Maddy*, a service industry veteran of 24 years, describes themselves as jaded when I ask them about their time behind the stick in the town they call home. They say this is the first Halloween season they’ve worked where they feel utterly beaten down — they’ve already cried on their walk home from work three times this month. Maddy works in a local bar with good food, a thoughtful cocktail menu, local beer, and a slew of beloved regulars. But those regulars become scarce when autumn hits and brings a crushing wave of tourists in witch hats in with it.

This is Salem, Mass., and it’s October.

Salem is infamous for its Witch Trials, the period from 1692 to 1693 when more than 200 people were accused of practicing witchcraft. Nineteen were sentenced to death by hanging, and one old man was crushed to death for refusing to answer to his accusations in court. This was all thanks to a heady blend of classism, racism, sexism, land disputes, and possibly a hallucinogenic fungus in the crops. The small, coastal New England city is home to about 45,000 people, and every October, its population swells to nearly a million with tourists seeking a witching good time.

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Bubble and Bubble, Tourist Trouble

The sheer volume of tourists causes significant logistical issues for the area’s everyday residents. On the third weekend of October 2022, the city literally ran out of parking, forcing then-mayor Kim Driscoll to issue a midday press release begging visitors to use public transportation. And thanks to the 2022 release of “Hocus Pocus 2” and the resulting resurgence of millennial nostalgia for the original film, even more of these many visitors are now flocking to the sites the fictional Sanderson sisters frolicked around. One such site, a residential home that served as the home for the film’s heroes, Max and Dani, is a private residence. According to our sources, its current residents don’t mind lovers of the movie taking photos from a respectful distance, but many visitors consistently leave trash, trespass onto the porch and lawn, and treat the home like a playground.

This behavior reinforces the stereotype that here, everyday is Halloween. But in reality, Salem is more than just spooks and spirits. It’s a city that maintains an alternative pulse and attracts the offbeat and unique. You’re just as likely to stumble into a drag show as you are a haunted house. You can walk cobblestone streets and buy beeswax candles made by a local beekeeping collective, stock up on spices that harken back to Salem’s days as an important international port, and even purchase a crystal from a gumball machine. And where you find the alternative, the artists, and the delightfully weird, you’re also bound to find a thriving food and beverage scene.

“People spend a lot of money and time to make it special when visitors come and if people treat it with disrespect … that’s the stuff that hurts.”

Local bartender Jess Ferrairo came up in the town’s hospitality scene. Beginning as a host at the now-shuttered Salem Beer Works, she followed a classic path as host, food runner, server, and eventually bartender over the course of her 10 years at various establishments in Salem and the greater North Shore. One of those establishments was the since-closed Major Magleashes, a bar she described as “a little bit more townie” that had an old-school policy of not accepting out-of-state IDs.

”I’m not seeing my fellow industry workers having that time to let off their steam after work because everywhere is so crowded, so I feel that affects the mental health aspect,” Ferrairo says. And when they’re on the clock the crowds can get to them, too. On a recent night out, she visited a bar where a friend was working and was luckily able to grab a bar seat. But over the course of the evening, she saw other guests repeatedly being disrespectful to the bartender, giving them a hard time over Massachusetts’ Blue Laws that make things like double shots and happy hour illegal in the state.

Ryan Dube, a former Salem service worker, echoes Ferrairo’s frustrations — especially after the reopening of restaurants and bars following the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. “There’s this etiquette that’s sort of lost,” he says, recalling the stress of out-of-towners fighting him on masking policies and being impatient and disrespectful.

A common refrain during these conversations is that “Salem isn’t an amusement park.” Sarah, a bartender at local favorites All Soul’s and Longboards, also felt more hostility from patrons in the wake of the pandemic. “Frustrations flare up way quicker than they used to,” she says, adding that the tourist season gets longer each year, feeding into what she calls the “economy based on murder.” But at the end of the day she — and everyone else we spoke to — understands that the tourists simply want to get in on the magic of the city. They just want them to manage their expectations and be respectful to the place they call home.

”People spend a lot of money and time to make it special when visitors come and if people treat it with disrespect … that’s the stuff that hurts,” Sarah says.

Home, Spooky Home

The people of Salem have pride in their city, and there is a profound camaraderie among the industry workers. Both Sarah and Dube tell me about how the community came together after the abrupt 2017 closing of Victoria Station, a local pub that had been a mainstay on Salem’s Pickering Wharf since the 1970s. One of the bar’s famous concoctions, the Wharf Rat, was a sugary mix of alcohol and juice that became a right of passage for North Shore locals to enjoy when they came of drinking age. Sarah actually worked a shift at the bar on the last night it was open, with absolutely no idea the establishment would be shuttered the very next day — leaving her and all her co-workers unemployed right before the winter holidays. But the community responded in a big way: A massive fundraiser was held at the neighboring oyster bar, Sea Level, at which local bars, restaurants, and businesses banded together to ensure the financial stability of their beloved fellow workers. Sarah described the turnout of the event as “unbelievable.”

Year round, you’ll find the same watering holes thriving that you see packed with people in October, despite the misconception tourists may have about the way the town operates. Ferrairo tells me she once heard a little boy sound shocked when he asked his mother if Salem “was here all year round.” Maddy reports that they’ve had adult tourists ask similar questions with profound amazement that they were in a real town with real people. But outside of autumn, you’ll find fewer witches hats and more Red Sox hats in these bars and restaurants. Since these diners and patrons don’t need a spooky show, cocktail menus can lose the puns and focus on what the beverage director is interested in, wait times for tables lessen, and everyone can relax a bit more. The town takes off its costume and resumes its identity as a quirky arts hub and local food and beverage scene with rustic New England charm.

“[Salem is like] every New England coastal town, but wearing a leather jacket and Doc Martens.”

Each industry worker we spoke to clearly loves Salem and the community they’ve found there. Sarah tells me of the joy she once had telling an older queer couple that they didn’t need to worry about going into the wrong place.

“I felt so awesome to say ‘Every place is safe for you to be.’” One of her places of work, All Soul’s, also offers free naloxone training to other businesses in Salem, educating workers on the easy-to-use medication that can save the life of someone overdosing on opiods. ”Everyone’s got each other’s backs,” she says. Maddy calls Salem “the best place on Earth” and Ferrairo describes it as “every New England coastal town, but wearing a leather jacket and Doc Martens.”

A thriving tourist economy allows Salem to be Salem. It’s hard to say if the city would be the same if it didn’t have this macabre revenue. But whether it’s Halloween or not, it’s still a small city with residents and workers just trying to make it through the day. So, if you visit Salem during any time of the year, be sure to treat it like you would the places you love — it’s home for the very people who make it so special.

*Name changed for anonymity