Selling the Story

From Salem Village to Witch City


Sit­ting out­side on the pedes­tri­an mall in Salem, Mass­a­chu­setts dur­ing any warm con­tem­po­rary after­noon, one can watch as streams of tourists flock to hot­dog carts, pur­chase t‑shirts at side­walk sales, and fol­low their Cham­ber of Com­merce maps from site to site. With sched­uled reg­u­lar­i­ty, each day at a pre­cise moment a com­mo­tion breaks out on the mall. Like clock­work, gath­er­ing crowds of fam­i­lies with fan­ny packs encir­cle the out­break, and watch as a ver­bal bat­tle unfolds. Though the play­ers vary from day to day, and one actor might play many parts over the course of a sea­son, the out­break always goes some­thing like this:

What do you mean, Good­man? Are you to imply that she was bewitched?” A young man in Puri­tan dress will shout at anoth­er, old­er man.

The old­er man will shout back, “I know not about such things, but it is clear she is not right, and for you to deny it casts doubts upon you as well.”

Though the two men will wear sev­en­teenth-cen­tu­ry cloth­ing, they will always hold a stack of glossy, mass-pro­duced brochures, as well. A study of the gath­er­ing crowd will reveal a com­pelling jux­ta­po­si­tion: poised video cam­eras held by tourists, side by side with sev­er­al less vocal “Puri­tans” with brochures who have sub­tly mixed into the group. Tourists snap pho­tos of the “ear­ly Amer­i­cans,” inevitably cap­tur­ing in their shots images not only of the per­form­ers, but also of oth­er tourists tak­ing pic­tures. This phe­nom­e­non hap­pens over and over again in Salem, as tourists record the actions and words of per­form­ers who mix in with the gen­er­al crowds. The act of see­ing also becomes the state of being seen. Through­out one’s time in Salem, it becomes clear­er and clear­er that being a tourist in “Witch City” — Salem’s cur­rent-day nick­name — will not be a sim­ple mat­ter of appro­pri­a­tion; it will be a com­plex rela­tion­ship between audi­ence and actor in which the divi­sions between object and agent will be con­fused and blurred. In much the same way that his­to­ri­ans and fic­tion writ­ers have invent­ed the “true” sto­ry of what hap­pened in Salem, Salem’s tourist indus­try sup­ports a dynam­ic sys­tem in which “facts” are cre­at­ed by the inter­ac­tion between site, view­er, and a neb­u­lous char­ac­ter called “the past.”

Before long, near­ly a dozen “Puri­tans” will be dis­cussing the mat­ter of Brid­get Bishop’s guilt, some­times with each oth­er and some­times with the amused tourists; the “Puri­tans” will raise their voic­es, attract more onlook­ers, and deft­ly give out brochures to any­one who will have them. “His­to­ry Alive presents Cry Inno­cent,” the brochures read, “It’s April 1692. Brid­get Bish­op is on the wit­ness stand, and YOU are on the jury. Play your part in his­to­ry.” Flip­ping over the brochure reveals the fine print: “From the moment you enter Old Town Hall, you are treat­ed as a Puri­tan liv­ing in Salem, 1692… As a mem­ber of the jury, you may cross-exam­ine wit­ness­es, argue with the defen­dant or give tes­ti­mo­ny your­self. Our actors will respond to your com­ments in char­ac­ter, reveal­ing much about the Puri­tan mind.” After wit­ness­ing the out­break and perus­ing the brochure, tourists will be swept away by the Puri­tan-infil­trat­ed crowd, pro­pelled along towards the tick­et booth out­side Old Town Hall, where they can pur­chase an admis­sion to the show for six dollars.

Salem today is a rau­cous clash of time peri­ods, as Puri­tan his­to­ry and cur­rent-day tourism pro­voke and define each oth­er in a con­stant web of mutu­al influ­ence. Cry Inno­cent is an apt place to start, since the way it blurs the line between the real and the per­formed is cen­tral to Salem’s approach to doing his­to­ry. As the actors mix into the crowds in the street, the pro­duc­tion aban­dons its scripts, explodes through the fourth wall, and brings his­to­ry “alive,” mak­ing it spon­ta­neous, new, and seem­ing­ly “real.” As the “live his­to­ry” begins its down­stream jour­ney to the the­ater, the tourists are clev­er­ly absorbed into the play; the per­form­ers neat­ly begin the process of usurp­ing the nat­ur­al feel of the pre-show adlib and using it to fuel the cred­i­bil­i­ty of a more ful­ly staged dra­ma. The tourist becomes, in this the­atri­cal expe­ri­ence and in most Salem tourism, both pas­sive audi­ence mem­ber and active shaper of the expe­ri­ence, and per­form­ers are both rein­car­na­tions of Puri­tans past and cre­ators of a con­stant­ly evolv­ing truth. Through per­for­mance, Salem’s tourist cul­ture rein­ter­prets not only the past, but also the very means by which we access — or rein­vent — this past. In one per­for­mance of Cry Inno­cent that I attend­ed, the audi­ence sided with his­to­ry, vot­ing that Bish­op seemed guilty and should be held over for tri­al. “Hang her!” one man shout­ed from the audi­ence at the end of the show. In Salem, the tourist dri­ve is not nec­es­sar­i­ly about moral lessons, his­tor­i­cal edu­ca­tion, or com­mem­o­ra­tion; often, it is about the enter­tain­ing thrill that accom­pa­nies the macabre side of Salem’s sto­ry: the corpse swing­ing from the tree limb, the old witch cast­ing spells on her neigh­bors, the fear — and hope — that the dev­il was — and might still be — afoot in Salem.

The desire for spooky thrills and the desire to tell the truth for the moral bet­ter­ment of soci­ety make uncom­fort­able but prof­itable bed­fel­lows in Salem, and the dis­junc­tion between a drab sev­en­teenth-cen­tu­ry out­fit and a slick­ly pro­duced full-col­or brochure is an appro­pri­ate metaphor for the gen­er­al dis­junc­tion that char­ac­ter­izes Salem’s his­tor­i­cal tourism. This essay will explore how this dis­junc­tion plays itself out, and how Salem’s var­ied and com­pet­ing goals — to make mon­ey, to edu­cate, to com­mem­o­rate, and to enter­tain — actu­al­ly work togeth­er to ensure the sur­vival of each indi­vid­ual tourist site in the city.



As may­or,” writes Salem politi­cian Stan­ley J. Uso­vicz, Jr in the 2002 Offi­cial Guide­book to the city, “I invite you to enjoy all that Salem has to offer. Stroll the streets of the his­toric dis­trict to see the man­sions of the sea cap­tains who were America’s first mil­lion­aires. Enjoy the beau­ti­ful works of art in the famed Peabody Essex Muse­um. Explore the har­bor and see how Salem helped launch the great age of Sail and enjoy the restau­rants and shops of Pick­er­ing Wharf.”

What hap­pened to “Salem, Witch City?” To hear from offi­cial Salem — i.e. to vis­it the Salem Visitor’s Cen­ter or to hear from Salem’s lead­ers — is to expe­ri­ence a strange kind of par­al­lel uni­verse: one in which Salem’s witch his­to­ry is near­ly com­plete­ly obscured by its mar­itime past and its non-witch­craft-relat­ed edu­ca­tion­al attrac­tions. In the 2000 Offi­cial Guide­book, Uso­vicz makes absolute­ly no men­tion of witch­craft in his open­ing remarks.

In the revised 2002 Guide­book, the may­or adds this brief tagline: “Walk the Her­itage Trail to learn about the infa­mous Witch Hys­te­ria of 1692 and to vis­it the House of Sev­en Gables, inspi­ra­tion for Salem’s native son, Nathaniel Hawthorne.” Witch­craft is men­tioned after a bevy of sea-relat­ed issues, and it is not even allowed to occu­py the final, priv­i­leged posi­tion in the wel­come; this spot is saved for Hawthorne, who of course had much to say about witch­craft, but who is cel­e­brat­ed by offi­cial Salem sim­ply as a native, not as a com­men­ta­tor on the witch­craft era. Even The House of Sev­en Gables site itself works to elide Salem’s witch his­to­ry. Though many tourists go to the site because of apoc­ryphal tales of its spook­i­ness or because they know the nov­el — and there­fore know of its con­nec­tion to witch­craft — the Gables tour nev­er once men­tions witch­craft. In order to avoid talk of witch­es, the site actu­al­ly has to avoid all talk of the novel’s plot, con­sumed as Hawthorne’s tale is with the ques­tion of haunt­ings. On a recent tour I took of the house, the only hint that witch­craft was at least present in vis­i­tors’ minds (if not in the tour) was when a young boy was invit­ed by the guide to open a small clos­et next to a fire­place. As he did so, a male tourist shout­ed, “Boo!”, at which point the boy and all the rest of us gave a momen­tary col­lec­tive shriek. As we laughed, the guide talked right over us, explain­ing that the clos­et was used to hold firewood.

Uso­vicz con­cludes his remarks in the Guide­book with this con­tra­dic­to­ry salu­ta­tion, “Wel­come to the bewitch­ing sea­port of Salem, Mass­a­chu­setts- enjoy your vis­it!” Usovicz’s may­oral mes­sage illus­trates the ten­sion that infus­es con­tem­po­rary Salem’s tourist indus­try. On the one hand, edu­ca­tion­al and high art muse­ums and sites bat­tle to de-empha­size Salem’s witch past, which gets marked as enter­tain­ing, tacky, and triv­ial. At the same time, how­ev­er, the city is witch crazy; tourists are obsessed with witch­es, the Wic­can com­mu­ni­ty is thriv­ing, and witch­craft-relat­ed attrac­tions con­tin­ue to draw the great­est crowds in Salem. Salem’s sea­port gets con­struct­ed as the valu­able, sig­nif­i­cant, edu­ca­tion­al, and “true” his­tor­i­cal past, while witch­es get con­struct­ed as a kind of bogus and even fraud­u­lent his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tive. But Salem’s sea­port remains “bewitch­ing,” as witch his­to­ry con­tin­u­al­ly thwarts the efforts of mar­itime his­to­ry to leave it silent and buried. This war, between classy and tacky tourist sites, between edu­ca­tion and enter­tain­ment, between truth and fic­tion is what dri­ves and ulti­mate­ly sus­tains Salem’s tourist industry.

