cheesy Halloween touches like that are hard to find in England.

Hampton Court, Surrey: This is meant to be one of the most haunted places in Britain, if not in the world.  I’ve never seen any ghosts, but that hasn’t stopped me from making many return visits to gawk at the rooms Henry VIII (and his many wives) inhabited.

Hellfire Caves, Buckinghamshire: These man-made caves are where members of the Georgian Hellfire club met, and, if the rumours are to be believed, took part in orgies and/or satanic rituals.  Even if the stories aren’t true, the caves are full of mannequins and spooky sound effects, and make an excellent day trip from London.

Lakeview Cemetery, Cleveland: I couldn’t end this list without including a place from my hometown, and Lakeview is probably my favourite cemetery in the world.  Splendid Victorian monuments abound, including Garfield’s tomb (you can see his and his wife’s coffins in the crypt), and the Haserot angel, which is guaranteed to give nightmares to Doctor Who fans. Cleveland’s Little Italy, which is just a street over, grew up around it because so many Italian stonemasons were hired to help build it, which should give you an idea of its size.  And that means you can get cavatelli and strawberry cassata cake after your visit.  What more excuse do you need?