Selling the Story

From Salem Village to Witch City

I

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.

 

II

“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.

 

III

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.

 

IV

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.

 

V

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.

 

VI

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:

Fear

Trigger

Scapegoat

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:

Past

Present

OriginScript
EducationEntertainment
MoralityThrills

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.

 

VII

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.

 

VIII

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.

 

IX

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.

 

Bibliography

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.