"Do you believe in witches?" a voice echoes around us. We are standing in a darkened room, peering down at the large "sabbat circle" at our feet. It glows menacingly, an eerie blood-red, and we shiver in spooky anticipation. In the ages-old lore of witchcraft, such circles were said to be the midnight gathering place of covens of 13 witches.

There are perhaps 75 in our group -- enough for five covens and more -- but we are brewing no mischief. A haphazard assortment of tourists exploring the historic streets of old Salem in Massachusetts, we have just been shepherded from a bright late afternoon sun into the gloomy mausoleum-like edifice that houses the Salem Witch Museum -- drawn by a common fascination in tales of the supernatural.

Do I believe in witches? "No, of course not," I answer to myself, a modern man of few superstitions. Still, convictions have a way of weakening in the dark, and I can't vouch for the beliefs of my fellow sightseers.

But three centuries ago, back in the year 1692, the voice continues -- as if grasping my thoughts -- many of the people of Salem Village did become convinced of the presence of witches. In a frenzy of feeble accusations, they condemned 19 of their neighbors to be hanged and one old man to be crushed to death beneath the weight of stones. Four died in prison.

Salem's infamous witchcraft trials of 1692, an epidemic of fear that flamed brightly for a few moments and then quickly sputtered out, has left this now quietly charming seaport with a mixed legacy.

As a major commercial port during the age of sail, the city has an illustrious maritime heritage, commemorated today in a group of stately houses and other dockside structures that make up the Salem Maritime National Historic Site. And it is the home of the still-standing House of the Seven Gables, made famous by author Nathaniel Hawthorne, a Salem native. But it is as America's capital of witchdom that Salem is best known.

Around Halloween, the shops of its inviting old streets are filled with the paraphernalia of cartoon witchcraft. You can buy a high peaked black hat like the one grumpy Broom Hilda wears on the comic pages, or a full-sized replica of her shaggy broom (not guaranteed to fly). One shop carries giant crystal balls and sparkling magic wands that look as if they might have been waved by the good witch of the north in the land of Oz. The Salem Witch Museum itself sells a T-shirt that reads "Stop By for a Spell."

But beneath this surface of make-believe fantasy and fright is an authentic horror story, which the city seems to tell almost reluctantly, as if it preferred to send visitors home with happier memories of cupcakes and cookies decorated with the images of smiling witches. But then who among us is eager to boast about inglorious moments?

The Salem Witch Museum is perhaps the best place to begin delving into this phenomenon in the town's history. It is not, in truth, a museum at all -- only a few artifacts of the trial remain, and they are preserved elsewhere -- but rather it is a sort of sound and light show that both titillates visitors with the spookiness of witchcraft and offers up a simplified but dramatic guide to what happened in 1692.

In the dark, we sit quietly on benches as spotlights flash around us, highlighting a series of tableaux, each of which recreates an episode in the witchcraft hysteria while a recorded voice describes the scenes. It is hokey, but effective enough, and there are lessons to be learned from the museum's retelling of Salem's story -- not the least of which is the courage of the condemned who stubbornly refused to confess to witchcraft in the face of death at the hands of their hysterical neighbors.

Back in the warm fall sunlight, you may feel encouraged to explore further the witchcraft trials and their legacy. Then step forward a century to review the city's seagoing exploits, which are just as fascinating. Along the way, curiously, you will keep tripping over Hawthorne's footsteps. He was descended from a witchcraft judge -- a fact which seems to have haunted him -- and he served for a time as a customs official at the Custom House on the waterfront. The imposing building is a major exhibit of the maritime historic site.

And, surely, you will want to keep your eyes open for witches. Salem, which once dreaded witchcraft, now has an official city witch.

Historic Salem is wrapped around a scenic harbor from which its 19th-century merchant fleet once sailed the globe searching for teas, spices, silks and the other luxuries the port specialized in. Today, dozens of pleasure boats bob at anchor. On shore, the old warehouses have been replaced by Pickering Wharf, a cluster of new shops, restaurants and water-view pubs.

Salem is a small city, with a population of about 40,000, though for awhile it offered a maritime challenge to Boston, about 25 miles to the south. It has a typically New England look, its narrow, tree-shaded streets lined by wonderful old brick and wood-frame homes, many of them mansions.

But there is, perhaps, a bit more elegance here than is found elsewhere, for Salem's remarkable merchant class had great wealth, and its members spent it on their impressive homes. Several are open for tours, including the splendid Derby House, Salem's oldest brick house, which dates to 1762. Now a part of the national historic site, it sits on the waterfront where -- as was the custom -- the owner could keep his eye on his ships.

