The city of Salem is known as one of the most haunted locations in the country, so it makes sense that it has cemented its reputation as “The Witch City” with extensive ghost and witchcraft tour companies, each offering the “true” story of the infamous trials and the ghosts that apparently lurk around every corner. As the city has grown and witchcraft has gone mainstream, there’s a new offering that flips the switch: tours not about, but created for witches and the occult curious.
Now Age was launched this spring in historic downtown Salem, jumping into action with an April Fool’s Day party (themed for the Fool in the tarot). Their partner store, Hauswitch Home and Healing, is close by on Washington St, but Now Age is the brainchild of Melissa Nierman. Her credentials for leading tours in America’s Witch Capital cover the whole scope of necessary experience: she’s a Reiki 2 practitioner, former ghost tour guide, and Master of Education. In addition to running Now Age Travel, she guides the Tarot Journey walking workshop, along with three walking tours. She’s also the co-creator and facilitator of Tarot Salon, a monthly event at Hauswitch.
The tours start with walking workshops, a totally different, and more hands-on, way to see Salem. For example, the Magic Flowers option schools participants in making flower essences, while experiencing historic gardens around Salem to see real magick, learning the meanings of flowers and capping off the day with a picnic. “I’m really trying to find new ways to get people to see the side of Salem that a lot of people miss,” says Nierman. “I really like taking people off the beaten path and when they see that, it’s like everybody wants to move here. That’s how I know a tour went well—if at the end someone is like, ‘I want to move here.’” The travel service also offers a blog for those who like their tours self-guided, allowing visitors to discover hidden gems in historic Salem on their own.
Nierman began her tour experiences doing the ubiquitous ghost tours that tourists flock to in large numbers (think 50-odd guests following guides with microphones). The tours are so frequent that Salem residents are accustomed to them as part of street traffic, and maybe a bit of sport. After all, most residents take their city history seriously. “Everybody in Salem just shouts, ‘They’re lying!’” Nierman recounts. Even Now Age isn’t immune to the occasionally heckling teen, but her tours are less grounded in lore. “Ghost tours are super fun! But now people ask, where do I find an authentic experience?” Until Now Age was born, there was no good recommendation for that kind of tourism experience in Salem.
“All my tours really are about connection,” explains Neirman. She keeps the workshops capped at six, and no more than ten on her more traditional walking tours of the city. The tours Now Age offers aim to be distinct and complex views of Salem. She walks visitors through not just the lore of the 1692 trials, but also of Victorian-era Salem in the thrall of Spiritualism. Now Age also offers Ghost of Buildings’ Past, the history of Salem through buildings that no longer stand. “They all tell alternative stories of Salem,” she says. “I just feel like so many people are telling one story of the Salem Witch Trials. My new tour is witches 1692 to today, which really goes into the history of the witches and archetype and witch hunts in Europe. It gives the context for the Salem Witch Trials, so I call it my ‘Feminist Witch’ tour.”
Many of the other practitioners who lead tours for Now Age also teach workshops at Hauswitch, or utilize the healing space for their practice, like Grace Harrington Murdoch, who leads the Flower Magic tour. “We call it a sister business, because it really is within our little community of witches here,” says Nierman. “It’s just like everybody has their own little business and they all work together. We have people with healer businesses and people doing copy editing. They all support each other.” And this feeling of community extends to the visitors who take the tours as well. Travelers often keep in touch after being hosted by Now Age and joining the Hauswitch community, however briefly. “It’s a different, that’s why I want to keep them small because I really want people to feel like they’re connected with the people they’re traveling with, all these strangers and to locals.”
There’s something special about the city of Salem that’s only partly due to its tourism branding. “It’s so interesting because I think so many people are drawn to the witchy aspect, but it doesn’t really have any real historical background,” explains Nierman. (Historians still dispute the precise causes that lead to the mass panic of the trial, but it’s generally agreed that there were no practicing witches during the famous trials.) The history of the Salem witch is a wholly manufactured lore. “It’s a mythology that we created, of the witch and Salem and now there’s witches here.” What’s special about Salem, Nierman thinks, is this lore, combined with a rich history tied up in the foundation of America. The draw of the carnival aspect of Haunted Happenings, the city’s official October festivities that run the whole month long, is just the icing on the cake for those who celebrate the visibility of the weird, the outsiders. Here, the witch is queen, even if tourists only understand on a surface level. “Even if people aren’t conscious of it, we are embracing this archetype of the witch, which is basically just like fuck you patriarchy. It’s like a total outsider woman.”
There’s certain amount of secularization, a certain amount of accessibility and inclusion that Hauswitch and Now Age make a goal. Most of the tourism-oriented occult businesses in Salem focus on the kitsch or the exclusivity of witchcraft. To that end, one of the most exciting things about growing Now Age Travel is who walks through the door and joins the tours. They’ve had healers from across the world, and have been joined by a psychic medium. But it’s also just for anyone who is curious. “It’s for anyone that wants to take that leap into another layer of the city. Not everybody does, but the people who do can feel something’s under the surface, and want to know that story.” The company isn’t just a Salem tour company; their home is just a starting point. Nierman has big plans for the services Now Age offers. “I put the travel there. I chose travel as opposed to tours because I was like I don’t know what this’ll be. I want to keep that open.” She loves touring Salem, but dreams of guiding tours more global in scope. “I would love to go to Europe and be like, cool, we’re going to do a witch history tour in Europe where Hildegard was a female mystic in Germany.” What she’s interested in is planning the most bewitching day possible for the travelers she hosts, wherever they go. “I think you can take that for granted that not everyone can show up at a place and know how to have a magical day. I want people to have that experience and know what it feel like.”