The Epicenter of Halloween in America

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It has been known for years that Salem, home of the infamous witch trials, has become a mecca for Halloween revelers and modern Pagans (who purportedly make up 10% of the local population). But I think outside observers might be surprised to see how this witchy tourist draw has grown to Mardi Gras proportions. For example, did you know that thousands of bikers do a “Halloween Witch Ride” every year?

“More than 3,000 scary-looking cyclists got a jump on Halloween yesterday by participating in the 20th annual Halloween Witch Ride to Salem. Taking off from Bruce Rossmeyer’s Boston Harley-Davidson in Everett, werewolves, skeletons and other ghouls all shared a scenic route through the North Shore.”

This particular event has grown so large that Salem has opened its own Harley-Davidson shop this year, complete with a special Harley Salem witch shirt (which is apparently selling like hotcakes). Meanwhile, the city itself is coming up with grander closing spectacles to signal to the large crowds that the Halloween-season party is over.

“The city has hired Somerville-based Visual Design Associates — the company that created an elaborate indoor display at Jordan’s furniture in Reading — to design an eye-catching, end-of-the-night program that will both entertain and send the message to revelers that Halloween night is over … Around 10 p.m., the live music and DJ’s scattered throughout the downtown will wrap up for the night and direct crowds to the display on Washington Street. At 10:30 p.m., the 15-minute artistic program will start. Then, a scaled-back fireworks display will be launched near the North River at 10:45 p.m. … It involves an 8-foot wall, helium and giant dancing shapes, according to Kate Fox, the executive director of Destination Salem.”

Another article points out that Salem isn’t only drawing American revelers and Pagan pilgrims, but a growing international contingent of Halloween tourists.

“So far this October, more than 6,000 visitors have stopped by the booth, which is open on weekends. “There are so many people from other countries,” said information booth volunteer Grace Lamarre, a Salem resident.”

As for local Pagan groups, they are hardly idle. Witchy impresario Christian Day’s Festival of the Dead grows ever larger, with a Retro Zombie Ball, a Vampires’ Masquerade Ball, and, of course, The Official Salem Witches‘ Halloween Ball.

“Saturday, November 1, 2008, 7:30pm to 12:30am at the Hawthorne Hotel! Join Christian Day and the Witches of Salem with special guest Fiona Horne and musical guests Wendy Rule and Dragon Ritual Drummers for a night of magic at the event AOL CityGuide rated one of America’s top Halloween parties! Join us as in days of old when fires burned on every hilltop and Witches gathered to feast, rejoice, and cast spells for the new year!”

In addition to Day’s massive multi-week extravaganza, Pagan events are also being thrown by Crow Haven Corner, the Cabot Witches (for Cabot initiates only), the Witches’ Education Bureau, The Temple of Nine Wells, the First Church of Wicca, and several others.

Add in the seemingly recession-proof yearly increase in Halloween-related spending, and what began as a local tourist draw is gradually morphing into a nationally (and internationally) recognized seasonal festival. For better or worse, this change from cheesy wax-works and trial re-enactments into a massive cultural (and money-making) multi-week event is partially due to the emergence of Witches and modern Pagans injecting a sense of the sacred (and the psychic) into the proceedings. It may never be officially called a Samhain festival, but for all intents and purposes this is America’s tribute to Summer’s End.