Of course, no one would dis­pute that Salem is, as guides say dur­ing the Salem Witch Vil­lage tour, a city “orig­i­nal­ly built not upon witch­es but upon mar­itime trade.” Orig­i­nal­ly called Naumkeag by natives, Salem’s first Eng­lish set­tlers arrived in 1626; Salem became part of the bur­geon­ing Mass­a­chu­setts Bay Colony in 1643. By the time of the Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion, Salem was one of the “new world’s” largest cities, and as the war end­ed, Salem was immersed in high­ly suc­cess­ful trade with the West Indies, Europe, and the rich East Indies. Cod­fish went out and Indi­an silks, Suma­tran pep­per, and oth­er prof­itable imports arrived, and Salem’s upper class­es built man­sions along the har­bor that had made them rich. Salem was incor­po­rat­ed as a city in 1836, and it began to devel­op into a hub of man­u­fac­tur­ing and retail; leather and shoe fac­to­ries sprung up, and immi­grants first from Cana­da and Ire­land and lat­er from Italy and East­ern Europe arrived to pro­vide labor for the new indus­tries. Syl­va­nia and Park­er Broth­ers Games arrived and grad­u­al­ly replaced Salem’s declin­ing leather and shoe com­pa­nies, but the most dra­mat­ic shift in Salem’s recent eco­nom­ic land­scape came in the 1970’s when tourism sup­plant­ed all indus­tri­al, mer­can­tile, and fish­ing busi­ness­es as Salem’s num­ber one mon­ey-mak­er. Until the 1970’s, the witch­craft his­to­ry was a just one of many blips on Salem’s com­mer­cial radar, and its sea-far­ing past had yet to be revived as a tourist industry.



When one enters the Nation­al Park Ser­vice Region­al Vis­i­tor Cen­ter at the heart of Salem’s his­toric dis­trict, one is struck by the total absence of witch­es. Large dio­ra­mas illus­trat­ing impor­tant scenes from Salem’s his­to­ry are dot­ted through­out the enor­mous main lob­by. At the cen­ter is a tremen­dous trade ship, com­plete with small-scale sailors, a busy dock, and tiny pack­ages wait­ing to be unloaded. There are also dis­plays on Salem’s Armory Drill Shed, the neigh­bor­ing town of Ipswich, Salem’s tex­tile indus­try, and the life of ear­ly set­tlers (pre-1692). A dis­play on African-Amer­i­can Her­itage fea­tures Salem’s notable eigh­teenth- and nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry blacks, but no men­tion is made of the 1692 witch­craft tri­als or of Titu­ba, who has come to be known as Salem’s most notable “black” woman (per­haps erro­neous­ly, for her actu­al eth­nic­i­ty remains dis­put­ed and prob­a­bly unknowable).

Where are the witch­es? In the lob­by area, they are in two places: in the gift shop, and in the minds of the tourists who are visiting.

In the gift shop, approx­i­mate­ly 50% of items for sale are witch-relat­ed. This includes every­thing from books about the witch­craft tri­als to key chains and oth­er memen­tos. In Salem, witch­es are good busi­ness, and even the most “edu­ca­tion­al” of sites stock their share of cof­fee mugs fea­tur­ing witch­es on broom­sticks. Whether they pur­chase out of par­o­dy or earnest­ness, con­sumers in Salem use sou­venirs to estab­lish a link between them­selves and the city. This link is par­al­lel to the link that Salem works to estab­lish between itself and the past. As the Vis­i­tor Cen­ter strug­gles with a shame about its own invest­ment in witch­es while simul­ta­ne­ous­ly invest­ing heav­i­ly in witch sou­venirs, it high­lights a com­mon phe­nom­e­non in Salem: sou­venirs seem to sig­ni­fy both Salem’s super­fi­cial fail­ures to lift itself out of the pit of low enter­tain­ment and Salem’s sly­ly suc­cess­ful deploy­ment of com­merce to help con­nect vis­i­tors to the past.

The fact that the “com­mer­cial” sec­tions of the Vis­i­tor Cen­ter are quar­an­tined to the cor­ner of the build­ing demon­strates how Salem’s high tourist sites dis­cour­age patrons from focus­ing on the witch tri­als. Tourists inter­viewed in Salem con­sis­tent­ly reply to the ques­tion “Why are you in Salem?” with just one word: “witch­es.” Charles and Nan­cy Pap­pas from Wilm­ing­ton, Illi­nois, tourists inter­viewed out­side of the Vis­i­tor Cen­ter, had their “mis­placed” attrac­tions to Salem cor­rect­ed upon their arrival. “What I had heard before I came here was the witch thing,” said Charles, “But I learned right away that that was only a small, tiny, minute part of it.” Mr. Pap­pas’ empha­sis on the diminu­tive impor­tance of the witch tri­als in Salem his­to­ry is a direct result of his “edu­ca­tion” in Salem, par­tic­u­lar­ly, he said, the edu­ca­tion he received from the Vis­i­tor Cen­ter film, Where Past is Present.

Our sto­ry is about much more than the infa­mous witch tri­als,” a “local” voice nar­rates at the begin­ning of the film, “It’s about cul­tur­al evo­lu­tion and change.” The fact that the tri­als are “infa­mous” seems to be the main rea­son that they are so sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly de-empha­sized by the Vis­i­tor Cen­ter. In fact, in the entire film — which runs near­ly an hour in length — vir­tu­al­ly no descrip­tion of the tri­als is giv­en. The film focus­es on mar­itime trade and the fish­ing indus­try, with small­er seg­ments on mill­work and ear­ly entre­pre­neurs. Despite the fact that “what hap­pened” dur­ing 1692 is not described, the film is not com­plete­ly silent on the sub­ject of witch­craft. “The Puri­tan treat­ment of natives, and lat­er their behav­ior dur­ing the witch tri­als, have become unfor­get­table sym­bols of intol­er­ance,” the nar­ra­tor intones. As in Usovicz’s state­ment, where the witch tri­als are syn­tac­ti­cal­ly sub­or­di­nat­ed to Hawthorne, here the tri­als are both val­i­dat­ed and over­shad­owed by the dom­i­nant phrase regard­ing Puri­tan-Native rela­tions. The film, which spends sig­nif­i­cant time exam­in­ing Native cul­ture and the effects that Euro­pean set­tle­ment had on native pop­u­la­tions, uses the Native issue to both eclipse and make edu­ca­tion­al the witch issue. This is not to say, of course, that I believe that the geno­cide of the Native peo­ple of Essex Coun­ty should not receive more empha­sis than the hang­ing of a hand­ful of set­tlers for witch­craft, but what is so com­pelling is the way that these two his­tor­i­cal events get assigned val­ue based not on the num­ber of lives lost, but on the seem­ing­ly “intrin­sic” edu­ca­tion­al val­ue each event has.

Despite the film’s con­dem­na­tion of the neg­a­tive impact of Euro­peans on Native peo­ple, it still works hard to vin­di­cate the Puri­tans as far as the witch tri­als are con­cerned. “In [the Puri­tans’] defense,” claims the nar­ra­tor, “They tru­ly believed that witch­craft exist­ed as a ter­ri­ble threat…One pos­i­tive out­come [of the tri­als is that] to this day the witch hys­te­ria reminds us to be on guard against intol­er­ance.

What is impor­tant about the witch tri­als to the Nation­al Park Ser­vice, who pro­duced the film, is that the tri­als can func­tion today as a learn­ing tool and a cod­i­fi­er of prop­er moral behav­ior. Unlike the Native geno­cide, which is allowed to stand as an atroc­i­ty, the witch tri­als must be recu­per­at­ed and res­cued from the realm of his­to­ry. Trans­plant­ed from his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tive to moral les­son, the witch tri­als become a sym­bol of the process of edu­ca­tion itself. In this way, the Vis­i­tor Cen­ter sep­a­rates the witch tri­als from the desire to dis­cov­er the past, and relo­cates it into a present-day behav­ioral issue. The title of the film, Where Past is Present, is par­tic­u­lar­ly evoca­tive where the witch tri­als are con­cerned, since the film effec­tive­ly wres­tles the 1692 events out of their orig­i­nal con­text and places them into the cur­rent day. The end of the film reflects this present-ing maneu­ver. The nar­ra­tor con­cludes, “As you explore our places, attend the voic­es of our past. You may find them haunt­ing­ly famil­iar. Our his­to­ry may be an echo of your own sto­ry being told.” This con­clu­sion is sig­nif­i­cant for many rea­sons. First, the film implies that vis­i­tors to Salem cre­ate the his­to­ry around them, which func­tions like an echo of cur­rent-day sub­jects. If the past is tru­ly the present, the witch tri­als — pre­sent­ed as they were with no detail and plen­ty of mor­al­iz­ing lessons — can be safe­ly removed from the realm of the dev­il, how­ev­er real he may have seemed at one time, and insert­ed into the realm of tol­er­ance, the new moral leg­isla­tive code that replaces reli­gion in Salem’s Vis­i­tor Cen­ter. But like Uso­vicz, the film can­not resist the lure of the spooky side of Salem. For the may­or, Salem’s past was “bewitch­ing.” For the film, it is “haunt­ing­ly” famil­iar. Both the film and the may­or slip into a touris­tic manip­u­la­tion of Salem’s witch lure despite their attempts to steer vis­i­tors away from any witch-relat­ed history.



