It is just before seven o’clock on a warm September evening, and I am waiting in front of a black house at the corner of Essex Street and Hawthorne Boulevard in Salem, Massachusetts. It is situated between a pub and a store with Harry Potter paraphernalia in its front windows. The black house is just one of many witchcraft shops in Salem, but this one, called Crow Haven Corner, has the distinction of being the oldest. I’m here to go on one of the “witch walks” they offer several times a day for $16 a head.

It’s a Monday so my tour group is a small one. Very small, in fact; there are only two other people, a couple from Utah whose daughter attends Harvard. The tiny turnout does not discourage our guide, Tom, in the least. If anything, the intimate group better allows his particular talents to shine.

Candles, crystals, and a stuffed crow set the mood for the “witch walks” offered by Crow Haven Corner.
Candles, crystals, and a stuffed crow set the mood for the “witch walks” offered by Crow Haven Corner. Chris R. Morgan

Tom is a young, wiry-framed man with shoulder-length brown hair. He greets us with a sprightly voice that slips into a singsongy cadence each time he signals us to move to a new destination. Now in his mid-thirties, Tom has been a resident of Salem since he was in his teens and he is a veteran guide, having worked on several tours of the area. Initially called to the city by his love of Halloween, Tom later became a practicing witch, which is, at least for me, the tour’s main draw. Coming to Salem with many questions about the discrepancy between the city’s past and present relationship to witchcraft, I hope Tom’s two crafts—sorcery and “explaining things”—will help me get some answers.

The tour starts in the “enchanted alleyway” next to the Harry Potter store. A narrow pathway leads to a tiny courtyard, almost a patio, containing a winged gargoyle and a person-sized, colorful plastic dragon; a rotating green light casts a spotted pattern. In the center of the courtyard is a table set with candles, crystals, a pile of leaflets discussing the victims of the 1692 witch trials, statuettes of various mythical figures, a stuffed bird perched on top of a skull, and a knife. Off to the side, planted in the ground, is a sword, but Tom doesn’t like the sword so he goes back into the store to get one he prefers.

Once he returns, Tom commences with the grounding spell, a simple ritual to demonstrate the basic practices of Wicca, the most popular contemporary form of witchcraft in the United States. He starts with breathing exercises, not unlike those done during yoga, he says. He then tells us to concentrate on the weight of our feet planting us to the ground—an easy task as I’d spent much of the day walking around. He is about to prepare a “sacred space” for the spell, which he describes first as “a kind of force field” and, more interestingly, as “an invisible witch church.” He points the sword upward and spins it over our heads to create the parameters of the sacred space. “I’m going to do a lot of spinning,” he says. Then he takes up the ritual knife—called an athame, I later learn—which he will use to call on the four elements of life: earth, air, fire, and water. We hold up our left hands as he points the athame north, west, south, and east for each element. After each rendition we are instructed to say “so mote it be”—an archaism for “so it must be.”

The dragon and gargoyle outside Salem’s Crow Haven Corner.
The dragon and gargoyle outside Salem’s Crow Haven Corner. Chris R. Morgan

Next is the visualization spell. Tom explains that witches are pantheists rather than atheists and that all the gods of pre-Christian times never entirely faded into oblivion. Tonight’s spell is performed in honor of Hermes, a favorite of Tom’s, the god of travel—the god of tour guides. He lights an orange candle and has us close our eyes as he describes in lush terms the flame rising above us and dissipating into the sky. Tom then undoes the sacred space by turning the athame to the right. He waves his hand in front of the dragon, which, equipped with a motion sensor, now moves its head and roars. Tom then points to a pile of crystals that have been blessed in the process of the spell and offers them to us if we want to carry the magic with us. “Everybody gets one.”

In the preface to the 1851 edition of Twice-Told Tales, Nathaniel Hawthorne warns the reader that “if you would see any thing in it,” the book must “be read in the clear, brown, twilight atmosphere in which it was written; if opened in the sunshine, it is apt to look exceedingly like a volume of blank pages.”

I arrive at the author’s hometown via commuter rail—a 30-minute ride from Boston—at five o’clock the evening before my tour with Tom. Walking along the platform and up to the street, the unobstructed sun is only just about to set and the weather is still very much above mild, so I already feel like I’ve failed in my excursion: This isn’t the clarity of twilight that Hawthorne advises. Then again, Hawthorne’s work isn’t really what I’ve come to Salem to investigate.

