The spirit of Halloween lives year-round in Salem, Massachusetts but is especially over-the-top during the month of October. The infamous home of the Salem Witch Trials has leaned into its spooky history (its mascot is now a flying witch), and in October, the streets are dotted with dramatic colonial-era plays, while onlookers clutch their Dunkin coffees while wearing the costumes they’ve planned for months. One of the gems in Salem is a portrait studio called “Witch Pix” in the Witch City Mall. The small business, which takes family-style photographs of customers in costumes, is run by a woman who is fittingly named Hope Hitchcock. Opened in 2003, the spirit of Salem is embodied in the studio, and it has become a one-of-a-kind landmark in the city. It offers a personalized, spooky memento of one’s experience in Salem. Here, people are able to dip their toe into the Halloween spirit and dress up in Witch Pix’s offerings of witch and wizard costumes. They pose with props in front of a bevy of backgrounds like a foggy moon or an enchanted forest. In each photo, the patrons beam. In one image, a group of women pose in pointy hats and jewel tone robes in a foggy forest, while in another woman smolders with devil horns wearing a spider-embroidered corset in front of a rickety staircase background. It is all the bit ghoulish, cheeky, and, yet, earnest.
Fast forward two years later, and Hitchcock has been put in a predicament due to COVID-19. Like many small businesses in Salem, or rather, in America, Witch Pix has suffered financial losses. Their situation is in itself challenging because the experience of WitchPix is historically a physical one. Typically, employees and the photographer would help customers dress in the costumes, and adjust their looks when they take pictures, which is crucial to how they work and how those photos turn out. “In the past we could go right in and touch them with our hands. We could take the cape and move it by two inches just to make a picture better,” she says. “Now we need to verbalize those instructions as efficiently as possible.” There are numerous safety measures in place. Everyone has to wear a mask in WitchPix, unless they are getting their picture taken, which in that case they stand six feet apart from the photographer. Hitchcock sent me a list of the precautions via email, which she later referred to as an “anger list.”
She describes costume and prop sanitation as the “the elephant in the room” and notes that props are sterilized, costumes and hats are sanitized with steam at 212 degrees to kill viruses, and industrial strength Odoban for fabric. This requires three staff at least on weekend days. This comes at a time when last Hitchcock was set up for success. She had been planning a huge relaunch with three new sets “Witch Cottage”, “Magick Avenue” and “Olde Salem Village”. Each set was hand built, and later hand-painted by Hitchcock herself. “People walk in and say that their jaws just dropped,” she says. “They are very much theatrical sets.” Hitchcock had also noted that pre-pandemic she invested in expanding her women’s costumes, as well. “This year, we have 30 new women's costumes,” she says. “I know 30 is not a huge number, but it is in my operation.”
Hitchcock notes that crowds of people are still coming into Salem to celebrate Halloween but that has brought in another issue: the City of Salem has instituted sets of COVID-19 rules and regulations regarding crowd-control, sealing off parking lots, and the enforcement of geo-fencing so people outside of the parameters can’t buy tickets to events unless they are already inside the city. (Local train service has been skipping the Salem stop.) “It’s very mixed emotions and different sides of the rationale,” says Hitchcock. Despite the obvious constraints on her busiest month of the year, she is staying positive. “I’m hanging on until the next season, which is spring. I think I am going to be okay by the skin of my chinny chin chin,” she says. “I will do what I can because I know in my heart that what I had planned on what we built this year, it’s in place now, it’s successful, and it’s going to be successful next year. I have to keep reminding myself because there is truly an emotional seesaw.”/