If there is one site in Salem that attempts to remove itself com­plete­ly from the realm of tourism, it would have to be the Phillips Library, part of the Peabody Essex Muse­um. For a sin­gle admis­sion fee, vis­i­tors can access both the Peabody Essex Muse­um — with its impres­sive col­lec­tions of Asian ceram­ics, fur­ni­ture, and whal­ing and sea-far­ing mem­o­ra­bil­ia from Salem’s ear­ly days — and the library build­ing. The muse­um stress­es the famil­iar high-tourist themes in Salem: fish­ing and mar­itime trade…not witch­craft. My most recent vis­it to the Peabody Essex illus­trates how dif­fi­cult it is to find witch­craft-relat­ed items amongst the muse­um hold­ings. I knew from a past vis­it that the muse­um hold­ings includ­ed four objects relat­ed to the witch tri­als: two canes, a sun­di­al, and a chair, each alleged­ly owned by witch tri­al par­tic­i­pants. At the front desk of the muse­um, I asked a muse­um staffer where these items were locat­ed. She looked sur­prised that any­one would ask her about witch­craft arti­facts, and she claimed she didn’t know where they were; per­haps, she guessed, they had been put away while the muse­um was under­go­ing con­struc­tion. In one of the museum’s exhib­it halls, I asked a guard the same ques­tion and received the same answer. Final­ly, down the street at the Phillips Library, I asked the front desk atten­dant if he knew where the items were. Once again, he told me they were prob­a­bly put away dur­ing the con­struc­tion. As I paced the library lob­by while he checked me into the read­ing room, my eye fell on a glass case adja­cent to his desk. In the case were the two canes and the sun­di­al, and next to the case in a large glass box near­ly six feet tall was the chair. The items were prob­a­bly less than two feet from the desk atten­dant. The muse­um seems inten­tion­al­ly and active­ly to try to erase this col­lec­tion from the pub­lic view, even when the col­lec­tion itself is ful­ly exposed; the result is that at the Peabody Essex, witch­craft his­to­ry is not eas­i­ly acces­si­ble to tourists.

This inac­ces­si­bil­i­ty is both sup­port­ed and under­cut by the way that the library’s hold­ings are han­dled. In the Phillips Library, most of the orig­i­nal witch­craft doc­u­ments that have sur­vived can be viewed by just about any­one. But this view­ing is con­trolled in such a way so as to dis­cour­age casu­al tourism and to encour­age schol­ar­ly research inter­ests. First, one must reg­is­ter at the front desk. At this point, a list of for­bid­den items is giv­en to the vis­i­tor, and this list con­tains two of the tourist’s best friends: the “cam­era” and the “fan­ny-pack.” The very fact that they men­tion “fan­ny-pack” seems to sug­gest that the library expects tourists to desire access, and also that these tourists must be stripped of their touris­tic iden­ti­ties before enter­ing. When one final­ly makes it upstairs to the read­ing room, one must reg­is­ter again at yet anoth­er front desk.

The museum’s dou­bled front desk demon­strates how the insti­tu­tion always keeps its vis­i­tors on the out­side; even as one pass­es through one front gate, anoth­er is estab­lished to prove that the inte­ri­or is always some­place else. Indeed, the read­ing room con­tains lit­tle else than index­es, com­put­ers, and desks. All valu­able doc­u­ments are housed behind doors clear­ly marked off-lim­its to vis­i­tors. The read­ing room reg­is­tra­tion requires that guests explain both their “research sub­ject” and the “pur­pose of research.” Sub­jects that can be checked off include: “Fam­i­ly his­to­ry,” “Local his­to­ry,” “Mar­itime his­to­ry,” “Chi­na,” “Amer­i­can Lit­er­a­ture,” and “Oth­er.” Though the most famous hold­ings of the library are the witch­craft doc­u­ments, they are sub­sumed under “Local his­to­ry” or the ubiq­ui­tous “Oth­er.” Pur­pos­es include “Term paper,” “The­sis,” “Dis­ser­ta­tion,” “Arti­cle,” “Book,” and “Oth­er.” There are, of course, no box­es to check for “Sheer curios­i­ty,” “Tourism,” or “Want to get spooked.” The reg­is­tra­tion form also asks for one’s insti­tu­tion­al affil­i­a­tion. The process of gain­ing access to the Phillips Library demon­strates the library’s own goal of weed­ing out tourists or mor­ph­ing tourists into researchers via a series of well-reg­i­ment­ed steps. This may not dif­fer from the project of most research libraries, and it is not nec­es­sar­i­ly a neg­a­tive thing. But the Phillips is in an inter­est­ing posi­tion, sit­u­at­ed as it is not in the cen­ter of a uni­ver­si­ty com­mu­ni­ty or in a met­ro­pol­i­tan area, but right at the heart of one of New England’s most pop­u­lar tourist epicenters.

Once one gains access to the Phillips Library, which is one of the few places open to the pub­lic in Salem that does not appear on the Vis­i­tor Cen­ter map, one can actu­al­ly hold the orig­i­nal witch­craft doc­u­ments in one’s own hands. After fill­ing out a request sheet, patrons wait while a librar­i­an retrieves the witch­craft box­es that con­tain the doc­u­ments. After sign­ing out a par­tic­u­lar doc­u­ment, a librar­i­an hands the patron a mani­la fold­er with a sin­gle doc­u­ment inside. The patron reviews the doc­u­ment at one of two per­mit­ted tables, and then returns the doc­u­ment to a librar­i­an who signs it back in. Some of the doc­u­ments are two or three words long, as they are just hand­writ­ten names. Some are just lists of wit­ness­es. But no mat­ter how small, ran­dom, or incon­se­quen­tial a doc­u­ment is, patrons can only view one at a time. Dur­ing my week­day vis­it to the library, I found that on aver­age, the retrieval and sign-in/-out process took about four min­utes per doc­u­ment. To read the hun­dreds of doc­u­ments on file would take hours and hours of admin­is­tra­tive work — much of which must be done by librar­i­ans and not the researcher her/himself. In addi­tion, tourists look­ing to vis­it with some of the more dra­mat­ic doc­u­ments — such as the dual exam­i­na­tion of Titu­ba and Sarah Good — would have to know quite a bit about the tri­als in order to request the appro­pri­ate fold­er for view­ing. No brows­ing is pos­si­ble with the actu­al doc­u­ments. Few peo­ple would take issue with the tight secu­ri­ty at the library; after all, these are the “orig­i­nals.” But if they are so valu­able, why are vis­i­tors allowed to hold the parch­ments in their hands with­out the use of gloves, pro­tec­tive glass, or page turn­ers? The library seems to imply that their hold­ings will be pro­tect­ed more by assur­ing that they are viewed by the appro­pri­ate peo­ple than by leg­is­lat­ing con­tact pre­cau­tions that would be tak­en by all patrons.

Dur­ing an inter­view with Cal­i­for­nia tourists out­side of the Salem Witch His­to­ry Muse­um, which repro­duces many scenes from 1692 using man­nequins and ani­ma­tron­ics, one young man summed up his reac­tion to his Salem vis­it as “dis­ap­point­ed.” “For some rea­son,” he said, “I had these great ideas that there would be all this old stuff to see here, but there isn’t any­thing that’s real­ly old.” When asked if he had heard of the Phillips Library, he said no. Though he had spent about an hour at the Peabody Essex Muse­um, he had left in search of witch­craft-relat­ed his­to­ry, since that was what he had come to Salem to see. He was nev­er informed that the orig­i­nal doc­u­ments and arti­facts could be viewed by any inter­est­ed par­ty just a few feet down the road from both the Peabody Essex and the Witch His­to­ry museums.

Why does the Phillips Library work so hard to secret away its won­der­ful witch­craft-relat­ed resources? To a cer­tain extent, it is prob­a­bly a preser­va­tion­ist impulse that desires to pro­tect pri­ma­ry source mate­r­i­al from fur­ther decay. But the Phillips Library self-mar­ket­ing mate­ri­als (or lack there­of) and pro­to­col for use sug­gest that the library wish­es to cater to researchers and not to tourists. Witch­craft is con­sid­ered by the library to be a tourist indus­try, and as a result, witch­craft objects are all but ignored by the muse­um and witch­craft doc­u­ments are unmen­tioned in tourist pub­li­ca­tions and the library’s own lit­er­a­ture. It almost seems as if one needs pri­or infor­ma­tion from an out­side source about the witch­craft hold­ings in order to know that they can be found at the library.

The pur­pose of this dis­cus­sion is cer­tain­ly not to con­demn the Peabody Essex Muse­um for elit­ism, nor even to cri­tique its lack of acces­si­bil­i­ty. What is intrigu­ing to me about the Phillips Library is its par­tic­i­pa­tion in a process by which “orig­i­nal” his­to­ry is erased or obscured because it has been iden­ti­fied as touris­tic. In this case, the orig­i­nal doc­u­ments begin to get cod­ed as deriv­a­tive, as part of a rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the past         rather than as the past itself. Salem’s “edu­ca­tion­al” sites tend to make pri­ma­ry sources into sec­ondary rep­re­sen­ta­tions, and as a result, Salem’s witch his­to­ry is left with­out an orig­i­nal sto­ry. One won­ders whether or not the “orig­i­nals” that are hid­den in the Phillips Library would ful­ly estab­lish the events of the witch trials.



Because most of the pri­ma­ry sources are hid­den from pub­lic view, the Salem tourist indus­try func­tions to con­struct alter­na­tive “orig­i­nals” that usurp the pri­ma­ry source posi­tions and add cred­i­bil­i­ty to the deriv­a­tive tourist attrac­tions. A prime exam­ple of this can be seen at Salem’s Witch Dun­geon Muse­um. The attrac­tion is actu­al­ly one part live per­for­mance and one part con­ven­tion­al muse­um. Vis­i­tors enter into an old church, which is set like a the­ater. After tak­ing a seat in a pew, vis­i­tors watch a guide in peri­od dress mount the stage steps and deliv­er an intro­duc­tion. “What you are about to see is a live reen­act­ment,” our guide, Cay, tells us. She sets the scene by explain­ing some of the sur­round­ing con­text for the witch tri­als (Indi­an attacks, small­pox, char­ter prob­lems, etc.). She tells about Tituba’s “sto­ries of witch­craft and…magic games.” Final­ly, she exhorts the audi­ence, “Let your thoughts wan­der back now to a morn­ing over 300 years ago. Most of the dia­logue you are about to hear was tak­en direct­ly from the tri­al tran­scripts.” The cur­tain ris­es, and a scene plays out in which afflict­ed girl Mary War­ren exam­ines the accused Eliz­a­beth Proc­tor. Right from the begin­ning, the Witch Dun­geon is caught between its desire to estab­lish authen­tic­i­ty and its desire to be as dra­mat­ic as possible.

