Witch City: the Film and the Moment

It seems ridiculous, but when I moved to Salem I remember being surprised at the extent of Halloween hoopla and kitsch in the city: it seemed really tacky to me but not particularly concerning. It was the early 1990s, I was still in graduate school, and frankly more wrapped up in the literature and discussion surrounding the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s landing than the 300th anniversary of the Salem witch trials. I was also much more familiar with the European witch trials, an extended crisis by which over 100,000 people were accused of witchcraft in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, so the Salem trials seemed like a much smaller event to me: in terms of size, extent, impact. I had visited Trier and Bamberg at the center of the witch-trial-storm in Germany, where hundreds had been executed for the “exceptional crime” in the 1580s and the 1620s: neither had transformed themselves in Witch Cities; I had spent considerable time in Essex, the county which was the most impacted by the less-intense English witch trials: no Witch Cities to be found there either. So I was surprised by Salem, even though I grew up only an hour away and had visited the Salem Witch “Museum” on a school trip (when I swear I saw the same “performance” that is playing there now). I suspect I was so bewitched by the architecture that I looked the other way!

18th century Witch Trial relief sculpture in Düsseldorf: Horst Ossinger dpa/lnw 

After several years in residence, I lost my naiveté and came to realize just how insidious witchcraft tourism was in Salem and how powerful were its purveyors. Halloween just got bigger and longer, as the city’s identity, as well as the experience of residential life, were fused with a holiday that had a very tenuous connection to the 1692 trials, whose victims were not witches. One of the effects–an unintended consequence, I’m sure– of the 1992 commemoration was to provide a rationale for the continued commercial exploitation of the trials, under the label of toleration: Salem has risen above its moment of extreme intolerance so it is perfectly ok for us to profit from it! We are not profiting we are educating! This message facilitated the Halloween steamroller perfectly and kept it rolling; it is still rolling. Salem’s children are not in schools during this pandemic, but tourists fill our streets: priorities. So obviously, I’m not a fan, but even more so than the exploitative nature of Salem’s Halloween I am bothered (and actually a little bewildered) by the lack of any public dialogue about it. There is simply no procedural opportunity for any person—resident, victim descendant, whomever—to say Hey this is wrong, or even ask to tone it down. The city puts out a questionnaire to Salem residents after every Halloween season, but all the questions are about logistics (traffic, parking, carnival): it is either assumed that everyone buys into the hellish Halloween, or the city government just doesn’t care what its residents think about it. When I look back over my long residence in Salem, I think there were only two eventful opportunities to discuss the way the city was selling itself: a brief moment prior to the placement of the Bewitched statue in Town House Square in the Spring of 2005, and the first screening of the documentary Witch City in the Spring of 1997. The more recent opportunity was extremely limited, as the Salem Redevelopment Authority (SRA) moved fairly quickly to grant permission for the statue’s placement in Salem’s most historic square in time for TV Land, its sponsor, to reap the benefits of cross-promotional advertising for the film Bewitched in June of 2005. The city of Salem was unmoved by the fact that the statue of a fictional witch would stand in close proximity to the location at which the very real victims of 1692 were condemned as witches or the appeals of those victims’ descendants in 2005, and it remains so. There was controversy over Samantha in 2005, but I remember more controversy about the debut of Witch City in 1997, but that might be just because I had a more invested view.

City of Salem advertising in the 1990s: a still from the 1997 documentary Witch City. City of Salem advertising today.

Whew! That was a long preamble to the central topic of this post: the documentary itself, and its Salem debut, prompted by its recent availability (for the first time) hereWitch City is a fast-moving, often-funny, always spot-on documentary about Salem’s escalating Halloween in the 1990s, a place and a time when “American history encounters American capitalism” (I think the latter won). It was made by several local filmmakers, Joe Cultrera, Henry Ferrini, Philip Lamy, Bob Quinn and John Stanton, and in classic documentary fashion it lets most of the participants speak for themselves: Arthur Miller and Elie Wiesel at Tercentenary events, the- then Mayor of Salem, Neil Harrington, the “official witch of Salem”, Laurie Cabot, and the owner of the Salem Witch “Museum”, Bif Michaud, among others. Mr. Michaud, of Marblehead, made an unfortunate and perplexing comment equating the Witch Trials and the Holocaust (you’ll have to hear it for yourself) in the film which leaked out, causing considerable discussion in town and the Peabody Essex Museum to cancel the Salem premiere so not to offend its neighbor. Somehow, my colleague Tad Baker and I came up with the idea that our Department might sponsor the premiere: we were new to Salem State, untenured and unconnected, but we had the encouragement and support of our senior colleague John Fox, who had worked with Joe Cultrera on an earlier film, Leather Soul. And so that’s what happened: the History Department sponsored the Salem premiere of Witch City at Hamilton Hall of all places: I remember the tech people laying wires all day long in the Hall but I can’t recall why we didn’t have it at the university! The show was sold out, the Hall was packed, and we had a great panel featuring Tad and Danvers Archivist Richard Trask, now both acknowledged as THE authorities on the Trials. There was lively discussion, and I remember thinking: we can talk about this, we will talk about this when it was over. Witch City went on to be screened at the Immaculate Conception church and eventually on our local PBS station, WGBH, but unfortunately the Hamilton Hall premiere was not the beginning of a sustained public dialogue about Halloween in Salem, but rather just one brief shining moment.