There is a trope in the horror genre that probably has a proper name, but I haven’t heard it and wouldn’t know how to look it up. It’s a dark twist on the fish-out-of-water narrative, let’s say. A single central character travels to some far-off place in search of leisure or research or escape, only to meet certain doom at worst or become privy to maddening, inexplicable visions at best. H.P. Lovecraft wrote quite a few stories with this framework, though the template is probably M.R. James’s 1904 story “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad,” in which a stiff academic taking a coastal vacation finds an ancient whistle that, blown unwittingly, summons an apparition into his bed-and-breakfast room. My favorite tale of this type is Thomas Ligotti’s “The Last Feast of Harlequin” (1990), in which an anthropologist who specializes in clowns travels to the small town of Mirocaw to study its winter festival only to discover, in Ligotti’s patented lyrical detail, that one festival is hiding another more sinister one.

I had arranged to stay at a bed and breakfast called the Stepping Stone Inn, located at the Y-shaped intersection where the statue of Salem founder Roger Conant stands cloaked and imposing as if he were rising angrily from the ground. The inn is a Greek Revival house built between 1846 and 1847 for naval and customs officer Abraham True. As the co-owner Matt shows me the parlor, he informs me that True’s funeral was held there. Not half an hour into my time in Salem and I’ve already discovered a morbid detail.

Matt hands me paperwork before showing me to my room with some instructions: Smoking is absolutely forbidden on the grounds, as are weapons, drugs, incense, and Ouija boards.

There’s no small amount of expectation in Salem of encounters that can qualify as “weird.” That the businesses and residents in the city are equipped and eager to help make such encounters possible is perhaps its most notable aspect. Salem’s official tourism website includes standard planning suggestions for the foodie, engaged, art appreciator, beer/wine lover, and LGBTQ+ considering a visit. So far, so normal. But two other categories on the site stick out: the Halloween enthusiast, signified on the site by a witch’s broomstick, and the modern witch, signified by a lunar symbol.

Visitors to Salem will find its four centuries of history layered with contemporary camp.
Visitors to Salem will find its four centuries of history layered with contemporary camp. Mark Wilson / Boston Globe / Getty

Heading from the center of town on Essex Street out towards the wharf, many of the businesses in Salem are dedicated to the spooky, the occult, and the gothic. “Wear black. We can help,” reads a flyer for Die With Your Boots On, a store dedicated exclusively to gothic fashion, with products like Viking sword leggings, a Sylvia Plath-inspired typewriter necklace, and a varsity jacket that reads “See You in Hell” on the back. Vampfangs started in 1993 as a door-to-door service offering custom-made vampire fangs. This year it opened its own Essex Street location, where it sells colored contact lenses, ready-made teeth veneers with names like “Night Walker,” “True Breed,” and “Cletus Deluxe,” and books like Biting Back: A No-Nonsense, No-Garlic Guide to Facing the Personal Vampires in Your Life. “If you have any questions, just scream,” is what I’m told in a pleasant customer-service tone after paying my admission to Count Orlok’s Nightmare Gallery, a museum displaying life-sized replicas of horror icons like Pennywise from It; the Tall Man from Phantasm; Regan from The Exorcist; the Predator from, well, Predator; Elvira; and Alfred Hitchcock with a disproportionately small head set up next to a screen projecting The House on Haunted Hill. In the gift shop there is a Michael Myers mask (a William Shatner mask spray-painted white) priced at $41.

While I’m perusing the selection of athames at the Cauldron Black, one of the many witch shops in downtown Salem, two employees discuss the merits of Libras while cold-wave music plays in the background. Over at Hex: Old World Witchery, I case a shelf of cheeky seven-day candles like the Break Bad Habits candle for “banishing sinful vices,” which pictures a pregnant, smoking nun. By burning a marriage-breakup candle, you help ensure an end to “a relationship—yours or someone else’s.” The shop also offers dolls, powders, crystals, herbs, handcrafted journals, and other ingredients for today’s occultists.

This is to say nothing of the numerous walking-tour booths set up along Essex Street, where a man in a top hat will escort you through the city, divulging its dark secrets. There is also a Hocus Pocus tour, inspired by the Salem-set 1993 Bette Midler film, which I saw once in a theater and never again.