The very notion of a “live reen­act­ment” express­es the ten­sion that the Dun­geon wres­tles with. On the one hand, it is live, spon­ta­neous, cur­rent, and on the oth­er hand it is reen­act­ed, script­ed, past. It wants both to tan­ta­lize and enter­tain and to edu­cate and explain. Though much of the dia­logue does in fact come from the tran­scripts, the fact that Mary War­ren exam­ines Eliz­a­beth Proc­tor direct­ly with­out the inter­ven­tion of judge or mag­is­trate turns their play into some­thing more inti­mate and more per­son­al than the tri­als. One gets the feel­ing that a soap opera is unfold­ing as the pri­vate con­ver­sa­tion gets broad­cast for the pub­lic. The play — which occa­sion­al­ly fea­tures alter­nate cas­es, but always has just two actors — effec­tive­ly takes the legal ques­tions involved in the tri­als and makes them psy­cho­log­i­cal and inter­per­son­al. But there are oth­ers on stage with the two main actors dur­ing the play: judges and jury are rep­re­sent­ed by man­nequins who sit along the upstage wall. The man­nequins, who do not move, are set up in dra­mat­ic posi­tions: reach­ing out, falling over, stand­ing up with a gav­el, as if to sug­gest that they are frozen in their most height­ened action. As the play walks a line between authen­tic dia­logue and dra­mat­ic soap opera, it also bal­ances between a kind of sta­t­ic pho­to­graph (frozen man­nequins) of the past and a dynam­ic dra­ma­tiz­ing (man­nequins in motion) of that same past. The play seems to want to las­so Salem’s orig­i­nal past, but at the same time, it wants to empha­size its own high­ly enter­tain­ing rope tricks.

This fluc­tu­a­tion between try­ing to grasp and claim an orig­i­nal and true Salem his­to­ry and try­ing to enter­tain its mod­ern audi­ence is even more promi­nent when the play ends and the guide reap­pears — this time to take vis­i­tors “down to the Dun­geon.” “Before we go,” says Cay,

I want to tell you a few facts about our Dun­geon. This is a recre­ation, not the orig­i­nal Dun­geon. The orig­i­nal stood about 500 yards from here on Fed­er­al Street. The tele­phone com­pa­ny stands there today. About fifty years ago, they were dig­ging a new foun­da­tion for a new phone com­pa­ny and they came across the remains of the orig­i­nal dun­geon. They did save a few arti­facts from it. Most of them are at the Peabody Essex Muse­um, and we have one beam down­stairs from the orig­i­nal that I’ll point out when we go down.

The 1957 unearthing of the orig­i­nal dun­geon by the New Eng­land Tele­phone Com­pa­ny yield­ed most­ly wood­en beams, and those donat­ed to the Peabody Essex are, as one might sus­pect, not on dis­play at the muse­um. But the Witch Dun­geon makes the most of its minor acqui­si­tion. Just before the con­clu­sion of the tour, in a kind of piece-de-resis­tance maneu­ver, the tour­guide reveals the orig­i­nal beam, bolt­ed about five feet off the ground, and con­spic­u­ous­ly not serv­ing to hold up the walls or roof of the Dun­geon. “You’re wel­come to touch the beam from the orig­i­nal dun­geon if you like,” Cay tells us, “But if you turn into a frog, I’m not respon­si­ble.” Vis­i­tors line up behind me and we rub the beam just before we leave the site. The Dun­geon, despite its sta­tus as a total repro­duc­tion, focus­es most of its empha­sis on this “real” beam. But the beam, de-con­tex­tu­al­ized and impo­tent as it is, seems to be more a sym­bol of the Dungeon’s own uno­rig­i­nal­i­ty than it is a direct con­nec­tion to the past. By sit­u­at­ing it into a spooky con­text (it hangs alone in a dark room, and its only com­pa­ny is a sub­tle sound­track of ghost­ly, howl­ing wind nois­es) and by warn­ing vis­i­tors to beware curs­es as they touch it, the Dun­geon takes even its most “orig­i­nal” object and places it secure­ly into the land­scape of its own performance.

Anoth­er exam­ple of the Dungeon’s dis­so­ci­at­ing split between the “orig­i­nal” and its “con­text” has to do with the build­ing itself. The Dun­geon cer­tain­ly does not try to dis­guise the fact that it is not the actu­al 1692 dun­geon, but the way in which it reveals its own (lack of) con­nec­tion to the orig­i­nal site is both con­fus­ing and fas­ci­nat­ing. On the out­side of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry Witch Dun­geon build­ing, there is a large plaque that reads: “Here stood the Salem Gaol Built in 1684, used until 1813, razed in 1957. Dur­ing the witch­craft per­se­cu­tion of 1692, many of the accused were impris­oned here. One of them, the Aged Giles Corey (b. 1611) was pressed to death on these grounds.” Beside this met­al plaque is a small­er, plas­tic sign that reads: “This plaque was orig­i­nal­ly locat­ed on Fed­er­al Street, The Old Jail Site, Two Blocks North.” At 4 Fed­er­al Street, the actu­al site of the jail, there is no mark­er at all. Here, the “orig­i­nal­i­ty” of the Salem jail site is con­tained not in the beams or the ground of that old prison, but in the con­tem­po­rary plaque that marks the spot where it stood. The mark­er func­tions per­fect­ly effec­tive­ly even with­out the pres­ence of the orig­i­nal thing it marks. The Witch Dun­geon high­lights how orig­i­nal­i­ty gets per­formed at Salem attrac­tions. Despite the gen­er­al lack of arti­facts, despite its removal from the “real” 1692 jail­house, despite its use of dra­ma, the Dun­geon gen­er­al­ly con­sid­ers itself to be both edu­ca­tion­al and authentic.

You are there,” reads the Witch Dun­geon Muse­um brochure, “In Salem Vil­lage 1692, and you are guar­an­teed a unique edu­ca­tion­al expe­ri­ence with a chill or two.” The “you are there” tagline is espe­cial­ly iron­ic, for of course the fact of the mat­ter is that you are not there (you might be close to there, but the phone com­pa­ny is actu­al­ly there). And the mix of edu­ca­tion and chills again empha­sizes the museum’s use of both a dic­tion of authen­tic­i­ty and a per­for­ma­tive method­ol­o­gy. The “Dun­geon” itself con­tains cell after cell of impris­oned man­nequins, and, it is reit­er­at­ed, these are the “actu­al size of the cells.” As opposed to being the actu­al cells, these repro­duced cells can only claim authen­tic­i­ty by way of copy­ing or com­par­ing; they gain their authen­tic­i­ty pre­cise­ly because they are like the orig­i­nals but not the orig­i­nals. Even Cather­ine “Cay” Tre­fry, a guide who has worked at the Dun­geon for six­teen years, adver­tis­es her­self as “orig­i­nal” by way of being a copy or deriva­tion: she her­self is “a descen­dent of Giles Corey, eight gen­er­a­tions down.” Though Cay has an ances­tral con­nec­tion back to an “orig­i­nal” tri­al par­tic­i­pant, she also has some more direct expe­ri­ence with Salem’s 1692 inhab­i­tants: she has heard them haunt­ing the Dun­geon after hours. In a pri­vate inter­view, Cay revealed the following:

In Sep­tem­ber of last year, I had the odd­est expe­ri­ence. I was up here [on the land­ing by the museum’s exit] and I heard hum­ming com­ing from down there. It was a woman’s voice. I said, “Who’s down there?” There wasn’t any­one down there. And after­wards it occurred to me that it was the anniver­sary of the hang­ing of Brid­get Bish­op, and I said, “Alright, this is going a lit­tle too far.” It’s strange because every so often I’ll see some­one go by out of the cor­ner of my eye, and I say, “If you’re not gonna both­er me, I’m not gonna both­er you.”

The ques­tion that aris­es from Cay’s spooky sto­ry is why would the ghosts of 1692, in par­tic­u­lar the jailed and exe­cut­ed accused witch­es, choose to haunt the Salem Witch Dun­geon Muse­um? Wouldn’t it be more like­ly that they would haunt the phone com­pa­ny? Cay’s sto­ry reveals how the repro­duc­tion site, by way of its use of hor­ror sto­ries, at last ends up sup­plant­i­ng the “orig­i­nal” site of the “dun­geon.” The haunt­ings, the ances­tral tour­guide, the plaque, the impo­tent and threat­en­ing beam, all pro­duce a new kind of “orig­i­nal­i­ty” that co-opts and ulti­mate­ly replaces the actu­al, orig­i­nal Salem jail and the pris­on­ers it held.



Salem’s most pop­u­lar muse­um, the Salem Witch Muse­um, has no arti­facts from the past on dis­play. Unlike the Witch Dun­geon, which works by a process of reit­er­a­tion to link itself back to the “orig­i­nal” dun­geon that it final­ly replaces, the Witch Muse­um func­tions by per­for­mance alone, choos­ing to use as its “orig­i­nal” not an object from the past or a 1692 site, but a “true sto­ry” of what tran­spired dur­ing the witch hys­te­ria. The Witch Muse­um is the most notice­able build­ing in Salem: “Locat­ed in a mem­o­rable goth­ic revival build­ing on Route 1A at Salem Com­mon,” the brochure reads, “we are eas­i­ly acces­si­ble from all major routes.” The building’s archi­tec­ture is sym­bol­ic of the museum’s approach to his­to­ry. As a “revival,” the style alludes to the past but includes its own dis­tance from that past. And when is the past to which it alludes? Puri­tan archi­tec­tur­al style is some­times referred to as “First Peri­od” or “Post-Medieval,” but though this style shares some sim­i­lar­i­ties to the Witch Muse­um build­ing (such as the bat­ten doors or mul­ti­ple gables), the enor­mous scale, fortress-like columns, and detailed orna­men­ta­tion of the Witch Muse­um build­ing do more to rec­ol­lect Dracula’s dra­mat­ic cas­tle in a myth­ic Tran­syl­va­nia than they do to invoke images of sim­ple Puri­tan dwellings. Thus, the goth­ic “revival” revives Salem’s myth­ic past — caught up as it is with tales of witch­es, vam­pires, and hor­ror — and not its his­tor­i­cal past. Even more inter­est­ing is the fact that the build­ing was not erect­ed to house a witch muse­um, so the way in which it exudes an authen­tic, innate “witch-ness” is more irony than inten­tion. Accord­ing to a staff mem­ber at the muse­um, it began life as a church, before being turned into a car muse­um, and ulti­mate­ly, after being ren­o­vat­ed in the wake of a fire, being turned into the Salem Witch Muse­um. The museum’s phys­i­cal pres­ence is a tan­gle of “revivals” that are mar­ket­ed to sym­bol­ize Salem’s past, but which actu­al­ly estab­lish­es the museum’s own reifi­ca­tion of “the orig­i­nal” as a com­plete­ly mythol­o­giz­ing process.