All of this, coincidentally, makes a perfect setting for Halloween. The large white or green doorways with their polished brass handles seem just the right backdrop for a glowing jack-o'-lantern. And when a night wind rustles the dried leaves still clinging to the branches overhead, you look up as if to see a witch in flight passing by. Fact and fantasy are not easy to keep separate when you are on the trail of witchcraft.

Actually, the witchcraft hysteria began not in Salem but in what was then known as Salem Village, a small community about four miles inland from the seaport of Salem. Today it is the town of Danvers. From Salem Village, the frenzy quickly engulfed Salem itself, and spread throughout New England.

During the winter of 1691-92, a group of young women in the village began falling into unexplained fits. In the restrictive atmosphere of Calvinist society, they had found amusement in the company of a West Indian slave named Tituba, who may have told them stories of voodoo and witchcraft from her homeland.

When the doctor was summoned, he could find no physical cause and speculated that they might have fallen under the spell of witches. In those superstitious days, it was commonly believed witches could assume the look of a neighbor or friend, who would then appear in the afflicted person's dreams to cause harm or to threaten.

A witch could successfully seize another person's identity, however, only if that person had sold his or her soul to Satan, according to Katherine W. Richardson, author of "The Salem Witchcraft Trials," published by the Essex Institute in Salem. An excellent museum, the Essex maintains a rare collection of memorabilia from the witchcraft trials.

"Therefore, the people who appeared in the frightening visions were suspected of having contracted with Satan," writes Richardson, "and accounts of their appearances were considered 'spectural evidence' of their guilt."

Pressed to reveal the identity of their tormentors, the young women named Tituba and two other women, both of whom had been targets of gossip in the village. At the end of February, the three were arrested and examined by two local officials, one of whom was John Hathorne, Nathaniel Hawthorne's ancestor. (It was Hawthorne who added the "W" to the family name.) While they awaited trial, the accusations continued.

Some townspeople joined the young women in condemning their neighbors, but others just as earnestly defended their innocence and themselves were accused. Events moved quickly and tragically. In May, the governor of Massachusetts appointed a panel of judges, and in June the trials began in Salem. By September, all the convictions had been handed down, and the final hangings (a group of seven women and one man) took place on Sept. 22.

Meanwhile, many of the state's leading citizens had become repulsed by what was happening, and they pressed for an end to the trials. Salem and Salem Village began waking up as if from a bad dream. By the middle of 1693, all who still remained accused and jailed were released. The witchcraft scare was over.

A visitor today can make the short drive to Danvers to tour the Rebecca Nurse Homestead, the restored home of Rebecca Nurse, who at the age of 71 was among the accused. Forty of her neighbors signed a petition testifying to her good character, and at first she was acquitted. But her young accusers went into fits again, and the panel reversed its judgement. She was hanged on July 19 maintaining her innocence, and her children buried her in an unmarked grave at the homestead.

Back again in Salem -- where you park the car and wander on foot -- the next stop on the witchcraft trail is the interesting but inappropriately named Witch House. Built about 1642, it is a handsome structure of dark wood panels with a soaring brick chimney. It housed not witches but merchant Jonathan Corwin. He along with John Hathorne served as a magistrate in the preliminary examinations of the accused.

Nearby is the Essex Institute, which preserves a trunk that belonged to Corwin, one of the few items associated with the accusers or the accused that remain. The institute, which dominates pedestrian-only Essex Street Mall, is both a fine museum that focuses on Salem and a collection of restored houses open to the public.

Another important item is a sundial that was owned by John Proctor, a farmer who spoke out against the hysteria and subsequently was judged guilty of witchcraft and hanged. Arthur Miller made Proctor a central figure in his superb 1953 play about the witchcraft trials, "The Crucible." Read the play, or see a revival, before you visit Salem. It's as informative as any guidebook about the events of 1692.

As a curiosity, the Institute also displays a piece of the locust tree on Gallows Hill from which the 19 hangings took place. In decided contrast, there's an amusing painting, a huge one, called "Panorama of Salem" that depicts the city in 1895. High above the narrow streets, presumably engaged in mischievous deeds, fly witches on their broomsticks. More fact and fantasy in Old Salem.

The witchcraft trials lasted only a few months, but for two centuries Salem was an important American seaport, dominating the American trade in luxury goods from the Far East. By the early 1800s, it was the nation's richest city on a per capita basis, according to a guide to the Salem Maritime National Historic Site published by the National Park Service.

