What’s more terrifying than strolling through a centuries-old cemetery in the heart of Salem during the spookiest time of the year? Being the head of marketing for the city and learning that people have used the tombstones as places to enjoy an ice cream or change a baby’s diapers.
“I just heard that one today, actually,” said Kate Fox, executive director of Destination Salem. “Some people don’t realize it’s a historic site, and they think it’s a prop.”
Now, officials are implementing new rules that will limit the number of visitors allowed inside the popular Charter Street Burial Ground. The policy change comes as the city gears up to continue historic preservation work at the site.
For the first time, during the busy tourist season, only 100 people will be able to explore the cemetery at any given time. The restrictions will be in place between 10 a.m. and sunset, from Friday through Halloween, officials said. Staff stationed at the entrance and exit gates of the cemetery will closely monitor the number of visitors.
No matter how much the people want to get in, they’ll just have to wait.
“If a walking tour comes in with 25 people, that’s 25 people who will have to wait for the walking tour to leave,” Fox said. “I think that there are going to be lines, as we see lines for all of the attractions in Salem in October.”
Salem is anticipating a high turnout this weekend through the holiday. Fox said based on feedback she has received from the business community, the city is having its best season in years — if not the best ever.
In the past, gaining access to the cemetery was easier. Crowds descended on the area where judges Jonathan Corwin and John Hathorne, who presided over the witch trials in the late 1600s, are buried. While some made themselves at home — sitting on the gravestones, or doing grave rubbings — others went further and took pieces of the cemetery home.
Last year, the city preserved and restored some of the cemetery’s most endangered headstones and tombs, according to a press release. Officials also received $600,000 to begin work this winter on new pathway circulation, lighting, landscaping, signage, fence repairs, and access improvements to the 1.47-acre property.
With all of that in mind, the city, Destination Salem, and the Salem police collaborated on the new nightclub-like practice of counting heads as people walk in to prevent any future damage.
“We are really aware and sensitive to the impact of visitors to the cemetery,” Fox said. “And that’s why they have put restrictions on capacity.”
Entry will only be allowed at the gate on Charter Street. The gate near the Witch Trials Memorial, on Liberty Street, will serve as the exit. Workers will be on either end in orange vests. Additional staff will roam the grounds.
While long lines might cause headaches for some people trying to take in the spooky and historic scenery, Fox said there’s a silver lining for the city: They will now know just how many people have stopped by, numbers they haven’t kept in the past.
When asked whether people can expect this same restriction in the years ahead, Fox said it’s very likely.
She added, “I’m just trying to get through this October right now. One October at a time.”Steve Annear can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @steveannear. Globe Correspondent Allana J. Barefield contributed to this report.