You are there,” begins the brochure to the Witch Muse­um, rec­ol­lect­ing the Witch Dun­geon lit­er­a­ture, which con­tains the same phrase. The brochure con­tin­ues, “Wit­ness the tes­ti­mo­ny of the hys­ter­i­cal girls, the suf­fer­ing of the blame­less vic­tims, and the deci­sions of the fanat­i­cal judges who sent inno­cent peo­ple to their deaths.” The brochure begins by claim­ing to trans­port vis­i­tors back to 1692. It explains, “This pre­sen­ta­tion is based on actu­al tri­al doc­u­ments.” It seems as if, as with the Dun­geon, “orig­i­nal­i­ty” will be of pri­ma­ry impor­tance. But the brochure con­tin­ues, “With 13 stage sets, you’ll enter the web of lies and intrigue of the Salem Witch Hunt, one of the most endur­ing true sto­ries in Amer­i­can History.”

This ten­sion between the stage sets and the truth, a famil­iar ten­sion to us at this point, sends a mixed mes­sage to read­ers, who might be ask­ing as they read, “Will what we see at this muse­um be real?” The truth is offered up, but it will be dra­mat­i­cal­ly per­formed. And the truth has more to do with endur­ing sto­ries of Salem — i.e. Salem’s apoc­ryphal past — than with orig­i­nal tran­scripts; the pre­sen­ta­tion, by way of exam­ple, spends sig­nif­i­cant time on both Tituba’s voodoo and Giles Corey’s dying words, “More weight,” both of which are “facts” pro­duced by Salem’s his­to­ries of itself, not by any pri­ma­ry source mate­ri­als. A band of large let­ters at the top of the brochure reads, “Was the Dev­il at work?” The writ­ten response: “19 inno­cent peo­ple were hanged in Salem in 1692.” This response is notably ambigu­ous; does it mean yes or no to the ques­tion about the dev­il? This ambi­gu­i­ty char­ac­ter­izes the museum’s approach to his­to­ry. It wants to vin­di­cate the inno­cent vic­tims by declar­ing that the dev­il had not pos­sessed them, but it also wants to deploy the attrac­tion that the dev­il wields over tourists. Though it claims to tell the truth (and it cer­tain­ly does, in many ways), the muse­um invests the sto­ry of the tri­als with such abun­dant spook­i­ness and dra­ma that it points to how the “true” sto­ry of Salem has become not just about tran­scripts, but about mythol­o­gy as well.

As the lights go down in the large, bare room that is the museum’s the­ater, a red cir­cle, embla­zoned with the names of the hanged, glows on the floor at the cen­ter of the crowd of vis­i­tors. A sound­track of howl­ing wind accom­pa­nies the voice of the nar­ra­tor, who sounds like a cross between Vin­cent Price and Lawrence Olivi­er. He moans out that he is going to tell the “true sto­ry” of a time when the “Prince of Darkness…frightened us all with eter­nal damnation.”

Do you believe in witch­es?” he asks, and as he nar­rates, a ser­pen­tine drag­on lights up near the ceil­ing of the room, and its eyes glow red. Though the pre­sen­ta­tion pur­ports to demon­strate just how con­crete and cor­po­re­al the dev­il was to Puri­tans, it is clear by the num­ber of cry­ing chil­dren who get escort­ed from the the­ater at this point, that the pre­sen­ta­tion is also quite scary. Through­out the show, life-sized man­nequins are lit by stage lights, as dio­ra­ma scenes appear one by one around the upper perime­ter of the room. Tiny frag­ments of dia­logue from The Cru­cible are inter­spersed with pas­sages from the tran­scripts and accounts that clear­ly recall Calef and Upham. The entire event is a head-spin­ning mélange of fact, his­to­ry, myth, and the­ater. When it is over, vis­i­tors are asked to “exit through the gift shop.”

The Salem Witch Muse­um is Salem’s most-vis­it­ed muse­um for many rea­sons. Its build­ing embod­ies the kind of goth­ic, dra­mat­ic authen­tic­i­ty that tourists asso­ciate with the witch tri­als. Its pre­sen­ta­tion uses the­atri­cal tech­niques to tell the “true” sto­ry of Salem — a sto­ry that reads as “real” to those who are famil­iar with the most pop­u­lar his­tor­i­cal, fic­tion­al, and apoc­ryphal accounts of the tri­als. And its moral les­son appeas­es those look­ing for didac­ti­cism, while its pack­ag­ing of this les­son appeas­es those look­ing for a thrill. By way of exam­in­ing this moral les­son, con­sid­er the final moments of the pre­sen­ta­tion. The nar­ra­tor tells the audi­ence that we can rest assured that Salem’s witch hys­te­ria was nev­er as bad as Europe’s. He con­cludes, “Who is the Dev­il? On whose side was he fight­ing? On whose side does he fight even now?…We may take pride in the fact that we gave but once and briefly to our fears.” The moral les­son — that giv­ing way to intol­er­ance and fear is a sign of weak­ness and should be resist­ed — is pack­aged in a kind of per­verse homage to the Prince of Dark­ness, who at any moment, it is implied, might swoop down and afflict us all.

Look­ing around the audi­ence dur­ing my last vis­it to the muse­um in the sum­mer of 2008, I not­ed the throngs of campers and coun­selors and the large num­ber of fam­i­lies with chil­dren at the pre­sen­ta­tion. As kids shrieked with fright, it was clear that they (most­ly) enjoyed the hor­ror of the entire event. But there is a rea­son why most of the groups who vis­it the Witch Muse­um do not vis­it The Night­mare Fac­to­ry or Ter­ror on the Wharf; the muse­um man­ages to wrap its thrills in a cocoon of moral­i­ty and his­toric­i­ty that makes its height­ened dra­ma into a method­ol­o­gy for edu­ca­tion in the eyes of its visitors.

An accom­pa­ny­ing exhib­it called “Witch­es: Evolv­ing Per­cep­tions” is housed in the Witch Muse­um, and vis­i­tors are encour­aged to walk through it before or after the main pre­sen­ta­tion (and once again, one must pass through the gift shop to reach the exhib­it hall). This exhib­it is anoth­er exam­ple of how the Witch Muse­um uses the thrilling moral les­son to please its guests. “Are you sure you know what the word ‘witch’ means?” asks the infor­ma­tion sheet that accom­pa­nies the exhib­it. “This exhib­it will show you how the mean­ing of the word has changed over time.”

The exhib­it focus­es main­ly on “mis­con­cep­tions.” Accord­ing to the info sheet, the “stereo­typ­i­cal witch” is a “neg­a­tive stereo­type” cre­at­ed by “pol­i­tics, reli­gion, and super­sti­tion.” And, we might add, by the Salem Witch Muse­um, which uses as its logo an image of a witch in a pointy hat hold­ing a broom and stand­ing beside a black cat; this image is on their sign in front of their build­ing and on all of their brochures. It is uncan­ny for the way that it par­al­lels the mod­el of the “neg­a­tive stereo­type” pre­sent­ed in “Evolv­ing Per­cep­tions.” This para­dox is at the heart of what makes the muse­um so mar­ketable: it per­pet­u­ates myths in order to cor­rect them, and both the per­pet­u­a­tion and the cor­rec­tion are enjoy­able to the museum’s vis­i­tors. The exhib­it ends with a large wall chart:




God/DevilDr. Grig­gs150 Towns­peo­ple
JapanPearl Har­borJapan­ese-Amer­i­cans
Com­mu­nistsHUACBlack List
Infec­tionAIDSGay Peo­ple

The chart shows the ulti­mate moral les­son of the muse­um: to con­tex­tu­al­ize the witch hunt into a his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tive that illus­trates how fear and intol­er­ance func­tion to oppress. By using the witch hunt as a les­son on prop­er eth­i­cal behav­ior, the muse­um removes the 1692 events from the past and makes them part of a con­tem­po­rary moral code. Though it is a com­mon say­ing to “learn from the past,” this phe­nom­e­non real­ly works to elide the past, absorb­ing it into a cyclic sto­ry that has less to do with time gone by than it does with the cur­rent moment. Thus, the Salem Witch Museum’s the­atri­cal­iz­ing — script­ed and stilt­ed as it is — actu­al­ly engages vis­i­tors by locat­ing the witch tri­als into the land­scape of the vis­i­tors’ own his­tor­i­cal peri­od. This effec­tive­ly estab­lish­es a kind of dou­bled mode of operation:




Despite the focus by the muse­um on his­to­ry, truth, teach­ing, and ethics, the way the muse­um actu­al­ly func­tions is by uti­liz­ing the­atri­cal tech­niques and enter­tain­ing tricks. Salem’s “real” past does not get warped or ignored as much as it gets made into a cov­er for the actu­al busi­ness of the muse­um: to do busi­ness. The grand suc­cess of the Witch Muse­um depends upon both the edu­ca­tion­al pack­ag­ing and the deliv­ery of the thrilling goods.



