The Real Witches of Salem, Massachusetts
Although Salem has had a huge tourism industry centered on the town's infamous witch trials for decades, publicly engaging with witchcraft is on the rise. We spoke with Salem-based witches about their craft.
Image by Carey Shaw / Stocksy
Although it officially goes by "The City of Peace," Salem has been known as the Witch City for most of its modern history. It leans into the epitaph, with witches decorating its police cars and as its local high school mascot. Along with a preponderance of shops offering readings and psychics, Salem ties much of its tourism to arguably the worst chapter in its history: the infamous witch trials. The Witch Museum, various haunted houses, and the city's graveyards serve as major attractions.
But for many of Salem's residents, witchcraft is more than mere folklore or a stereotyped tourist attraction. Erica Feldmann, the proprietor of HausWitch Home and Healing, which is located on a sunlit corner of Main Street, is one of the most active members of Salem's witchcraft community. She first moved to Salem in 2010, while she was in graduate school. At the time, she was attending Simmons College—which is located in Boston—to study witches in socio-historical cultural context. "I just fell in love with Salem," she says. "I just think it has a really unique energy."
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When first she arrived in Salem—on May 1, the festival of Beltane—Feldmann headed down to the Salem Commons, the major park downtown, expecting to find a witches' circle celebrating. "I was really shocked when I moved here by the lack of [the witch] community," she said. "Most witchcraft in Salem in public was strictly based on tourism." After she graduated in 2012, Feldmann created a blog focused on redecorating and magic, which she called "HausWitch." When the website grew enough to become a brick and mortar store, which opened this past June, she saw a chance to fill this void.
With Nordic styling and neat shelves, HausWitch Home and Healing features housewares among tinctures and teas, candles and crystals, while a wall of spell kits frames the space. HausWitch is frequented by locals and tourists alike, but the real magic happens at night, when local witches find community at regular events and workshops. Its contemporary, non-denominational witchcraft is built around empowerment and inclusion, forming a coven of hipsters and riot grrrls.
The store is host to other witches' workshops, meditations, and yoga, and the women behind it are now hosting their own spellcraft workshops. "We've created a space people can learn and practice and express themselves in a way that makes sense to them," explains shop manager Cai Radleigh. "We don't cater to any specific brand or tradition of witchcraft; we don't have rules or parameters." And this approach doesn't just draw tourists looking for attractive Instagrams. The shop attracts a loyal following of locals as well. Selling out nearly every workshop she hosts with other like-minded working witches is a welcome surprise—both for the store and for the young witches of Salem. "I certainly didn't plan on building a community, but that's what's happened, and I'm super excited and grateful for it."
I was really shocked when I moved here by the lack of [the witch] community. Most witchcraft in Salem in public was strictly based on tourism.
Salem is home to a wide selection of witch shops, geared toward tourists or practicing witches, though rarely both at the same time. The Coven's Cottage, just two blocks away, is a small occult shop opened in 2014 by Nikki Ball, her mother, and her aunt. The store primarily sells handmade and local goods, along with ritual objects, reference materials, and readings. According to Ball, Paganism is part of her familial heritage. Though she grew up in a small Southern Baptist town in the Bible Belt, her mother practices Asatru and Seidr, an ancient Nordic form of paganism. "Paganism is the main religious following in my household," Ball says. "I'm working with the magic my ancestors did."
Despite the spiritual aspects of witchcraft being embraced in the city, the economics of witchcraft are what makes it vital. There is nowhere on earth that celebrates witches quite like contemporary Salem, despite its violent past. Each year more than 250,000 people visit in October to explore the town. In the 1970s, Salem began a long process of revitalizing the tourism industry built around the Salem Witch Trials as its other industries flagged. Even now, public witchcraft is centered around profit, whether stores hawk kitschy "Witch City" goods, palm readings, or supplies for authentic spellcraft. The city's Haunted Happenings events in October draw crowds that sustain local businesses in slower months. Even in the off-season, the witch business keep the money coming into the city as it experiences a revival of services and shops geared toward locals.
Witch tourism in Salem can be traced back to 1960s and the popular sitcom Bewitched, which filmed several episodes there. By the 1990s, competition in the small town was fierce, and toxic public spats between community leaders were common. Today, as tourists pour into Salem during the fall by the thousands, there's more business than shops can handle. When Mayor Kim Driscoll was elected in 2005, the local witchcraft community was already changing and adapting, and a more organized tourism benefited everyone. The city focuses on running Haunted Happening programing smoothly in October. Says Mayor Driscoll, "There's only so much that you can do in a city our size. And I think the scale where things are at right now, we're at capacity." In addition to the new approach to tourism, the city regulates commercial witchcraft, including protocols that regulate tarot readings and advertising, setting standards for the industry to keep a level playing field.