In the modern world there is one cultural demographic whose general annoyingness seems to stand above all others. It is made up of the type of person for whom one day, even one month, of Halloween is not enough—the type of person for whom every day, as the Ministry song goes, is Halloween. And while, for the rest of the country, haunted hayrides, horror-movie marathons, and pumpkin-spiced everything are confined to the “fun month,” Salem is one of the few places offering Halloween-friendly attractions all year round. Or at least it is the one location uniquely qualified to do so.

The Salem Witch Museum is next door to the Stepping Stone Inn in what used to be a Gothic Revival church. With my complimentary ticket from the inn, I’m led into an auditorium where life-sized wax tableaus are set up near the ceiling. When the show starts, each tableau lights up in turn and we look up and follow while a narration recorded many decades ago—with a voiceover artist doing his level-best Vincent Price impersonation—tells how the Salem witch panic of 1692 unfolded. It is like the Disney Hall of Presidents but for suffering and death.

It begins with a replica of the Devil, red and menacing, with glowing eyes. Europe, we are told, through centuries of disease and political and theological strife, was haunted by this figure. Witch hunts were common throughout the continent. “In the town of Ratisbon,” goes a passage from Malleus Maleficarum, a guide to witchcraft published in 1487, “a certain young man who had an intrigue with a girl, wishing to leave her, lost his member, that is to say, some glamour was cast over it so that he could see or touch nothing but his smooth body.” “I have ever believed, and do now know, that there are witches,” wrote Sir Thomas Browne in Religio Medici (1642). “They that doubt of these do not only deny them, but spirits: and are obliquely, and upon consequence, a sort, not of infidels, but atheists.” Browne gave testimony in witch trials held in Suffolk 30 years before the trials in Salem.

The story of the Salem witch trials, as told in Salem today, is always the same. The Puritans brought with them a grave worldview that made life difficult for anyone not adhering to their version of Christianity. Girls of Salem Village were amused by tales told by Tituba, a black slave of the orthodox minister Samuel Parris. Parris’s daughter Betty, his niece Abigail Williams, and other girls began to exhibit strange symptoms—babbling incoherently and making animal noises. With no clinical diagnosis available, they were deemed bewitched, leading to numerous accusations, complicated interrogations, and ultimately 19 deaths by hanging, 1 by rock-pressing, and 4 more while the accused were in custody.

The Puritans are usually spoken of in broad terms in today’s Salem. Tom, though, is more pointed. The Puritans, as distinct from the Pilgrims of Plymouth Rock, were “kind of crazy,” he says; they were “the Taliban of Christianity.” Those accused of witchcraft, everyone in town accepts, were not genuine witches. No evidence beyond the accusations and comparatively mild acts of superstition could be attributed to them. Rather, their guilt lay in their inability to conform. “From infancy,” Paul Nissenbaum wrote in Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft, “a Puritan was raised to distrust his private will, to perceive it as the ‘old Adam’ which, above all, constituted original sin. It was this innate self-interest . . . that had to be tamed if it could not be eradicated.”

Boyer and Nissenbaum’s version of the story of 1692 matches the one held by most of the Salemites I encounter. In this telling, the trials were the unfortunate outcome of a culture clash between two factions. Salem Village (modern-day Danvers) lived in the shadow of Salem Town, then a burgeoning port colony that would prosper thanks to trade with East Asia. One faction of Salem Village wanted greater connection with Salem Town, while the other—made up of more traditional Puritans like Parris—wanted to remain independent of it. “Unable to relieve their frustrations politically, . . . the pro-Parris faction unconsciously fell back on a . . . more archaic strategy: they treated those who threatened them not as a political opposition but as an aggregate of morally defective individuals.”

The Witch Dungeon Museum on Lynde Street gives some idea of the heights of cruelty the trials reached. The replica is in a dingy basement where very little is clearly visible—which is part of the point. “All prisoners endured huge physical suffering,” Frances Hill wrote in A Delusion of Satan:

But accused witches were worse off than the other unfortunates. Their limbs were weighed down and their movements restricted by manacles chained to the walls, so that their specters could less easily escape to wreak havoc. . . . Body searches for “witches’ teats” afforded ample opportunities for rough treatment. Such teats, supposedly nipples for familiars to suck on, consisted of any mole, wart, pimple, or growth that could be considered unnatural.