Anoth­er muse­um that fus­es an edu­ca­tion­al pack­age with a thrill-relat­ed attrac­tion is the Salem Witch Vil­lage. Dis­tin­guished from its sis­ter attrac­tion, The Salem Wax Muse­um of Witch­es and Sea­far­ers, and oth­er Salem sites by its affil­i­a­tion with the Wic­can com­mu­ni­ty, the Witch Vil­lage is com­prised of a tour through the his­to­ry of witch­craft — includ­ing 1692 Salem; the 2002 Offi­cial Guide­book notes that muse­um also hosts relat­ed events such as “pagan class­es, work­shops, open cir­cles, read­ings and lec­tures by prac­tic­ing witch­es.” The entire attrac­tion, includ­ing the gift shop, is man­aged and staffed by prac­tic­ing witch­es. The kind of “edu­ca­tion” offered by the Witch Vil­lage is slight­ly dif­fer­ent from that offered by the Peabody Essex or the Witch Muse­um. At the Vil­lage, real witch­es work to sal­vage the rep­u­ta­tion of the “witch,” and to rede­fine witch­craft in the eyes of pop­u­lar Amer­i­ca. “Learn the truth behind the leg­ends and tra­di­tion,” the ad lit­er­a­ture invites, “And then decide for your­self what being a ‘witch’ real­ly means.” From ear­ly on in the tour, our guide, Don­na, makes it clear that the Vil­lage is not intend­ed to thrill or enter­tain, per se. “This vil­lage is not haunt­ed,” she tells our tour group, “Just edu­ca­tion­al. Noth­ing will jump out at you. We’ll start by meet­ing Hel­la.” Don­na points out a man­nequin of a skele­tal zom­bie in a chair. “Nor­mal­ly at Hal­loween, Hel­la would be plugged in and ready to scare you, but since this is an edu­ca­tion­al tour, today she is just a Nordic guardian here to bid you wel­come and guide us on our journey.”

Hel­la is sym­bol­ic of the fun­da­men­tal irony at the core of the Witch Vil­lage, an irony that emerges most explic­it­ly when the Village’s his­to­ry is revealed. Orig­i­nal­ly, Don­na tells me in a pri­vate inter­view, “The Vil­lage was a haunt­ed house, and it had kind of a neg­a­tive rep­u­ta­tion with us witch­es. So the high priest and priest­ess from PRANCE [a Pagan resource group] cre­at­ed this tour. In Octo­ber, it’s still a haunt­ed house since that’s what everyone’s look­ing for then. But hope­ful­ly, the rest of the year we cor­rect some of the mis­con­cep­tions from the oth­er attrac­tions.” In oth­er words, Hel­la and her friends in the Vil­lage were designed to thrill and scare tourists; one month a year, that’s just what they do. But the rest of the year, with very lit­tle alter­ation to the site, the Vil­lage claims to be an edu­ca­tion­al expe­ri­ence. The result is a col­lec­tion of witch­es, zom­bies, drag­ons, and tor­ture devices pre­sent­ed in a dark maze that winds across “Hal­loween swamp”; the col­lec­tion, which con­tains just about every­thing you’d expect to see in a haunt­ed house, is nar­rat­ed in such as way as to explain how the myths and tra­di­tions of each object or iden­ti­ty came into being. For exam­ple, a tor­ture rack that shows a man­nequin being grotesque­ly stretched apart becomes not a scare tac­tic, but an oppor­tu­ni­ty for Don­na to dis­cuss the his­to­ry of tor­ture in medieval Europe.

The Witch Vil­lage is per­haps the most obvi­ous exam­ple in Salem of the bat­tle — and part­ner­ship — between edu­ca­tion and enter­tain­ment. The attrac­tion demon­strates how a sin­gle site can con­tain two deeply divid­ed pur­pos­es despite the fact that both pur­pos­es are enact­ed in the same way. What the Vil­lage high­lights is how mar­ket­ing and pack­ag­ing — from brochures to the nar­rat­ed tour — can alter a site’s place­ment on the con­tin­u­um between “classy” (or edu­ca­tion­al) and “trashy” (or enter­tain­ing). Though in Salem, the Witch Vil­lage, espe­cial­ly because it is owned and oper­at­ed in con­junc­tion with the noto­ri­ous­ly tacky Wax Muse­um, is con­sid­ered to be far less edu­ca­tion­al than the Peabody Essex, most locals in Salem — includ­ing the Wic­can com­mu­ni­ty — feel that the site is pri­mar­i­ly an edu­ca­tion­al attrac­tion. In effect, the Vil­lage over­writes its edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion onto a pre­vi­ous­ly-estab­lished core of com­mer­cial­ist enter­tain­ment. The edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion then gets aligned with the super­fi­cial, sur­face lev­el of the site, while the under­neath, the ori­gin, and the foun­da­tion of the Vil­lage remains pure­ly enter­tain­ing. This revers­es the stan­dard con­cep­tion of how edu­ca­tion and enter­tain­ment are thought to func­tion; gen­er­al­ly, muse­ums work to make learn­ing fun, to incor­po­rate or add enter­tain­ment to their pri­mar­i­ly edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion. A brochure pub­lished by the Peabody Essex claims that “this guide will help you find and enjoy” the off-site prop­er­ties owned by the muse­um. It sug­gests that the arti­facts, hous­es, and gar­dens them­selves are not enjoy­able, but that enjoy­ment is a lay­er to the attrac­tions that is fur­nished by the func­tion of the museum.

The Witch Vil­lage, in con­trast, sug­gests that the duty of a muse­um is not to pro­vide the enter­tain­ing lay­er, but to man­u­fac­ture edu­ca­tion to accom­pa­ny an already-enter­tain­ing col­lec­tion of objects. Thus, though its struc­ture revers­es the struc­ture of muse­ums such as the Peabody Essex, the Witch Vil­lage engages in a sim­i­lar process of lay­er­ing to attract and teach vis­i­tors. This lay­er­ing effect is com­mon to most of Salem’s witch his­to­ry sites, whether their pri­ma­ry goal is edu­ca­tion or enter­tain­ment. By peel­ing away the enter­tain­ing lay­ers around its witch­craft arti­facts and doc­u­ments, the Phillips Library effec­tive­ly eras­es itself as a Salem attraction.

To flour­ish in Salem as a tourist des­ti­na­tion and prof­it cen­ter, sites must encour­age these lev­els and lay­ers of mean­ing to work togeth­er to attract the pub­lic. Inter­est­ing­ly, anoth­er Salem site work­ing in this way is the new Lizzie Bor­den muse­um. Though the Bor­den mur­ders of 1892 hap­pened two-hun­dred years after the witch tri­als in Fall Riv­er, Mass­a­chu­setts, sev­en­ty miles from Salem, the muse­um came to Salem pre­sum­ably to cap­i­tal­ize on Salem’s rep­u­ta­tion as a tourist epi­cen­ter for all things macabre. But despite it’s clear­ly com­mer­cial rela­tion­ship to Salem and despite its gift shop — filled as it is with plas­tic bloody axes and post­cards of the dead Bor­den fam­i­ly — the adver­tis­ing for the site promis­es an authen­tic and edu­ca­tion­al look back in his­to­ry. One side of a recent Bor­den Muse­um brochure promis­es “the true sto­ry of Lizzie Bor­den,” and notes that vis­i­tors will “study the evi­dence, inves­ti­gate the clues, and sep­a­rate fact from fic­tion.” Of course, the flip side of the brochure has this grotesque state slo­gan splashed across it: “Mass. Mur­der.” Both Witch Vil­lage and the Bor­den Muse­um are caught between the two poles of edu­ca­tion and enter­tain­ment, and it is this ten­sion that defines and enlivens them.



If the Phillips Library, unlike the Witch Vil­lage and Witch Muse­um, attempts to strip away any lay­ers of enter­tain­ment sur­round­ing Salem’s witch­craft past, there are also sites in Salem that strip away all edu­ca­tion­al impuls­es. Like the Phillips Library, nei­ther the recent­ly closed Boris Karloff’s Witch Man­sion nor Salem’s Muse­um of Myths and Mon­sters: Ter­ror on the Wharf are as fre­quent­ly vis­it­ed as the Witch Muse­um, Dun­geon, or Vil­lage. But nonethe­less, many sites like these sur­vive, and togeth­er they define Salem’s com­mer­cial­ized, spooky side. By pur­chas­ing a Fright Pass, vis­i­tors in the ear­ly part of this decade could access both the Karloff and the Wharf haunt­ed house attrac­tions, which were oper­at­ed by the same com­pa­ny. The ads for the sites read, “Vam­pires, Ghosts, Were­wolves: Do they real­ly exist? Take our ani­mat­ed jour­ney into fear and beyond. We’ll delight in your fright! Salem’s Only Tick­et to Ter­ror!” Salem’s haunt­ed hous­es pro­vide the need­ed fod­der for the cor­rec­tive mea­sures espoused by sites such as the Witch Muse­um — and even the Peabody Essex. Sure­ly the haunt­ed hous­es take gross advan­tage of Salem’s his­to­ry, cap­i­tal­iz­ing on the deaths of the accused and iron­i­cal­ly rein­scrib­ing dev­il­ish afflic­tion back onto the his­to­ry of Salem, a his­to­ry that had been wiped clean of actu­al witch­craft by the cen­turies of cura­tive accounts of the type first launched by Robert Calef. But in some ways, the haunt­ed hous­es sim­ply make explic­it many of the tech­niques used by more “edu­ca­tion­al” sites to attract tourists and cap­i­tal­ize on Salem’s past.

