“Witches accuse me of selling out,” Christian Day, the 41-year-old proprietor of Hex, tells me. “They’ll ask, ‘What’s the point of selling a lucky candle to a woman passing through on her way to Vegas?’ They’re not seeing the opportunity.” Wearing Bermuda shorts and a T-shirt, iPhone in hand, the self-described “world’s most famous warlock” looks indistinguishable from his clientele. “No city is more tightly branded with the word witch than Salem. Why run from that? Why not give muggles seeking magic a positive experience and send them home with a great story?” He shrugs. “And if you can make a few bucks in the process, so much the better.”
Day shows me around the store, pointing out voodoo dolls, love-spell kits and a witches’ altar where visitors can write messages to the deceased while keeping an eye on Lori. When her rants veer too close to hectoring or fill with gruesome details, neither of which are conducive to commerce, he’s quick to break the tension with a chuckle or change the subject. He tells me about meeting her by chance at a workshop when he was 19 and instantly being captivated by the woman who “looked like a walking Zales store.” His voice warms when speaking of her, breaking up the easy patter of an entrepreneur. “Being truthful is the heart of magic,” he says. “If you’re constantly going around telling lies, how will you believe your dreams when you speak them out loud? What energy can you bring to achieving them? It’s a difficult thing to master, but she has.” Lori kneels down carefully, ignoring her protesting knees, so a child can play with the bracelets on her wrist. “The woman is a force of nature.”
In 2003, Day and best friend Shawn Poirier founded Festival of the Dead, a series of occult events held throughout October that has become a cornerstone of Salem’s tourist trade. Sharing a passion for witchcraft and an unabashed hunger for the American dream, they went about creating an itinerary that would hold something of interest to every possible demographic, from middle-aged women (who make up 60 to 70 percent of the visitors each year) to teenagers arriving by the busload on school trips. There are ghost-hunting classes. A Witches’ Halloween Ball. And enough séances and tarot-card readings to last a lifetime. Their first attempt at tapping into the Salem brand was a runaway success, and the future looked bright. Then, on a sunny day in March 2007, Poirier unexpectedly passed away in his sleep.
“Shawn was the face of the business,” Day says. “He was a natural with people, and I was happy working behind the scenes. But when he passed … I couldn’t let what we started die too. I had to step up.” What followed was a media blitz of Trump-like ubiquitousness, with appearances on CNN, on the series Ghost Adventures on Travel Channel and Dead Famous on Biography and — proof that he’d surfaced on the pop-culture radar — TMZ. He opened Hex on Poirier’s birthday in 2008 and Omen, a gentler (and Lori-less) version in 2010. He speaks frequently of willpower, the internal fire that took him from a dirt-poor upbringing in nearby Beverly, Mass., to a success that even tragedy could not extinguish.
As if on cue, Lori suddenly says to me, “I don’t need to be liked.” She realizes the store is listening and raises her voice an octave. “They say I have ties with the Mob. I sure do!” The store erupts in laughter. “I have ties with Obama too! I was invited to the inauguration.” She shows me the invitation, mounted on the wall next to an award she received from former Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis for her charitable work with children. “I have ties with the lowest of the low and the highest of the high. Either you understand it or take a walk.”