The cells in the replica dungeon vary in size, some large enough to hold several inmates, others only slightly wider than caskets. Prisoners were billed for their accommodations, and so, as a costumed guide tells visitors, the wealthier among the accused took the larger cells, though they sometimes had to share them. Families of the accused were also obligated to pay the fee for the hangman.

Among the most tragic victims of the Salem story was Dorothy Good, just 4 years old. Her mother, Sarah Good, was one of the earliest women to be accused. Little Dorothy—whose name is often listed as Dorcas thanks to an error on her arrest warrant—was accused of witchcraft and readily confessed and gave evidence against her mother. (Sarah gave birth to a baby, Dorothy’s sister, while incarcerated; that child died before Sarah was hanged.) Dorothy was imprisoned in both Boston and Salem Town, “loaded with irons and chained to a wall” for as many as eight months without sun or space to walk. Of all those accused, Dorothy’s ordeal feels the most contemporary. The afflicted and the accusers “had no special desire that Dorcas should suffer,” Hill writes. “But their satisfaction in the witch-hunt made them indifferent to Dorcas’s pain. The same seems to have been true of the rest of the populace; no protests were made on the child’s behalf.”

A note left on the Sarah Good bench at the Salem Witch Trials Memorial.
A note left on the Sarah Good bench at the Salem Witch Trials Memorial. Chris R. Morgan

Back on our town tour, Tom walks us over to the Salem Witch Trials Memorial. Erected in the tercentennial year of 1992, it is a large courtyard with a stone wall around it, from which protrude 20 stone benches. Each bears the name of a person executed, the date of his or her execution, and the method. Mourners leave flowers and notes. Over Sarah Good’s stone is a note, on Hawthorne Hotel stationery, apparently from her sixth-great-granddaughter. Just on the other side of the wall is the Burying Point, considered the second-oldest settler graveyard in North America. Respect for the dead, Tom tells us, is an important tenet of the witch. That has extended to the city itself, which forbids entry into the cemetery after dusk.

I go to the Burying Point during the day. Among those interred there is John Hathorne, the harsh judge who oversaw the witch trials. His descendant would famously write in the introduction to The Scarlet Letter that Hathorne had

made himself so conspicuous in the martyrdom of the witches, that their blood may fairly be said to have left a stain upon him. So deep a stain, indeed, that his dry old bones, in the Charter-street burial-ground, must still retain it, if they have not crumbled utterly to dust!
Headstone at the grave of Nathanel Mather.
Headstone at the grave of Nathanel Mather. Chris R. Morgan

Most of the stones in the Burying Point are too deteriorated to read. I do find a small headstone for one Nathanael Mather, died in 1688. “An Aged person,” the epitaph read, “that had seen but Nineteen Winters in the world.”

Walking around the Burying Point one gets a sense of modern Salem’s spatial quirks. The antiquated and the contemporary blend into each other, and not always seamlessly. Imagine William S. Burroughs’s cut-up technique but applied to city planning. The location of the dungeon where the accused were jailed and interrogated now hosts an office building. The property of Bridget Bishop, the first to be executed and the only one explicitly charged with witchcraft, is now a seafood restaurant frequented by paranormal investigators. Across from the far wall of the Burying Point is a gas station; at the side of it is a gourmet pizza restaurant. At the grass just beneath the wall are the remains of two miniature liquor bottles, two 7-Eleven drink cups, a pizza box with two paper plates, a magazine, and scratch-off lottery tickets.

There is at least one book that pushes against the current narrative of the Salem witch trials. Chadwick Hansen’s Witchcraft at Salem, published in 1969, puts forth the theory that evidence against some of the accused was, at the very least, plausible. Frances Hill included a chapter of Hansen’s book in her own Salem Witch Trials Reader for its “excellent explanation of the onset of the girls’ fits as due to clinical hysteria,” albeit from “fear of witchcraft.”