In the sum­mer of 2002, I vis­it­ed Boris Karloff’s Witch Man­sion. After walk­ing through the haunt­ed house as a tourist, I asked to walk through again, this time with the lights on and with a run­ning behind-the-scenes com­men­tary from the tour­guide. In the Man­sion lob­by, cas­es hang on each of the walls dis­play­ing masks and props from movies such as Night­mare on Elm Street and Drac­u­la. From the out­set, the Man­sion reveals its reliance on the the­atri­cal, its immer­sion in the per­formed. And as one enters the Man­sion, it is clear that no dra­mat­ic flour­ish will be spared. Bob, my tour­guide, is the only live per­son in the Man­sion as the tours pro­ceed. He flits with agili­ty from spot to spot through­out the Man­sion, duck­ing through secret pas­sages to remain ahead of the tour. In the first room, Karloff’s “liv­ing room,” he push­es a but­ton and a record­ed voice moans that this is the Karloff Man­sion, a “psy­chic mag­net” that had “stood emp­ty” for years until an “eccen­tric col­lec­tor of the strange and macabre here in Salem bought the emp­ty house and moved it to this very spot.”

The Man­sion estab­lish­es a com­pli­cat­ed rela­tion­ship to its own “ori­gins.” First of all, the idea that the Man­sion is an emp­ty psy­chic mag­net is com­pelling; despite its abil­i­ty to attract a seem­ing­ly infi­nite amount of para­nor­mal ener­gy, it para­dox­i­cal­ly remained emp­ty. This idea of the mag­net­ic, emp­ty site is an apt metaphor for Salem’s haunt­ed hous­es, which draw vol­umes of vis­i­tors but which remain adamant in their fun­da­men­tal “mean­ing­less­ness,” their over­all refusal to deliv­er “true con­tent” such as his­to­ry or edu­ca­tion. Instead, the sites rev­el in their sur­face play, in the campy friv­o­li­ty and momen­tary frights they sup­ply. The idea that the Man­sion is even a “man­sion” at all, that it was moved from its orig­i­nal site to Pick­er­ing Wharf where it now stands, is also a befud­dling claim. After all, any­one stand­ing on the street can see that the build­ing is a long, low, con­tem­po­rary strip-mall type build­ing that hous­es shops and bou­tiques in addi­tion to the Karloff attrac­tion. Why does the voice both­er to sug­gest that the house is “real,” that it was “moved?” The sus­pen­sion of dis­be­lief required by vis­i­tors is so enor­mous as to be impos­si­ble for all but the youngest of tourists. But the museum’s suc­cess relies upon its deploy­ing of pre­cise­ly these over-the-top, fraud­u­lent claims; it is this high dra­ma — which makes no bones about its inau­then­tic­i­ty — that makes the site so appeal­ing. By refer­ring to the Salem col­lec­tor who “import­ed” the Man­sion, the muse­um seems to poke fun of its own com­mer­cial desires. At the Karloff Man­sion, the­atrics, camp, and prof­it are front and cen­ter, and vis­i­tors are required to cel­e­brate them all.

When I ask my tour­guide if it’s true that the Man­sion was moved to this spot, Bob, who is a young man dressed a long, black robe hold­ing a black hood that he has removed to speak to me, answers, “Nah, it’s not true. The real Karloffs do have a part in this, but oth­er than that, it’s all made up.” He looks dis­ap­point­ed for a minute before he adds, “’Course if it was real, it’d be cool.” In gen­er­al, Bob has a sur­pris­ing atti­tude about his work at the Man­sion. He occa­sion­al­ly express­es this kind of wist­ful­ness about the Mansion’s fail­ure to actu­al­ly pro­vide its vis­i­tors with real ghosts and demons. This man­i­fests itself not only as a desire for his attrac­tion to be “real,” but also a frus­tra­tion with the faulty mechan­ics of the exhibits. “That guy over there,” he tells me, point­ing to a ridicu­lous­ly grotesque man­nequin in a rock­ing chair, “That’s Boris’ ghost, and he used to rock back and forth, but the chair kept mov­ing and bang­ing against the wall, so we just said ‘the hell with him’.” Despite the aloof­ness (and irony) of the curse, Bob seems to resent the fact that the haunt­ed house needs to be plugged in, needs trou­ble-shoot­ing, to con­tin­ue to haunt its audi­ence. Lat­er on in the tour, we enter a room filled with glass jars that con­tain the dis­mem­bered body parts of Boris’ vic­tims (which hap­pen to glow pur­ple in the black light). In this same room is a tele­vi­sion screen, and on the screen, a twen­ty-some­thing guy in a t‑shirt and soc­cer shorts shad­ow box­es and chats idly. There is absolute­ly noth­ing hor­ri­fy­ing about the video, but it does seem wild­ly out of con­text. Bob com­ments: “I usu­al­ly say to peo­ple that this guy has been trapped in there for 300 years because he called Boris a sis­sy or some­thing. The record­ing says he’s been there for 300 years. But I tell the peo­ple, ‘It doesn’t look like that, does it?’, and they’re like ‘Noooo.’ It’s sup­posed to be jar or a test tube but it just looks like a TV, which it is.” What is Bob to do, faced with the dilem­ma of explain­ing to tourists all of the places where the muse­um fails to be real­is­tic? What he does is adopt an hys­ter­i­cal­ly bipo­lar approach; at one moment he is shout­ing in a man­gled voice, “You’ve been cursed! Now come this way to the lab-OR-a-tory!”, and at the next moment he is speak­ing in his nor­mal voice, despon­dent­ly telling vis­i­tors that a par­tic­u­lar exhib­it is sil­ly. Although I don’t think Bob par­tic­u­lar­ly stud­ies the com­plex­i­ties of his own posi­tion, his bipo­lar approach is in per­fect keep­ing with the Mansion’s whole atmos­phere. At once ful­ly com­mit­ted to fol­low­ing through even its most out­ra­geous­ly ridicu­lous claim and simul­ta­ne­ous­ly reliant on high­light­ing its own par­o­d­ic inau­then­tic­i­ty, the Man­sion ends up deliv­er­ing just what it promis­es: an emp­ty site that thrills, chills, and entertains.

As I enter the final hall­way of the Man­sion, Bob tells me to put on my 3‑D glass­es. “I can’t see 3‑D per­son­al­ly because my eyes are deformed,” he moans. “I have cat’s eyes. But the 3‑D is the best part, so put them on if you dare.” As I put them on, black light­ed skulls and bones rise out of the walls by an inch or two. I ask Bob if his eyes were cursed by Karloff, and he responds, “No, this isn’t part of the haunt­ed house. My eyes real­ly are deformed, see?” He walks up to me, stands nose to nose, and stares into my eyes, and I can see that his pupils are long and nar­row instead of round. Bob’s deliv­ery of his giv­en script, despite his reg­u­lar laps­es into blood-cur­dling screams and ago­niz­ing groans, is so sim­i­lar to his own “real” con­ver­sa­tion, it is often hard to tell where one ends and the oth­er begins. The per­son­al, light­ed tour that I took with Bob was most inter­est­ing for the sim­i­lar­i­ty it held to the real tour with a group of tourists. In both cas­es, Bob saw no con­flict between scar­ing the hell out of us at one minute and crit­i­ciz­ing the inau­then­tic­i­ty of the attrac­tion at the next. Again, this bipo­lar­i­ty func­tions to expand the scope of Bob’s own authen­tic voice, as both his moans and his cri­tiques are expres­sive of his true feel­ings about the haunt­ed house. His “deformed,” cat-like eyes seem to sym­bol­ize the way he views the Man­sion as a whole: through the eyes of some­one who sees in only two dimen­sions. For Bob, his utter respect and love for his Man­sion is not com­pro­mised by but enhanced by his desire to point out its flaws. The fact that he lacks any kind of sense of par­o­dy about the attrac­tion works beau­ti­ful­ly to help those of us who vis­it the Man­sion to see it that much more clear­ly. And since the Man­sion can­not actu­al­ly deliv­er the real ghosts, it works by enabling our per­cep­tion of the site as fraud­u­lent and par­o­d­ic, and there­fore high­ly entertaining.



Today’s Salem is a series of per­for­mances that func­tion both to dis­place and to repro­duce the “orig­i­nal” events of 1692. And though Salem tourism is thriv­ing, and the most inau­then­tic attrac­tions and hap­pen­ings are wild­ly pop­u­lar, vis­i­tors who come to Salem to view arti­facts or sites relat­ed to the actu­al witch hunt are some­times puz­zled by the utter lack of objects and build­ings that direct­ly con­nect with the past. But they keep com­ing back, pleased by the exten­sive ser­vices offered to the Salem tourist, from well-man­aged muse­ums and haunt­ed hous­es to fine din­ing to good hotels to the easy-to-nav­i­gate Salem trol­ley. Tourists in Salem don’t just enjoy the his­tor­i­cal- and enter­tain­ment-ori­ent­ed sites, but the total web of vis­i­tor ser­vices that com­bine to ensure the com­fort and sat­is­fac­tion of those who have trav­eled to Salem. This web of ser­vices func­tions to attract vis­i­tors to Salem despite the near­ly total lack of the (seem­ing­ly) most impor­tant thing of all: a true his­tor­i­cal link to the witch­craft events. A short car ride to the town next door to Salem illus­trates just how impor­tant this web is.

