- Kristin Harris works as a tour guide in Salem, Massachusetts, during the month of October.
- She gives historically accurate Salem Witch Trial walking tours that are two hours long.
- Harris said she loves meeting guests, but needs a security guard close by in case of hecklers.
This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Kristin Harris, a 33-year-old Salem witch trial tour guide. It has been edited for length and clarity.
I moved to Salem for grad school in 2013. I first got a job doing tours at the Witch House, which is the only remaining structure you can visit in Salem with any ties to the Salem witch trials. It’s a historic home that was owned by one of the judges. When I moved here, most of Salem’s tourism happened between March and November.
I’ve been studying the Salem witch trials on my own since I was 15, and I came to Salem for the first time at that age. I picked up a book by Marilynne K. Roach, which is like the definitive book on the Salem witch trials, and I got into learning about it from there.
The company I work for now does purely historical tours
We point out historic sites, we talk about cemeteries and things like that, but a lot of what we do is use primary sources. By showing people how to look at the correct sources, they can start to piece together the story a lot better than by watching a special on the History Channel.
For the company Bewitched After Dark, I only do tours in October. Even then, I only do one or two days a week since I have a full-time job as a research coordinator. Last year, I did two tours on Saturdays, kind of back to back. I usually do the 4:30 p.m. and the 7:30 p.m. tours.
There’s definitely some friendly competition between tour guides
We all know the etiquette out there on the street, and we work with each other really well. But then you have the out-of-state tour companies who hire guides that are newer or aren’t well trained on how to give tours while navigating the crowds in Salem during Halloween.
Sometimes, those people will bring their whole tour group through my tour while I’m in the middle of talking. They’ll bring 50 people through my group of 50 people instead of trying to do the workaround etiquette that we all normally do.
You have to be a tour guide and a stage manager at the same time
There are guests on my tours who have never been to Salem and don’t know that in October, they’re essentially surrounded by Halloween Town. They have no idea what they’re doing, so you have to be very clear and tell them where to stand, where not to stand, and just give them instructions.
Usually, the tours are about two hours in length. We try not to go over that because it could ruin the pacing, and you could run into somebody else. You have to know the routes through the city; what routes we can take and what routes we can’t take. We can’t take groups down small residential streets that can easily get blocked, through historic cemeteries at night, or onto people’s private properties.
I have 12 stops on my tour, including the Salem Witch Trial Memorial, which is where we end our tours. We talk about each individual person in the memorial to try to humanize them.
The demographics for my tours are all over the place
I’ve had people as young as 11 or 12 on the tour. It’s definitely 18-plus content though, because we’re talking about things like execution. We don’t do it for the shock factor. I think that’s very important to note. I’m telling people these things not for the shock factor, but because they happened.
Most of the time, my groups consist of people who are on the tour for the first time, and they want the real story of the Salem Witch Trials from start to finish. They’re people who may have read “The Crucible” and were interested in learning more. Other times it’s descendants; it’s people who have done their family genealogy and want to learn more about it.
A big misconception about the trials is that it only happened to women
Disproportionately, the executions that happened were of women, but there were men executed too. It’s just that accusations of witchcraft tended to be bent more towards women because of the belief about what witchcraft was.
I think that’s why a lot of people are interested in the history of it. Besides neighborly squabbles or grudges, there’s not really a rhyme or reason — at least toward the end. Anyone could be accused. It could be your neighbor, it could be your sister, it could be anybody.
As a young woman giving a tour, I sometimes have to list my credentials. This is especially true if it’s a history tour, because I feel like female tour guides get the “chest beating” history people a lot more than male tour guides. I think that’s the toughest part for me. As a tour guide, you’re always going to run into that person who has read up and they want to engage with you, and sometimes they just don’t do it in a nice way.
Dealing with the wildness of October can be challenging
You have to make sure you’re not getting flak from a store owner for stopping in front of their store for too long or make sure that people aren’t heckling your tours too much. Luckily, I had an excellent security guard with me last year, and he just really took care of all that. I was able to just be in the zone and give my tour.
One of the reasons that we have security is that there are people who are local or people who are just swinging into town for the season, and they sometimes get drunk and get really close to your tour and yell things. I’ve never had a belligerent guest, though.
What I enjoy most is knowing I’m connecting with guests
When I get an 11-year-old girl who comes up to me afterward and tells me that she wants to do what I do, it’s the coolest thing.
I once had a group of 12 ladies who were on a girls’ trip to Salem that one of them had planned. They were on my tour and were a little tipsy, but productive. They all had witch hats on and were in full dress up. I had several of them hug me at the end of the tour and say things like, “This was so amazing and I learned so much.”
There was this guy that had been heckling me at the end of the tour that my security guard was dealing with, and I had this group of 12 ladies dressed as witches ready to throw down to defend me.
The only reason I fling myself into the crowds of thousands of people in October to drag 50 people on my tour through the streets of revelers is because I love nerding out about the history of Salem. That’s the best part for me, knowing that I’m clicking with my guests and that they’re interested.