New England, it turns out, was a hotbed of occult practice. But where Bridget Bishop and others purportedly practiced malicious “black magic,” many others, including even medical professionals, dabbled in more benign “white magic.” Popular countercharms in New England included boiling or burning the ear of a bewitched animal or boiling the hair of a bewitched child. Hansen records one instance in which a family, in order to expel a ghost, tried boiling a pot of urine and crooked pins, to no avail:

As the Liquor begun to grow hot, a Stone came and broke the top or mouth of it, and threw it down, and spilt what was in it; which being made good again, another Stone, as the Pot grew hot again, broke the handle off; and being recruited and fill’d the third time, was then with a third Stone quite broke to pieces and split; and so the Operation became frustrate and fruitless.

Throughout the witch walk, Tom complains about the adverse effects of movies and pop culture, which have long shared Hansen’s view of witchcraft. He has a point. Films like Black Sunday, The Blair Witch Project, Rosemary’s Baby, and stories like M.R. James’s terrifying “The Ash-Tree,” to name a few, all depict witchcraft as real, powerful, and far-reaching.

Before coming to Salem I thought of using the 2015 movie The Witch as a kind of icebreaker. Or maybe not. While Robert Eggers’s film is justly praised for its meticulous portrayal of 17th-century New England (though it was filmed in Canada), it depicts witchcraft from a Puritan’s point of view: as a Satanic endeavor, replete with sacrificing of infants and the signing of the Devil’s book, a common charge in the times of the witch trials. Not that this prevented the film from being endorsed by the Satanic Temple as “a criticism of a theocratic patriarchal society and a fair representation of the stresses that puts on a community.”

The Satanic Temple, by the way, is based in Salem, though Satanism goes unmentioned during the witch walk. Tom explains the Wiccan pentagram’s Pythagorean roots, and decries film and TV for corrupting it—though it is Anton LaVey and his Church of Satan that hold the copyright for the inverted goat-shaped pentagram.

Just past the Burying Point is a complex called the Salem Witch Village, another source of tours, exhibits, and a Halloween haunted house called Frankenstein’s Castle. On the side of the building are three windows, each decorated with a female figure: the maiden, the mother, and the crone. These make up the “triple goddess,” a sort of Wiccan trinity that represents the waxing, full, and waning lunar cycle as well as youth, adulthood, and old age. Sometimes they are considered parts of one Mother Goddess, who is co-deity with a male Horned God.

By the time I leave Salem, I have more questions than answers as to what constitutes the contemporary pagan’s theology, a thoroughly postmodern mishmash of many pre-Christian traditions. Some of the confusion is, apparently, my problem: “Part of what is so uncanny about American paganism,” Alex Mar writes in her 2015 book Witches of America, “is the image of mostly white Middle Americans worshipping multiple gods and goddesses: we’re a vastly Christian culture, and that means one God. . . . The license and prerogative to choose your own gods and goddesses—or to allow them to choose you— remains a foreign thing for me, for most of us.”

Wicca is the most popular variant of neo-paganism partly because it is the least ominous—its chief precept is “For the good of all; harming none”—but also because its introduction to the wider public perfectly matched certain twists and turns of postwar culture.

Its history can be traced back to Gerald Gardner, a British civil servant by profession, an anthropologist and archaeologist by hobby, and a publicist by spiritual calling. He worked for decades in East Asia as an inspector of opium shops and spent his off-hours studying the native rituals of the Malay and digging for relics. In 1939, by Gardner’s telling, he returned to England and was initiated into a witch cult that had survived centuries of persecution. By the 1940s, Gardner and his collaborator, a drama teacher who went by the name Dafo, had started a coven with members of a naturist (i.e., nudist) group Gardner ran in. After 1951— the year Parliament repealed the Witchcraft Act of 1735—Gardner became the “resident witch” at the Folklore Centre of Superstition and Witchcraft in Castletown, Isle of Man.

Much of the ritual and theology of Wicca is taken from Gardner’s circa-1950s Book of Shadows. Gardner claimed that its contents were handed down directly from ancient pagan practices, but the reality is more complicated, as Mar explains: “Several elements of Wicca’s Book of Shadows . . . were pulled from pre-existing grimoires, or spell compilations; from Aradia, a ‘witches’ gospel’ published by an American folklorist in 1899; and even from a poem by Rudyard Kipling.”