In 1692, Dan­vers, Mass­a­chu­setts was called “Salem Vil­lage,” while today’s Salem was called “Salem Town.” It wasn’t until 1752, long after the witch tri­als, that Dan­vers and Salem became two total­ly inde­pen­dent towns. Today, there are over a dozen orig­i­nal sev­en­teenth-cen­tu­ry hous­es still stand­ing in Dan­vers; many of them are open to the pub­lic, and many of them have direct links to the witch tri­als. For exam­ple, in Dan­vers, one can vis­it the Nurse Home­stead, actu­al home of Rebec­ca Nurse and prob­a­ble site of her bur­ial. One can vis­it the Put­nam House, where Joseph Put­nam, uncle of Ann and pub­lic crit­ic of the tri­als, lived in fear of being accused. In Dan­vers, one can stop by the site of the Salem Vil­lage Par­son­age, focal point of the witch­craft events, where Par­ris lived with his wife, his daugh­ter, his niece, and his slaves. The site was exca­vat­ed in 1970, and the orig­i­nal foun­da­tion still exists and is now accom­pa­nied by inter­pre­tive signs. The Samuel Holten House was the home of Sarah Holten, who tes­ti­fied against Rebec­ca Nurse. The Put­nam Bur­ial Ground con­tains the unmarked graves of afflict­ed girl Ann Put­nam and her famous par­ents. Ingersoll’s Ordi­nary, which was one of the ear­li­est spots where accused witch­es were exam­ined, still stands. Watch House Hill, which served as a look­out for Indi­an attacks, was also where a church was erect­ed in 1700, a church that became the site for Ann Putnam’s infa­mous con­fes­sion. The Osburn House was the home of Sarah Osburn (sic), one of the first three accused. The Wadsworth Bur­ial Ground has the head­stone — and assumed­ly the body — of Eliz­a­beth Par­ris (com­plete with epi­taph writ­ten by Samuel Par­ris). This is just an abbre­vi­at­ed list of orig­i­nal sites in Dan­vers, all of which are with­in easy dri­ving dis­tance (and some­times even walk­ing or bik­ing dis­tance) of Salem. But no tourists I have spo­ken to over the years in Salem were plan­ning a trip to Dan­vers; in fact, most had nev­er heard of Dan­vers, and none knew of its con­nec­tion to the Salem witch­craft events. And even though the Dan­vers Archival Cen­ter hous­es the Bre­haut Witch­craft Col­lec­tion, which is pro­claimed to be “largest col­lec­tion of imprints relat­ing to the 1692 Salem Vil­lage Witch­craft,” the Cen­ter reg­u­lar­ly hosts far few­er researchers and browsers than the Phillips Library in Salem.

What is so com­pelling about Dan­vers is the way that it high­lights what it is about Salem that is so appeal­ing to tourists. Though most tourists would get a thrill from stand­ing in the exact place that Sarah Osborne once lived, the promise of this thrill is not strong enough to over­come the promis­es that Salem can make. By script­ing and then stag­ing his­to­ry, Salem can pro­duce an authen­tic­i­ty that Dan­vers fails to pro­vide. Authen­tic­i­ty demands not an “orig­i­nal” site, but a per­for­mance of orig­i­nal­i­ty, just the kind of per­for­mance at which Salem excels. While Salem does have some “orig­i­nal” arti­facts (the sun­di­al, the beam, the doc­u­ments), they are either inten­tion­al­ly eclipsed by more “authen­tic” per­for­mances (the sun­di­al can’t begin to com­pete with man­nequins who quake and moan), or re-con­tex­tu­al­ized to sup­port the per­for­mance at hand (the orig­i­nal beam only enhances the spook­i­ness of the total­ly un-orig­i­nal Dun­geon). Though Dan­vers has its sup­port­ers, par­tic­u­lar­ly amongst researchers and schol­ars, Salem con­tin­ues to be the cen­ter of his­tor­i­cal tourism relat­ed to 1692. As it pro­duces orig­i­nal­i­ty and per­forms the past, Salem attracts even those vis­i­tors who seek an authen­tic his­tor­i­cal expe­ri­ence. In many ways, today’s Salem is like the phan­tom bod­ies that its sites pro­duce: the dead are raised as man­nequins, as fake gravesites, as live per­form­ers. These bod­ies, like Salem itself, are attrac­tive, enter­tain­ing, sat­is­fy­ing. Dan­vers, on the oth­er hand, is like the real dead bod­ies of the 1692 vic­tims: orig­i­nal, real, unmarked, and gen­er­al­ly invis­i­ble. Though these Dan­ver­sian bod­ies have a kind of gener­ic appeal, this appeal is usurped by the spec­tral Salem bod­ies as they imper­son­ate and ulti­mate­ly replace any rep­re­sen­ta­tions of the real dead.

Though Dan­vers does have a num­ber of mark­ers, the vast major­i­ty of its sites are free to enter, and near­ly all of them lack the kind of web of ser­vices that sur­round Salem’s attrac­tions. In oth­er words, Salem’s mark­ers are not just the pho­ny plaques and eager tour­guides, but also the very fab­ric of tourist accom­pa­ni­ments (gifts shops, visitor’s cen­ters, pub­lic restrooms, trol­ley rides) that mark Salem itself as a notable site. Dan­vers gets posi­tioned, against Salem, as the free, unmarked, real site of the trials…and this keeps the tourists away. But the oth­er remark­able thing about Salem is its own explic­it­ness about its lack of “orig­i­nal­i­ty” and the avid­ness with which many Salem tourists embrace the parts of Salem that are least “real.”

Tourists in Salem seem aware that this pro­duced authen­tic­i­ty is dif­fer­ent than the kind of authen­tic­i­ty that inheres in a pri­ma­ry source doc­u­ment from the peri­od. Clear­ly, tourists know that the Witch Dun­geon is not orig­i­nal, that the man­nequins are not alive, that the Witch Vil­lage is just a didac­t­i­fied haunt­ed house, that sev­en­teenth-cen­tu­ry Puri­tans didn’t hand out brochures. But tourists still flock to Salem instead of vis­it­ing the sites in Dan­vers. Tourists still stop into Ter­ror on the Wharf or some oth­er quick-to-open-and-close-and-reopen haunt­ed house even as they take in the Peabody Essex. Salem not only man­ages to over­come its over­whelm­ing lack of a direct con­nec­tion to the past, it also man­ages to manip­u­late this lack into pre­cise­ly the thing that keeps tourists satisfied.

This suc­cess­ful manip­u­la­tion sur­pris­es many peo­ple, who assume that Salem’s out­ra­geous tack­i­ness will turn vis­i­tors away. Salem’s witch attrac­tions are seen by his­tor­i­cal researchers and by those who work in Salem’s mar­itime tourist indus­try as copies, as frauds, and as lack­ing in orig­i­nal­i­ty. But by acknowl­edg­ing the tem­po­ral and spa­tial dis­tance between itself and the “facts” that it rep­re­sents, Salem com­ments on the past as much as it per­forms it. And this com­men­tary is gen­er­al­ly designed not to “make fun of” the past, but to revive it, to make mean­ing­ful that which has ceased to mean, and to wres­tle the long-dead past into the present day.

From the moment Cot­ton Math­er began to write about the witch tri­als, the events of 1692 were recre­at­ed by a series of rep­re­sen­ta­tion­al maneu­vers. As his­to­ries, fic­tions, films, and tourist sites all told “truths” about the events, Salem’s past became increas­ing­ly defined by its sub­se­quent rep­re­sen­ta­tions. Even the “pri­ma­ry sources” that have sur­vived from the peri­od reveal that the sto­ry of what hap­pened was fig­u­ra­tive, sym­bol­ic, script­ed, and rep­re­sent­ed right from its sup­posed “begin­ning.”

Kash­mir Shaivism, a form of Hin­du reli­gion, has a say­ing: “The expe­ri­encer him­self con­tin­ues to exist always and every­where as an object of expe­ri­ence.” In many ways, this is how Salem works. Seem­ing­ly an agent of its own his­to­ry, Salem is, in actu­al­i­ty, an object of itself, pro­duced by the very “truths” that it pur­ports to gen­er­ate and reveal. Salem past is not so much the blue­print for Salem present as it is a back­ward-look­ing reflec­tion of a con­stant­ly updat­ed present moment. And Salem con­tin­ues to flour­ish — both as a cen­ter for tourism and as an Amer­i­can sym­bol — pre­cise­ly because it so eager­ly nour­ish­es the some­times com­pet­ing mytholo­gies that cir­cu­late with­in and about it.



Bank, Rose­marie K. “Archiv­ing Cul­ture: Per­for­mance and Amer­i­can Muse­ums in the Ear­li­er Nine­teenth Cen­tu­ry.” Per­form­ing Amer­i­ca: Cul­tur­al Nation­al­ism in Amer­i­can The­ater. Eds. Jef­frey Mason and J. Ellen Gain­on. Ann Arbor: The U of Michi­gan P, 1999.

Bow­man, Michael S. “Per­form­ing South­ern His­to­ry for the Tourist Gaze: Ante­bel­lum Home Tour Guide Per­for­mances.” Excep­tion­al Spaces: Essays in Per­for­mance and His­to­ry. Ed. Del­la Pol­lack. Chapel Hill: U North Car­oli­na P, 1998.

Gen­car­el­la, Stephen Olbrys. “Tour­ing His­to­ry: Guide­books and the Com­mod­i­fi­ca­tion of the Salem Witch Tri­als.” The Jour­nal of Amer­i­can Cul­ture. 30.1 (2007): 271 – 284.

Knox, Mar­i­on. “See­ing What the Rain Means: James Cut­ler Archi­tects.” Archi­talx. Ed. Chris­tine Cor­co­ran Cantwell. Port­land, ME: Archi­talx, 1999.

Mar­shall, Brid­get M. “Salem’s Ghosts and the Cul­tur­al Capita/ol of Witch­es.” Unpub­lished Paper. Uni­ver­si­ty of Mass­a­chu­setts at Amherst, 1999.

Offi­cial Guide­book and Map. Salem, MA: Cham­ber of Com­merce, 2001.

Offi­cial Guide­book and Map. Salem, MA: Office of Tourism and Cul­tur­al Affairs, 2002.

Where Past is Present. Film. Salem, MA: Nation­al Park Ser­vice (2002).


This arti­cle is adapt­ed from The Mak­ing of Salem: The Witch Tri­als in His­to­ry, Fic­tion and Tourism © 2009 Robin DeRosa by per­mis­sion of McFar­land & Com­pa­ny, Inc., Box 611, Jef­fer­son NC 28640.

Robin DeRosa is an Asso­ciate Pro­fes­sor of Eng­lish at Ply­mouth State Uni­ver­si­ty in New Hamp­shire, where she teach­es cours­es in ear­ly Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture, crit­i­cal the­o­ry, and women’s stud­ies. She received a BA from Brown, and a PhD from Tufts. She is the author of The Mak­ing of Salem: The Witch Tri­als in His­to­ry, Fic­tion and Tourism, and most recent­ly Sim­u­la­tion in Media and Cul­ture: Believ­ing the Hype, an edit­ed col­lec­tion of essays focus­ing on hyper­re­al­i­ty in media and cul­ture, from Lex­ing­ton Books, a divi­sion of Row­man and Littlefield.