As traditional religious affiliation declines in the United States, interest in the occult, paganism, and witchcraft has increased. In Salem, Massachusetts, the spiritual home of witchcraft in the U.S., Halloween is the highlight of the calendar year, with plenty of events and attractions to bring in practicing believers, curious outsiders, and thrill-seekers. Despite stark differences in their beliefs, many pagans and Christians alike observe the holiday and its trappings as recognition that there are more things in heaven and earth than are commonly dreamt of in secular 21st-century consumerist philosophies. Across cultures and faiths, holidays like Halloween and Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) would seem to indicate that something about late fall invites humanity to meditate on the ephemeral and liminal.
While there are historical and theological disputes over the particulars, it is commonly asserted that Halloween (a contraction of All Hallows’ Eve, or the night before the feast of All Saints’ Day) is a baptized version of the pagan festival of Samhain, adapted by the early Christians to get along with new and prospective Celtic converts. There are certain undeniable parallels between medieval Christianity’s institution of certain days in early November to remember the dead, and Samhain, a New Year celebration for pre-Christian Celts that was observed at the end of October and beginning of November, right around the halfway point between the autumn equinox and winter solstice. Samhain marked the beginning of winter and the end of the previous year, when, just like the crops and livestock being brought in from the fields for the season, it was believed the souls of the departed journeyed home to a new plane of existence. Bonfires were lit to guide them on their way, and to keep the less savory spirits at bay during this time, when the border between mortality and spirit was considered particularly porous. Food and drink were also left as offerings to placate any mischievous spirits and beings.
In English, the word “witch” dates back to early Anglo-Saxon, although the lineage of its original meaning is unclear. The concept of a witch as commonly understood at the time of the Salem witch trials, however, emerged in Europe around the 15th century, with associations of things like bad magic, nocturnal flights, and pacts with Satan. Many of these ideas emerged from existing medieval religious superstitions about women who flew with the goddess Diana, as well as allegations of devil worship against Cathars and Waldensians, heretical Christian sects whose practices included nighttime meetings. Today, witches can pick and choose, using spells and rituals from various pagan and pre-Christian traditions to bring about desired outcomes, which can include communicating with the spirits of the dead. Hence, the contemporary popularity of Halloween and adoption of Samhain rituals among many modern-day practitioners of witchcraft.
In 21st-century Salem, the Festival of the Dead occurs throughout the month of October and takes place in and around the city. The relationship between Samhain and Halloween is fluid in the Festival of the Dead, which caters as much to lay people as witches. The festival includes psychic readings, séances, and the Dumb Supper: Dinner with the Dead. Finally, the celebration culminates in the Witches’ Halloween Ball on Oct. 30, where, according to the event copy, “powerful spells are cast for the Witches’ new year.”
Helmed by Christian Day and Brian Cain, the warlocks behind Warlocks Inc., the Festival of the Dead is an exploration of “death’s mysteries.” At the totally wordless Dumb Supper, courses are served in reverse, and attendees bring mementos from loved ones who have passed on, in hopes that they will return and stay a while.
I went to Salem the week before Halloween to observe the festival. I was in a pink Vineyard Vines button-up when I walked into the bar at Salem’s historic Hawthorne Hotel with Day and Cain, both dressed head-to-toe in black and sporting dark eye makeup, Day wearing a long dark cape. They took time to talk with me amid preparations for the Dumb Supper, which was beginning shortly in the adjacent ballroom. Speaking of the origins of the Dumb Supper in conjunction with Samhain observance, Day said “integration of food and the dead goes back millennia,” citing the ritual mortuary practices of the ancient Egyptians in Thebes and Alexandria.
I mentioned to Day and Cain the observance throughout the Latin world of Día de los Muertos, and Day pointed out its roots in pre-Christian Aztec practices. In Mexico, families gather at the graves of their dead around the feasts of All Saints’ Day (Nov. 1) and All Souls’ Day (Nov. 2) in a spirit of celebration. Just as Dumb Supper attendees bring photos and together construct an ephemeral altar out of the belongings of their deceased loved ones, families observing Día de los Muertos will assemble ofrendas, temporary home altars with photos, decorations, and the deceased’s favorite foods and possessions, along with candles and incense to guide them to the celebration.