Cai Radleigh of HausWitch puts the shift in perspective: Now the locals, here all year round, are publicly engaging with witchcraft. "The people are Salem are ready to take [witchcraft] back for themselves. The magic is here in the everyday vibrations of this town," says Radleigh. The women of HausWitch are glad to provide a space to help foster connections between city history and modern practice, especially for locals. Radleigh gestures to the store around her and Feldmann. "We're here to be the walls to house it, to [help others] go from solitary practice to a community. We're not responsible for this, but we're contributing to it."
The shift opens up spaces for new businesses to thrive year-round. Feldmann isn't shy about expressing the benefits of the cultural fascination with witchcraft. "It's cool right now, so you have this opportunity to blend a commercial project with a spiritual one," she says. "I always wanted to do events, but I opened the store because I saw an opportunity to showcase things that I love and work that I love, because it's having a moment right now." One of the features of showcase is the workshops that involve other witches in the area, including bi-monthly lunar meditations by Jessica Jones Lavoie.
A practicing Reiki master since 2012, Lavoie began on her path by studying environmental geology. Before starting meditating, Lavoie says she was feeling like an island, alone. But the meditations in HausWitch's space gave breathing room to the desire for community. "Everyone has a different idea of witches, of witchcraft, the new phase of it is nothing but positive," she says. "It's picking up on the truth, the true essence of what [witchcraft] used to be and it's healing that wound, the kind of disconnect."
The people are Salem are ready to take [witchcraft] back for themselves. The magic is here in the everyday vibrations of this town.
The shop events draw other locals. Judith Valentine, a Wiccan raised nearby, has helped run Pyramid Books, an interfaith bookstore located downtown on the Wharf, for nearly a decade. "We cast a very wide net," says Valentine, who has watched the store's stock ebb and flow to reflect local and tourism tastes. In the years she's worked at Pyramid, Valentine has seen the community become more business savvy, with the city managing the massive influence of tourism. What customers ask for is part of a cycle that coincides, she thinks, with popular culture. Customers now come looking for more practical magic, reflecting the current interest in personal growth and learning. "Things are kind of cycling back. You can see it in the books that people come in for: The books now are more secularized, accessible."
Even more long-standing is the herbalist store Artemisia Botanicals, owned by Teri Kalgren. Artemisia sells loose herbs and preparations, books, trinkets, and touristy items, as well as more serious craft materials. Open for 18 years, her shop hosts meetings of the Witches Education League, a committee of the older witches of Salem. "We all have our own agendas: trying to run our business, raise our families," says Kalgren. "But everybody is here to help the community and be a part of it." Kalgren has seen quite a few communities come and go. She names groups — the 80s death metal witches, the Dungeons & Dragon witches, the Wren witches, the Harry Potter witches. "Out of that, there's a small percentage who see the religion for what is was, and they stay, but that's a small percentage, I believe."
The pull of Salem as a center of witchcraft brings in witches on pilgrimage from around the country, from many backgrounds and traditions. And HausWitch's vibrant digital community widens the scope of modern witchcraft in Salem. There are witches that thrive within online communities, like Bri Luna of Hood Witch, who resides in Seattle. While Feldmann and Luna have only met digitally, they're mutually supportive. Their sites are part of a growing digital conversation about modern witchcraft. Luna's website and social media is also magazine slick, featuring crystals, tarot, and other practicing witches. Luna describes her practice as "natural magic," and she's a serious practitioner with a long family history, pulling many traditions, including her Black and Mexican heritage. Like HausWitch, her site is both a store and a community, and she focuses on empowering readers while running a profitable business, without the physical draw of Salem to support her.
In stores like HausWitch, which sells furniture and more secular workshops alongside its spellcraft, turning a steady profit is paramount to serve both tourists and locals alike. Each shop makes plans to do more than scrape by, whether that means turning into a souvenir shop seasonally, like HausWitch does, or catering to tourists specifically year round. Whatever the approach. the goal is to thrive, not just survive. "I don't fault anyone for that. You have to do your own thing and if you can get by year after year, at the end of the day we're just trying to make a living," Feldmann explains, speaking to the many shops that sell a more kitschy kind of witchcraft specifically for the tourists. For now, HausWitch and its cohort focus on building empowerment and community while serving everyone who finds themselves in Salem.
With Salem's busiest season behind her, Feldmann has turned to stocking items that tourist might not pick up. She now stocks for her regulars, with just a few "Witch City" items designed for the store in collaboration with a local artist. What flies off the shelves, according to her, are the practical spellcraft supplies and the overtly feminist pieces. She also does a brisk online business, supported by a robust Instagram community from which she sources many of her products. As for the future, she'll follow the witchcraft and see where it leads. For now, she's focusing on building up events, fostering artists, and building a collective of people who are here to support each other. The plan is to keep herself open to whatever comes. She grins, and invokes both fate and will power. "I did not get to open my own witch store by saying 'no' to a lot. I am looking forward to whatever the universe sends me to say 'yes' to."