Officials seek to soften the witchery theme, even though it draws tourists.
SALEM, Mass. – There’s no escaping the witch on these cobblestone streets. There are ancient witches, modern witches, wax witches, stuffed witches. Everywhere, the classic broom-riding sorceress in the pointy hat adorns T-shirts and shot glasses and coffee cups.
The hundreds of thousands of tourists expected to descend on the town this Halloween season can visit dozens of museums and shops specializing in the occult, including the Witch Dungeon Museum and the Salem Witch Museum, where exhibits are translated into six languages. Or they can hire practicing witches for a tour of the city’s “magical spots.”
But some city officials think the time has come for the Witch City to play down the history that has linked Salem to the supernatural ever since 19 people accused of being witches were hanged on Gallows Hill in 1692. The city’s tourism group has hired a Boston firm to reinvent Salem’s image, to emphasize its art, ships, architecture, restaurants and shopping.
“The witch history has always been an important part of the city and always will be, but [Salem] has sort of gotten known very narrowly in terms of the Halloween thing,” said Mark Minelli, president of Minelli Inc., the consulting firm hired by the city. Minelli has proposed a new slogan: “Think you know Salem? Think again.”
A ‘unique’ attraction
The soul-searching over Salem’s public image has angered some residents; they say the city should not forsake the witch theme, which helps attract more than one million visitors each year. Highlighting arts and culture, they argue, will mean less tourism money.
“People come here for witch history,” said Leif Rochna, executive director of the Salem Witch Village and the Salem Wax Museum. “We have something that is so unique. It’s a huge tourism tool. For many, many, many years, we’ve been known as the Witch City.”
The witch permeates Salem’s everyday life: At high school football games, the mascot wears a pointy black hat and sits atop a broom. The same image is emblazoned on police cruisers, and the witch rides the masthead of the local newspaper.
Others say the whole witch image has descended into kitsch. They point to the posters that appeared around town last month to advertise the annual Vampires’ Masquerade Ball in October, depicting a woman wearing a black bikini, fresh blood smeared across her mouth and body. After protests that the posters were too racy, organizers took them down.
A recent phenomenon
Despite Salem’s history, witch-related tourism only recently came to the town of 42,000 northeast of Boston. When Arthur Miller came to Salem to research his 1953 play, The Crucible, based on the witch trials, he reportedly was astounded that no one in the city wanted to talk about witches, said Jim McAllister, a local historian who runs Derby Square Tours.
In 1970, the popular TV sitcom Bewitched boosted Salem’s national profile when it aired a string of episodes, filmed on site, which took place in the town. In subsequent years, two other events drew attention to the city’s history: The Salem Witch Museum opened, and Laurie Cabot, the city’s first self-proclaimed practicing witch, moved to town.
“No one in Salem had ever seen a witch before,” said Christian Day, a practicing witch. “They read about them in history books.”
By the 1980s, the city was hosting Haunted Happenings, an annual Halloween festival. In 1992, the 300th anniversary of the witch trials attracted a record number of tourists.
But Salem is changing. The city – named one of the country’s most livable communities this year by a Washington nonprofit group – has experienced a housing boom and a host of restaurant openings.
The Peabody Essex Museum reopened last year with a $125 million expansion that transformed it from a sleepy local exhibit into an acclaimed collection housed in a large complex. In the summer, a new wireless zone opened downtown.
“Salem is a widely known and perhaps even worldwide recognized city,” said Mayor Stanley J. Usovicz Jr. “But I think with that recognition, it becomes an almost pigeonholing of what Salem is like, being known as the Witch City. We’re much more than that.”