Nevertheless, Gardner’s more anthropological book Witchcraft Today brought Wicca in the 1960s to the United States, where it mingled with the burgeoning counterculture and then proceeded to outlive it. Once in America, Mar writes, practicing Wiccans “improvised and expanded on Gardner’s original Book of Shadows and oral teachings. Some covens gave Wicca a Celtic, Saxon, or feminist Dianic slant; others were brazenly ‘eclectic,’ picking and choosing rites and flourishes in the way that only Americans feel entitled to do.”

Beneath its plethora of gods (which seem about as numerous as Catholic saints) and its diversity of practices (which seem no less confusing than the multitude of Protestant denominations) there is a simplicity to modern witchcraft, at least as it is presented in Salem. On the one hand everything ties back to nature: There is no good or evil, only what nature dictates. If science disproves a witch’s belief, witches don’t argue. There is a dark magic, apparently, but it is not evil, only lunar, and tied to the witch’s own idea of honoring the dead. On the other hand, witchcraft follows a social vision of simplified libertarianism that swaps out sadistically boring economic policy with rituals and magic: harm none, think for yourself, don’t give in to mob mentality, etc.

“You hear a lot about the ‘occult,’” Tom tells us. “But ‘occult’ just means ‘secret.’ And the secret is out; it’s on your phone, on the Internet. There is no occult; magic is everywhere.” He’s right.

Witchcraft’s most recent high-profile moment came just after Donald Trump’s inauguration, when a document “making the rounds in a number of magical groups both secretive and public” was posted online laying out a “binding spell” to be cast against “Donald Trump and all those who abet him.” The instructions call for the ritual “to be performed at midnight on every waning crescent moon until [Trump] is removed from office.” Applied correctly, the binding spell “seeks to restrain someone from doing harm” and thus “is differentiated from cursing or hexing, which is meant to inflict harm”:

In other words, this is not the equivalent of magically punching a Nazi; rather, it is ripping the bullhorn from his hands, smashing his phone so he can’t tweet, tying him up, and throwing him in a dark basement where he can’t hurt anyone.

The binding spell received a publicity boost when the pop singer Lana Del Rey tweeted the lunar-dates spell and added that “ingredients can b found online.” Since then, the document has been amended to include a spell against the NRA and an “emergency ritual” against Brett Kavanaugh. The extent to which these rituals actually work, in the tradition of the boiling urine, is rather beside the point: This sort of witchcraft-for-politics is an extension of theatrical protests, such as the 1968 “levitation” of the Pentagon, or what Satanic Temple founder Lucien Greaves calls “symbolic expressions of ritualized discontent.”

The reason for magic’s special abundance in Salem today can be found at the corner of Essex and Washington, site of a statue of Elizabeth Montgomery in her familiar pose, seated on a crescent moon as Samantha Stephens in Bewitched.

By the middle of the 20th century, Salem bore little distinction from other midsized American cities whose economic prime was behind them. Its branding as “Witch City” was mostly to its detriment and, despite a few modest occasions of remembrance, that part of its past was kept in the past. When researching for The Crucible in 1952, Arthur Miller was frustrated because he “couldn’t get anyone to say anything about it.”

That changed in the summer of 1970 when the producers of Bewitched, while filming its seventh season, decided to center its first eight episodes on Salem, filming five of them on location. The “Salem Saga,” as the episodes are called, sets much of the tone and understanding of the witch trials that Salem has subsequently adopted. “The people that you persecuted were guiltless,” a time-traveling Samantha tells the original Puritans. “They were mortals, just like yourselves. You are the guilty.”

Laurie Cabot, Salem’s “official witch,” founded the shop now called Crow Haven Corner in the early 1970s.
Laurie Cabot, Salem’s “official witch,” founded the shop now called Crow Haven Corner in the early 1970s. Suzanne Kreiter / Boston Globe / Getty

In the early 1970s, the opening of Crow Haven Corner officially brought witches back to Salem. The store’s first owner, Laurie Cabot, holds the distinction of being Salem’s “official witch,” conferred upon her by Michael Dukakis. Cabot was featured on a 1980 episode of the Leonard Nimoy-hosted In Search of. . ., which filmed her walking around the modern city in a black cloak, carrying a scepter.

