Salem, Massachusetts, is famous for one thing: witches. The tourism authority is keen to promote the city’s other attractions, but while living there for the city’s month-long Halloween party, JW Ocker finds that witchery is far from dead.
witch tourism is on the decline.” In the build up to Halloween, that statement would be a surprising one to hear anywhere. But in Salem, Massachusetts – AKA Witch City – it’s enough to stop a whole neighbourhood of trick-or-treaters in their tracks. But that’s exactly where I was when I heard it. From a vice president of communications. At an art museum.
I was in Salem because of its reputation. I rented a house in downtown Salem in October for the month-long Halloween party the city calls Haunted Happenings. And I wanted to see witches. Three different kinds of them, in fact.
First, I was looking for the executed “witches” of the Salem Witch trials. They’re hard to find. Few traces of the 1692 trials survive. The jail where most were imprisoned was torn down to make way for an office building (although you can see rafters from the original building on display in both the Salem Witch Museumand the Witch Dungeon Museum). The courthouse where they were sentenced to hang is now just a stretch of road. Even the execution site itself, which was only officially acknowledged last year, is just a hump of rock behind a pharmacy.
The only preserved sites in Salem are a few judges’ graves and the Witch House, an eerie black First Period house that was the home of Judge Jonathan Corwin. These days, it’s open for tours.
In fact, to see more genuine Salem Witch Trials sites, I had to go to neighbouring Danvers. In 1692, Danvers was part of Salem, the part where the witch trials actually started. There, without any of the Salem Halloween fanfare, I saw the foundation of the parsonage where the first girls claimed to be afflicted by invisible witches. I saw a house where preliminary hearings were held. And also half a dozen private homes where trial participants lived.
Second, I was also looking for Witches (yes, capital “W”), the adherents to a reimagined religion that borrows and adapts pagan rituals, as well as inventing its own. It’s easy to meet a Witch in Salem. You just head to one of its dozen Witch shops. On Essex Street alone you’ll find Hex, Omen, The Coven’s Cottage and Crow Haven Corner – this last, the oldest Witch shop in Salem, opened in the early 1970s. At any of these shops, you can buy books on magic, spell ingredients and souvenirs. You can also get a reading. Over the course of my stay, I was read and reread via crystals, Tarot, runes, spirit photography, tea leaves, and my palms.
Finally, I was looking for Halloween witches. Those cartoony symbols of 31 October and horror movies that the city has become famous for. Halloween witches abound, on the uniforms of the police, the road signs, the insignia on the fire engines. They’re in the haunted houses such as Chambers of Terror and Witch Mansion. In Count Orlok’s Nightmare Gallery, a museum of movie monsters. They’re in gift shops like the Magic Parlor and the Trolley Depot. There’s a bronze statue of Samantha from the sitcom Bewitched in one of its prominent parks. The show filmed a few episodes in Salem in 1970. Rob Zombie’s Lords of Salem was filmed here, too. As did the Halloween favourite Hocus Pocus.
That’s a lot of witches. How, then, could witch tourism be on the decline?
Salem has changed in recent years. It’s gentrifying, as one resident put it – a resident who spent his October dressed up as an evil clown to scare the tourists at one of Salem’s haunted houses. Only in Salem could the word “gentrify” also mean “become less spooky”.
Young professionals are moving in, attracted by its proximity to Boston (the centre is 15 miles away) and affordability, compared with other Boston suburbs. A newly upgraded train station can get you to Boston in 25 minutes. The food scene is exploding with restaurants like the Lobster Shanty, Gulu-Gulu Café and Opus.
And, since 2003, Salem has had what every aspiring city needs: a world-class art museum. The ninth-largest in the country, in fact, by square footage.
The Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) was formed by the merger of two centuries-old Salem institutions: the Peabody Museum and the Essex Institute. The latter was a local history museum, the former a natural history museum showcasing souvenirs of the city’s seafaring founders. However, when they merged, the new museum didn’t resemble either of those things. Rather, it was a state-of-the-art art museum in the middle of all that witchery. The quirky shrunken heads and skull chalice that people had known it for were hidden in the basement; in their place were art pieces from around the world, 18th-century Chinese furniture or 20th-century Indian textiles, for example.
Also hidden in the basement are most of the remaining relics from the Salem witch trials, which came with the Essex Institute. If witch tourism is in decline, PEM is polishing the slide.
With those artefacts crated, the city no longer has an official witch trials museum, and the only institutions dedicated to the story are wax-museum-type tourist attractions such as the Salem Witch Museum, the Witch History Museum, and the Witch Dungeon Museum, none of which has been upgraded in decades. That, combined with the growing range of non-witchy tourist attractions, does seem to suggest that witch tourism is on the decline.
But Salem has weathered identity crises before. In the 1980s and 1990s, Witches and Christians shouted each other down in the streets –some were concerned that the memory of the witch trials victims was being preyed upon by “tacky” tourist attractions. And while those undercurrents are still there, those issues have become much less prominent.
Its latest identity crisis is deciding whether it should be labelled Witch City at all, or simply one that just happens to have witches – as illustrated by the logo of the city’s tourism organisation, Destination Salem – a stylised triangle that looks like either a witch’s hat or a ship sail, depending on your perspective.
In my 31 days at the peak of the Salem madness, I didn’t see a decline in witch tourism. I saw a city proud (if somewhat exhausted) to fly its black-and-orange Halloween colours, and pointy hats were everywhere. But I also saw a city presenting a broader image of itself. It started in 2010 with a rebranding initiative that yielded the logo and a witch-free tagline: “Still Making History” (before, it had been “A Bewitching Seaport”), along with a “there’s more to Salem” ad campaign. In the mayor’s introduction in the 2016 Haunted Happenings Guide, an annual publication listing all the events and attractions in October, she addressed the Halloween visitors by emphasising the city’s other festivals throughout the year, like the Jazz Festival and Heritage Days.
And it’s not just a marketing push. It’s a legitimate strength of Salem that it has more than witches, including a Maritime National Historic Site in the middle of the city that has long been Salem’s best-kept secret. And its literary heritage, which is personified in native son Nathaniel Hawthorne, whose presence in the past has been touted only through its bronze statue to him, yet whose life and work touched almost every building in town. And, yes, it has a flourishing restaurant and arts scene. I was told by many, “This is no longer a one-season town.”
Whether the city becomes better-known for ships’ sails than pointy black hats in the future is uncertain but right now, in late October, there is no getting away from witches in Salem.
Original Post by: theguardian.com