By Devyani Chhetri
BU News Service
SALEM, Mass. – Witch hats, cloaks and masks: every year in October, thousands, seduced by the city’s alluring history, haunt the streets of Salem. Much to Mayor Kim Driscoll’s horror, this year seems to be no different, as thousands were seen thronging Essex Street and its multiple restaurants, shops and museums over the weekend.
“Skip it until after October,” said Driscoll. “If you’re not in Salem yet and are thinking about coming, my advice to you is skip it.”
But as more and more people visit the city during the weekend, lines keep getting longer, tickets keep selling out, and the congestion on the streets makes social distancing next to impossible.
For many undeterred visitors, COVID-19 pales in comparison to the Halloween spirit.
Matt Ryan, 37, is a horror movie buff. This year for his sixth consecutive visit to Salem, Ryan drew inspiration from Korean clowns and the performers who spend months conceiving their costumes. He said that he just wanted to put something together that was scary.
“There’s less people, there’s less interaction, but overall people still experience the action and that makes me feel good,” he said when asked about how this year compared to the past years, all the while wearing a mask straight from a child’s nightmare.
October has always been the time when Salem generates the most revenue. For the local businesses – gift shops and restaurants in buildings that date back centuries – the pandemic leaves them with no choice but to continue.
Down Essex Street, Rob Fitz, who owns the Magic Parlor – a gift shop which he claims has had things flying off the shelves in the middle of the night – didn’t know what to expect come October. Back when the pandemic first hit, Fitz was forced to close his store for two and a half months and he said it wasn’t easy.
“Being closed for two and a half months means you still have to pay rent, but you’re not getting any money in,” he said. However, even after reopening the store, the regulations of occupancy restricts the number of customers they can have.
“We’re in phase three still and the maximum occupancy of our store is six according to the state guidelines,” Fitz said. “So, you don’t make as much.”
But things are getting busier, he said. Halloween and the creativity it represents has always had a massive pull.
“[Halloween] gets people to come out and be creative and make costumes and have fun. It’s a holiday where there’s not really the pressure of pleasing someone else,” Fitz said. “The whole thing is about having a good time and getting a little ghoulish, scaring people.”
As a make-up artist, who bought the store from its previous owners five years ago, the holiday is the epicenter of all the things Fitz likes.
“Everything that I love – monster masks, makeup, oddities, creepy, weird stuff – I love it all and now I kind of own it. But you too can have it for a price,” he said with a laugh. “I mean what a way to make a living.”