The Dumb Supper as a means of communing with the deceased on Halloween is the evolution of a folk ritual from Britain, which was originally performed by young women hoping to learn the identities of their future husbands. Day admitted it is “challenging” to say the practice has always been linked to the dead, as he and Cain outlined its evolution, saying it began to take on its current associations roughly around the mid-20th century. Cain said there is an increased interest among practitioners of witchcraft into exploring folk customs, based on the idea that they harken to pre-Christian beliefs and practices, because “often we don’t really know.”
Right before my chat with Cain and Day, I sat down with Debra Lori, a Salem native and practicing witch who works for Day and Cain as a psychic medium, and I asked what the actual day of Samhain entailed for her. “We work,” she said with a laugh. She said there is a private closed ritual that takes place at midnight on Oct. 30, but also a magic circle that takes place on Salem Common on Halloween night that is open to the public.
According to Lori, events like the Dumb Supper are “100%” connected to Samhain. “Samhain is the time when the veil is at the thinnest, so it’s easier to communicate with your loved ones during this time,” said Lori. “This is when we really embrace All Hallows’ Eve.” And this time of year, she doesn’t mind the Halloween kitsch and Hocus Pocus movie costumes up and down Essex Street, Salem’s hub for all things witch and Halloween. “I love it, because it shows that they’re not afraid,” Lori said. “They’re open-minded, and maybe even think of it as a role model. Like the little boys that run around in the Superman costumes. They look at that as a hero. We heal people, it’s nice to know that not everyone’s afraid of us.”
In a chapter of her book Strange Rites called “The Magic Resistance,” religion writer Tara Isabella Burton relates the growing popularity of witchcraft to a phenomenon she calls “Remixed religion.” In her framework, the large number of Americans who are not affiliated with any traditional organized religion but identify as spiritual are “the Remixed.” They increasingly borrow from different faiths and “remix” rituals and practices to suit their personal tastes and beliefs, rather than allowing themselves to be formed by institutional cultures with creeds and higher barriers to entry.
The interest is unmistakable. Noting estimates that place the number of Americans who identify as New Age, Neo-Pagan, or Wiccan around 1 million, Burton writes there are yet “thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of religiously hybrid Americans who don’t think of themselves as pagans or witches but who practice New Age rituals, from crystals to tarot cards to cleansing sage.”
Day is careful to distinguish his practice from Wicca—according to the Salem Witch Museum, a neo-pagan, earth-based, pre-Christian belief that recognizes a male and female god and goddess, and was created around 1940 in southern England by a man named Gerald Gardner. Cain said that witchcraft as he and Day practice is “very individual.” “We don’t have a congregation,” Cain said. “We don’t actually even seek converts.” Their stores in Salem and New Orleans, he said, are like “lighting a candle” for those interested in the ritual help they believe witchcraft affords.
“It’s my grounding,” said Lori of what being a witch means to her. “To help me understand that there’s so much more than the naked eye sees, to look at other people that way, to give them a little bit more understanding, space. To appreciate nature, to appreciate what has been given to us and what we can give back. To help people.”
Lori says she doesn’t mind lay people’s interest in witchcraft, even if their image of it comes from pop culture properties like Practical Magic or The Craft. “It shows that they’re curious and they want to learn,” she said, “And I respect that. Because we all start somewhere. I feel like it’s inappropriate to judge them or kind of make fun of them, because they’re asking for help.” She cites TikTok in particular (“They call it WitchTok”) as a large driver of interest. “They saw something that intrigued them and they’re asking to learn from somebody who knows what they’re doing.”
Speaking of the public participation in the magic circle on Salem Common, Lori said: “People are able to participate. The energy that gets raised is amazing, because there’s so many people that are dancing around and it’s a beautiful thing to see. And for that brief minute, the world is OK, because you see people laughing, and smiling, and dancing. And getting along with strangers. That’s magic.”
