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    Essay

    Salem’s spell can bewitch the reluctant

    Visitors inspect gravestones in Salem’s Charter Street Cemetery.
    Patricia Harris for The Boston Globe
    Visitors inspect gravestones in Salem’s Charter Street Cemetery.

    Contrary to the traditions of folklore, Salem’s modern-day practitioners of Wicca don’t ride brooms through the air. But they’re not above tossing on long black robes and conical hats and hitching a ride around town in a pedicab — especially during the parade that launches a month of “Haunted Happenings” in the North Shore community that markets itself to the world as Witch City.

    That’s the thing that always used to bug us about Salem. When you could point to Samuel McIntire’s architecture, the Peabody Essex Museum, and a glorious history of international trade in the age of sail, why would you identify first and foremost with the most inglorious and shameful segment of the community’s past? Salem doesn’t just make passing references to the witchcraft trials of 1692 that put 20 people to death and imprisoned many others — it spends the entire month of October wallowing in the trappings of Halloween. If we didn’t know better, we’d say the whole city was under a spell.

    So when an otherwise intelligent and discerning friend from the Midwest enthused about visiting Haunted Happenings, we were properly aghast. But then, of course, we’re from Cambridge. Once our immediate shock wore off, we were a tad embarrassed that we’d never driven the 19 miles northeast (or hopped on the commuter rail) to see what the fuss was all about.

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    In a way, Salem has made the sweetest of lemonades from the lemons of history. Forever linked to the witch trials by the sins of the city fathers, Salemites adopted collective amnesia about their historic rush to judgment and instead embraced the spirit of Anglo-American Halloween, a “holiday” that transformed the old All Saints holy day into a candy and gore fest.

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    With the weight of history on their side, why not do Halloween bigger and better than anywhere else by making it into the monthlong celebration of Haunted Happenings? Things change every year, but this October you’ll find a couple of parades, walking tours of the old graveyards, and earnest retellings and dramatizations of the witch trials, not to mention seances, a spell-casting presentation, wand-making instruction, a haunted magic show, ghost stories at the Witch House, and ghost-hunting at the Hawthorne Hotel. It hardly stops there. There’s the Zombie Walk, the Zombie Prom, the Devil’s Chase Road Race (6.66 miles), more ghost tours than you can rattle a proton pack at, and the Boo!s Cruise for over-21s who crave another excuse to wear their Halloween costumes and release their inner party animals.

    A couple of years ago, in the interest of journalistic integrity (and self-congratulatory Cantabrigian open-mindedness), we finally made the trip to see for ourselves. And we have to own up: Salem grabbed us right away when we saw those witches in pedicabs, and we were completely won over when we spotted two more riding in the back of a convertible like prom queens. It certainly beats getting hanged or crushed by stones, which is what happened to witches back in 1692.

    Buttons for sale at the Haunted Happenings street fair on the Essex Street pedestrian mall.
    Patricia Harris for The Boston Globe
    Buttons for sale at the Haunted Happenings street fair on the Essex Street pedestrian mall.

    One visit led to another. A street fair with horrific face-painting and custom Dracula fangs led to a somber visit to Charter Street Cemetery, the city’s oldest graveyard, where women in witch costumes and a particularly droll character dressed as a skeleton were studying the names and dates on the grave markers. Before you could say “Shazam!” we found ourselves on a haunted trolley tour, hearing hair-raising tales of some of the macabre post-1692 occurrences in Salem. We didn’t even feel silly, despite having neither Harry Potter-esque children nor a costumed dog in tow. If anything, we were conspicuously underdressed. Many adults who flock to Haunted Happenings don at least rudimentary costumes because — let’s face it — while there may be plenty of children’s activities like trick-or-treating with the mayor, Haunted Happenings is much more for adults than for kids.

    Children get to let their imaginations run wild all the time, and Halloween just channels that sense of the fantastic into witches and goblins and monsters and things that go bump in the night. Haunted Happenings gives adults the same permission to indulge in straight-out silly fun for a full 31 days a year. So during October, you just might find us having a good time on a Salem street corner — as soon as we find our zombie ear necklaces.

    Patricia Harris and David Lyon can be reached at harris.lyon@verizon.net.