Many of the treasures and natural oddities that the city's captains acquired in their travels are now displayed in the excellent collections of the Peabody Museum of Salem. And the solidly elegant look of the city today owes much to the success of these same captains and their ships.

The park service provides guided tours to several historic structures on the waterfront. You can visit Derby House, the home of Elias Hasket Derby, who, says ranger Polly Angelakis, was "the country's first millionaire." Though he didn't go to sea himself, he owned a large and daring fleet of sailing vessels that opened new ports for American trade in India, the Philippines and Russia.

His house was built by seagoing carpenters, and as you pass from one exquisitely furnished room to the next, you can pick out the nautical style they gave to some of the interior decoration. The posts on the grand stairway, for example, are carved to resemble coiled ropes. The dominant color is green, and that is attributed to Derby's wife, who had a reputation for extravagant spending, which he indulged.

"We joke that she liked green," says Angelakis, "because it was the color of money."

A few steps away is the restored Custom House, which was built in 1819. In 1846, in need of money before his writing career blossomed, Hawthorne got friends to arrange an appointment for him as customs surveyor. His job was to supervise the workers who weighed shipments for import duties. The first-floor office on the left has been set up as it might have looked when he occupied it. He lost the post in 1849, but soon after wrote "The Scarlet Letter."

The House of the Seven Gables is just two blocks north on Derby Street, and -- as Hawthorne introduces his celebrated novel -- "halfway down a bystreet" toward the water. Built in 1668, it is a gorgeous old structure with -- to quote Hawthorne again -- "seven acutely peaked gables facing towards various points of the compass, and a huge, clustered chimney in the midst." It, too, has its mystery and its link to the witchcraft trials, making it a fitting conclusion to a witchcraft tour.

During the years Hawthorne lived in Salem, the house was owned by an older cousin, Susannah Ingersoll, and he frequently visited with her there. Even then, the house already was more than 150 years old, so it made an ideal setting for the novel set in Salem that he published in 1851. Troubled by the role of his own ancestor in the witchcraft trials, Hawthorne's plot in "The House of the Seven Gables" involves the descendants of two men caught up in the witchcraft hysteria -- one an accuser and the other an accused.

Though Hawthorne's characters are fictional, they have attained almost the status of historical figure on the guided tours of the house. "Here is Hepzibah's penny shop," says a guide, pointing to the little room off the kitchen where aristocratic old Hepzibah Pyncheon was forced by her impecunious state to sell gingerbread cookies and other penny goods. Fantasy again, but I don't criticize. Had she not led me to it, I might have asked where it was.

The house's mystery is a secret staircase, perhaps built by the original owner who, says the guide, was engaged in smuggling. Hawthorne's novel has a secret chamber that is revealed only in its concluding chapters, but a whole staircase is far more impressive on a Halloween visit.

I won't reveal where it is hidden, for the guide may give you a chance to guess. She presses a latch and slides open a hidden panel and invites you to climb the narrow, spiraling stairway. "Where does it lead?" someone asks, perhaps fearful he might intrude upon a coven of witches. In Salem, who knows?


GETTING THERE: Salem is about a half-hour's drive northeast of Boston's Logan Airport. It is an easy day trip out of Boston, though you will be pressed for time to tour the city thoroughly in less than two days. Several airlines, including Piedmont and USAir, fly nonstop to Boston from Washington's airports. Fares vary greatly depending on date of departure or whether an airline has decided to put Boston tickets on sale. Round-trip fares recently have been available for as low as $118. WHERE TO STAY: Salem has a number of bed-and-breakfast inns in or near the historic area. One of the most appealing is the Stepping Stone Inn next to the Witch Museum on Salem Common. The rate for a room for two with private bath is $75 a night, which includes a full breakfast. For information: (800) 338-3022.

The stately Salem Inn, once the home of a ship captain, is impressive in appearance but its antique-furnished rooms could use some refurbishing. It sits just across the street from the Witch House. The rate for a room for two with private bath is $69 to $90 a night, which includes a continental breakfast.

Another possibility, also conveniently located in the historic area, is the 90-room Hawthorne Hotel, which has a restaurant and tavern. The rate for a room for two ranges from $74 to $96 a night (no breakfast). For information: (617) 744-4080. INFORMATION: For information about other lodgings as well as operating hours and entrance fees to Salem's historic homes and buildings, contact: Salem Chamber of Commerce, Old Town Hall, 32 Derby Square, Salem, Mass. 01970, (617) 744-0004.