That the Festival of the Dead occurs in Salem is fitting. Not only is it the original home of Parker Brothers, longtime manufacturers of the Ouija board, the self-proclaimed Witch City is also famously the site of America’s (comparatively slight) brush with the European witch craze. Its history stands as a powerful reminder of a time in American life when scarcely anyone was spared from an intimate familiarity with suffering and grief. During the time of the witch trials, as neighbors accused each other of colluding with the devil, the Salem community was home to refugees who had seen family members wiped out during the 1670s and ’80s in the brutal fighting of the King Philip’s and King William’s wars. The colonists confronted climate challenges in the form of the Little Ice Age, and they had recently emerged from the uncertainty and upheaval of the English Civil War, followed by a restoration of the monarchy that meant an existential threat to their experiment in religious freedom, as the crown now took a larger, more mercenary interest in the colonies. Historians are at odds to point to a single factor for the paranoia and cruelty that characterized the Salem witch trials, but few would deny that for everyone involved, survival was a fragile prospect in nearly every sense.
Unlike their Puritan forebears, who were concerned almost constantly about basic survival, many Americans today have imbibed a cultural atmosphere that avoids grief and discomfort, prioritizing self-care and comfort as the highest goods. Widespread popular mistrust and suspicion of traditional institutions, and the national grappling to find responses to disease, economic insecurity, and internal divisions, seem to suggest it was a cultural mindset that left Americans ill-prepared to confront difficult realities.
While no one may speak at the Dumb Supper, that doesn’t mean it’s silent. The evening’s playlist, mixed by Day, includes country music and “Amazing Grace” by Mahalia Jackson, along with other recognizable popular favorites, designed to evoke an emotional response. Day said their wordless Dumb Supper is a “form of sensory deprivation,” designed to “manipulate emotions to open the spirit up.” By its nature it invites attendees to slow down, be present in the moment, and communicate with intentionality. Cain said that as much as the meal is a chance for attendees to focus on the ones they have lost, it is also a chance to “work on yourself.” While he doesn’t necessarily think people should think about death on a constant, daily basis, Cain said “a lot of people do” anyway, “and they’re afraid of it.”
“The silence is so we can feel them, hear them, experience the moment,” Lori said of the meaning of the prohibition on speech. “People have the misconception that you’re always supposed to be sad and mourning. Our loved ones are still our loved ones, they want us to celebrate with them, by dining with them we are embracing. It’s like when we sit down with our family at Thanksgiving.” With their practice as warlocks, Cain said he and Day “believe that we’re in service to life.” According to Day and Cain, most attendees at the Dumb Supper aren’t witches, but are interested in connecting with their loved ones. “They want to improve their lives in some way,” Cain said, “to seek magic.” Day said his mission is to “bring focus back spiritually” to the “magic and beauty” of Halloween.
Although a couple of first-timers I spoke to afterward (the Dumb Supper attracts repeat attendees) said they found it “hard to be quiet,” another attendee described feeling “very sad” at first, but that they eventually “felt peace.” Another said the silence helped, that as they stared into the tea lights, “honoring those who have gone before me,” they thought of football coaches, teachers, family members, even iconic musicians like Janis Joplin who had made an impact on their lives.
Lori has attended every Dumb Supper for about seven years. “Each time it is a brand-new experience that leaves you with this feeling of unconditional love and proof that there’s more than just what we see here.”
The rituals of Dumb Supper, festivals like Día de los Muertos, and even the melding of pagan and Christian cultural influences in the defanged gore of Halloween tap into something few consumer-driven, self-care rituals can, drawing the imagination to reality and mystery, the eternal and the ephemeral, all at once.
This story is part of a series Tablet is publishing to promote religious literacy across different religious communities, supported by a grant from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations.
Maggie Phillips is a freelance writer and former Tablet Journalism Fellow.