Today’s crop of Salem spokeswitches follows Cabot’s example. Crow Haven Corner’s current owner, Lorelei, is “Salem’s love clairvoyant.” For $90, she will hold a private 30-minute session in the Egyptian room just above the store—for couples it’s 45 minutes for $150—that includes a tarot card and palm reading, a personal witch circle, and mediumship with passed loved ones if necessary. She has made several television appearances and has hosted Katy Perry in the store.

Christian Day co-owns both the witch shop Hex and psychic parlor Omen. His website lists media appearances on Ghost Adventures, TMZ, CNN, and Fox News. Along with Lorelei, Day, billed as “the world’s best-known warlock,” appeared on a Boston news broadcast in 2011 to cast a cleansing spell on Charlie Sheen, who had appropriated “warlock” for his own, now largely forgotten, purposes. “Charlie Sheen is not a warlock, for a warlock is a wise person who understands the ways of the spirit world,” Day tells the news crew. “And so no truly wise person would betray their own soul in the way that he’s done.” Personally I prefer the etymologically accurate explanation I saw on a wax figure in the Witch Museum: that witch is a gender-neutral term and that warlock actually (and awesomely) means traitor.

In any case, the context of “Witch City” has taken on a new meaning. Today’s Salem owns it. There is a Witch City Mall and a Witch City Taxi service. A witch appears on the logo of the local newspaper. There is even a goofy cartoon witch silhouette slapped on the side of the patrol cars of Salem’s police—the latter-day successors of Judge Hathorne’s constables.

It rains on my last full day in Salem—it pours, in fact, as the remnants of Hurricane Florence blow northward and directly over us. Once the skies clear—that is, once the tornado warning passes—I go back out, meandering along Derby Street, in between Essex Street and the wharf. I approach the New England Pirate Museum as an employee in full pirate costume exits, presumably for his lunch break. The museum has a charming front-window diorama of pirates gallivanting around a random beach. (The compendious website Atlas Obscura trashes the kitschy wax figures and other antiquated displays on which Salem museums are so dependent, but I can’t help but appreciate the resistance to screens, augmented reality, and other “interactive” sorcery.)

Bela Pratt’s 1917 statue of Nathaniel Hawthorne, with Fatima’s Psychic Studio in the background.
Bela Pratt’s 1917 statue of Nathaniel Hawthorne, with Fatima’s Psychic Studio in the background. Henry Zbyszynski via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

A little further along I come to a narrow, quiet side street that hides a sliver of literary history. Tucked away is 10½ Herbert Street, known to Nathaniel Hawthorne as “Castle Dismal,” where he spent much of his early life and wrote some of his early tales. It’s just a couple of blocks away from Hawthorne Boulevard and its statue of Hawthorne. On one side of the bronze author is Fatima’s Psychic Studio. On the other is Artemisia Botanicals, yet another witch shop with a pentagram in its front window.

“Witches are rebellious,” Tom declares early in the tour—echoing Mar’s words in Witches of America: There is a “separateness” between the pagan and the rest of society, “but it’s one that many Pagans cling to with pride. Tell people we are not perverts—although we are, if by ‘pervert’ you mean someone who proudly rejects the religious mainstream.” Of course, by that definition, the Puritans were similarly, even proudly, perverse.

A Salem police car bearing the city emblem.
A Salem police car bearing the city emblem. Louise Oligny / Gamma-Rapho / Getty

Soon enough, Salem seems to me less like Witch City and more like The American City. It is the birthplace of part of our national character—the part in which every individual is a seeker, every community a counterculture, every conflict rife with the highest moral stakes. William Faulkner’s lines about the past—it’s “never dead. It’s not even past”—merely verbalize what Salem established by example and sewed with its scarlet threads into the country’s fabric.

The tour ends sometime after 8:30. Tom takes us into the store, says something about circles that I don’t quite remember, politely suggests leaving a tip—I did not have cash on me, to my regret; but for what it’s worth, if I go to hell after I die, I imagine someone like Tom cheerfully walking me through my eternal torments would take the edge off to a considerable degree—and concludes for questions. After asking him how athame is spelled, I head to a nearby bar with a glowing orange countertop to decompress and gather my notes. Walking back to Stepping Stone on Essex, I pass Tom and another Crow Haven Corner employee walking in the other direction. They both smile at me and Tom wishes me a happy Halloween. I’m too impaired to give more than a wave in return, but not too impaired to know that the season that never ends has begun.