Boston Globe piece on the premiere by Anne Driscoll, a Salem Award winner 20 years later.

You can rent, stream, or download Witch City here.


12 responses to “Witch City: the Film and the Moment

  • dccarletonjr

    Purchased and watched the film this Saturday, thanks for getting the word out about it! I must say, the ending was truly “damning” so to speak…

  • Joe Cultrera

    Well we did a series of screenings in October of ’97 with different speakers after each one. And random screenings over the years (link below has a listing) but your point about a lack of dialogue is quite correct. It is no longer allowed in Salem and is deemed unsupportive of local businesses. I have been told more than once that, “If you don’t like it you should leave.” When I had a discussion with an official from the City’s tourism initiative I was asked, “So what exactly DO you like about Salem?”, as if hating the commercialization of this dirty deed is a core requirement of loving my hometown.http://www.artsgloucester.com/witchcity/wcscreen.html

    Here is link to rent or buy a digital version of the film if anyone is interested

    https://vimeo.com/ondemand/witchcity

    • daseger

      Thanks for correcting my very personal view! You guys succeeded in your goal of initiating a discussion, for sure. I will never understand why we’re all supposed to be cheerleaders for Witch City (the city, not the film!)

  • Laurie Albury

    It’s time for another public showing and discussion!

  • Lou Sirianni

    Hear, hear ! Thank you

  • fbradkingFrancie King

    You see it clearly, Professor. Sadly, the city of Salem now depends for its very life on its Halloween “celebrations,” and I note that even without the carnival-like month-long ridiculousness, people have FLOODED in to the city again this year and it does take 45 minutes to get from one end of town to the other. What a shame for a beautiful and storied place like Salem, where there is SO MUCH more to know and absorb than the fiction it has become so famous for.

  • Norm Corbin

    Growing up in Salem in the 1960’s, “Witch City” was nothing like today’s October extravaganza and commercialization. I feel the current celebrations are disrespectful to the innocent people who were hung or pressed to death. I would like to see some October events that educate people about the many victims accused of witchcraft in 1692.

    • daseger

      That is very much the theme of Joe Cultrera’s narration in the film, Norm. I really wish I could have seen Salem at the time: people always tell me that it was economically depressed, but our economy now seems very vulnerable!

  • Nancy

    I know how passionate you are about this, Donna. Thank you for catching us up on this ongoing Salem struggle. I liken it to words themselves: Be prudent with words, as you can never take them back. Salem’s eagerness to capitalize on such a horrible moment in time will be difficult to “take back.” I feel very strongly about the twenty individuals who were executed and have studied it for some years. But I’ll interject this: Connecticut and earlier Massachusetts also had their victims (think Alse Young and Margaret Jones, not to mention those who perished in the jails, etc.), about whom hardly anyone knows. Awareness is the first step, and perhaps the current Salem will turn this around, educating people on the exploitation that has been and is taking place.

    • daseger

      Well I am encouraged by the PEM’s history turnaround, Nancy: two years ago I thought they had completely detached themselves from this subject, but that is not the case. I think the merged enterprise that is the city of Salem and the major profiteers is difficult to surmount, however.

  • greenheron628

    Preach 😉 You’re doing great.

    I was a founding member of ArtSalem, and remember all this very well. I’d just moved to Salem from Somerville and was puzzled why an arts group would be so unsupported by the city, and why the city thought of the Bewitched statue as art, because in Somerville, well, you know. Haunted Happenings was a week long back then, and fun. No carnivals or beer gardens or drunken visitors using our yards as bathrooms.

    Re: that annual ‘survey’ With relish and hope, I used to compose a carefully written concise bullet-pointed critique, then copy and paste it into the survey comment box at the end, hit the submit button, and send it into the void. I’m pretty sure my responses went directly to the file labelled ‘cranks’. The past few years I’ve ignored the survey when it goes online. The window for response has shortened, and you need to know of its existence and hunt it down.

    Our culture has changed, this year has demonstrated how much. If 42% of the population might see nothing wrong with a hotdog stand at Auschwitz, why not crowd into Salem during a pandemic without a mask and/or distancing practice? Fourteen cars with out of state plates were parked on Chestnut Street this past Saturday. I’m going to guess they weren’t doing a 14 day quarantine before heading over the bookstore.

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