MHS HEADLIGHT: From pirates to primates: Marblehead’s portal into the unknown returned for Halloween

Have you ever wanted to explore a ghostly pirate shipwreck, creep through an ancient Egyptian tomb, or gaze at a life-sized breathing, blinking dragon? Look no further than resident architect Tom Saltsman’s home. Saltsman has been wowing Marblehead with his annual Halloween construction projects on Pleasant Street for the past eight years.

Every year around September, he begins constructing a giant masterpiece that people line up to walk through on Halloween and several following nights. Built entirely out of discarded materials, found
objects, and specialized pieces, these constructions have ranged from a spaceship to a breathing, roaring King Kong statue, to this year’s creation, a giant sleeping troll inspired by Norwegian folklore.

Saltsman’s latest Halloween creation: a giant forest troll. COURTESY PHOTO / BROOKE TRIVAS

After many years of being impressed by Saltsman’s creations, I was sure that nothing could outdo last year’s – though I’m sure I felt the same last year about the previous one. My mom, dad, younger brother, and I arrived on Pleasant Street, bundled up in jackets and hats in the chilly autumn-night air on Friday, October 3rd, to come nose to nose with the giant sleeping troll. A crowd of people stretched down the road, making it impossible to catch a glimpse of the troll from the back of the line.

Anticipation grew as the line inched along and we heard more exclamations of, “That was insane!” and “Wow!” Finally, after what felt like a millennium, we reached the driveway. My jaw dropped when I saw the enormous troll curled in a stiff rock-like shape. He is composed of a sharp, rugged stone-like material, his fingers twitching ever so slightly, revealing a bright-red surface beneath cracked rocky skin. Soft snores can be heard escaping from his cavernous belly.

We entered through his gaping mouth and were transported into a forest wonderland that appeared to stretch on for miles due to the illusion of mirrors. The strong, comforting scent of pine immediately hit me as I crept into the woodland area. Real branches of pine trees and intricately painted walls depicting a beautiful forest surrounded me. I weaved through paper mâché trees into a small craggy cave, where I was met by a trickling stone fountain and the projection of bats huddling in a dark corner.

Upon leaving, I felt a sense of wonder, wishing I could stay a bit longer inside the forest dreamland that I had just left.

I, like others, have always wondered how Saltsman comes up with his creations. “I have a sketchbook that I jot down ideas in throughout the whole year,” he says. “This year my wife wanted to do a forest and I wanted to do a giant, so this was our combination of those ideas.”

A sign posted on one of the pillars in the driveway explains how Norwegian myth plays into this year’s masterpiece. Norwegian culture is strongly influenced by nature and legend. According to myth, throughout the country’s forests dwell giant rock trolls whose stony bodies come to life at night and are frozen when touched by sunlight. Though not the cleverest, they are strong and powerful, influencing creatures in Harry Potter and The Hobbit.

The troll isn’t the only one of these Halloween sculptures that is inspired by myth and legend. All of them, I’ve noticed, seem to include an element of magic. From the dragon cottage, built and exhibited on Halloween of 2018, my second year living in Marblehead and my first year experiencing one of Saltsman’s creations, to the Egyptian cobra goddess built in 2022, a supernatural, mysterious feeling seems to lurk around every corner.

When asked about his favorite of his creations, Saltsman said, “I would probably have to say the walking man.”

Unfortunately, and for reasons I can’t recall, the only one my family has missed!

All of these masterpieces are unique and impressive. And all of them leave a lingering question: How could a small team of people possibly build such incredible creations in only two months? The answer: hard work and persistence. Saltsman and his team work on evenings and weekends throughout September and October to finish these projects, a tarp covering the entrance to the driveway from curious residents until a few days before Halloween, when the public can finally see the finished masterpiece. Saltsman’s training as an architect is
central to this process.

“I went to school for theater and did a lot of set design and built things. I started building
these Halloween projects at the Coffin-Gerry school for the Monster Mash,” he says. He began building these for parties, and the public took notice. It eventually evolved into a grand-scale, annual town event, attracting people from across Marblehead and beyond. His work has been featured in various newspapers and broadcasts.

This year, as his wife revealed to my parents, helicopters of local news programs even circled overhead in an attempt to capture the breathtaking creature. Children and adults alike delight in the surprise and excitement of these yearly installations, and with each year, they only draw more visitors.

As my family and I made our way back home on the chilly autumn night, buzzing with the excitement and
majesty of what we’d just experienced, all of us feverishly sending pictures to friends and family in other parts of the state, the country, and the world, I was struck by a sense of gratitude. I felt lucky that here, in our town, a mere few blocks away from my ancient, creaky, hobbit-like house, I may be transported through space and time each year as the nights grow longer and the air grows cooler, all through the generous creativity of Tom Saltsman, his family, and his team, who bring their vision to life on the spookiest night of the year.

MHS Headlight reporter Georgia Marshall
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