Since I’ve been living outside of Salem for the past month, only coming in for classes and shooting right back to Maine on my (not-so) secret routes, I followed the press coverage on seasonal tourism a bit more closely than in years past. I set up a google alert and got notifications nearly every day. There are always a lot of what I would call obligatory articles about Salem at this time of year focusing on crowds and traffic but it struck me that in this particularly year the coverage was a bit more negative, though as you know, I’m not a Haunted Happenings fan, so I could have been reading what I wanted to read. I will be the first to admit extreme bias in this realm, but I tried to read every article which came my way several times, and there was definitely an underlying tension in several, between the “success” of Salem’s tourism and its costs, whether they were traffic, trash, or exorbitant short-term rentals. For me, the tone seemed to be set in late August, when the Salem Witch Museum was identified by as the #2 tourist trap in the entire world by USA Today: this generated more stories in the regional press, concluding with the recent “visit” of the Boston Globe to the “Museum.” This article is not especially probing in its exploration of either a for or against position on the attraction’s rating, and gives a rather blase tourist the last word: “you have to expect it to be a tourist trap. It’s Salem in October. Isn’t that kind of the whole point?” Indeed. The Globe featured a stronger, more focused article in mid-October on the skyrocketing prices of Salem airbnbs, which was no surprise to anyone who lives in Salem. They’re everywhere, even though municipal regulations attempted to limit their number a few years back. The article quoted Mayor Dominick Pangallo as asserting that there are “250 t0 300 airbnbs” in Salem, while the rental website listed considerably more units in October.
Of course the victims of 1692 were NOT witches, but Airbnb puts a special focus on “haunted” or themed Salem rentals in October, like this one featuring a “100% that witch” bedroom./Airbnb
This year’s offering from the Washington Post is longer than the Globe pieces, but nevertheless manages to say very little. I don’t understand its title, “Salem bet big on spooky season. Now witch girlies are everywhere,” nor do I discern anything close to a theme or thesis. It’s all over the place with lots of quotes from locals, including my colleague, the president of our preservation organization, and several Salem shopkeepers. But none of the quotes seem to have much context, including one which made me see red after (apparently) confining twentieth-century Salem to the simplistic characterization of a “horrible factory town.” This is the tourist industry’s party line: witchcraft tourism saved Salem. After a summer of reading and writing about the past century for our book, I just can’t stand to hear it anymore–it erases the hopes, dreams, activities and achievements of generations. It’s a falsehood, but also a quote out of context according those who offered this characterization. So now I’m wondering what it, and the entire article, means. I can tell that my colleague is presenting an argument here—about the balance of history and entertainment, the need to discern the authentic from the fake, and tourism’s toll on Salem’s residents, but his quotes are so strung out that I couldn’t quite grasp it–and I know him! And then there are the captions, like the one for the photo below: “people dress up in Salem in late October.” Wow, really? I have news for you, Washington Post, people dress up in Salem in late July.
The Wall Street Journal’s Salem story, “Living in the Middle of Halloween Central is Not Wicked Fun,” is much tighter and much better. And as you can tell from its title, more negative with its focus on the experience of residents. It’s far more historical in its analysis of how Salem evolved from shame to exploitation in its attitude to the trials, with one Salem tour guide furnishing a very interesting anecdote about Southern slaveholders taunting Salem abolitionists for “burning their grandmothers” and yet another referencing Joey Buttafuoco and Amy Fisher (the spectrum of Salem tour guides never ceases to amaze). And then there is the suggestion of a Florida (of course) tourist, who wants to see “a life-size wooden replica of the gallows where they hung the witches,” in order to “give a real sence of how intense it must have been.” A wary Salem social worker worries that “we’re commercializing a tragedy” and yes, her use of the word “we’re” is spot on: Salem’s exploitative and ever-encroaching tourism not only impacts but also reflects upon all of its residents. The WSJ article was my pick of the litter until a late-season entry appeared on my screen just two days ago: “Salem’s Unholy Bargain” by Lex Pryor, a writer for the sports and popular culture website The Ringer. A BRILLIANT writer: just read this one paragraph, and you’ll be hooked, like me:
It is awesome, financially beneficial, and out of control. In Salem, Halloween is a monthslong beast with an unquenchable appetite. It gobbles late-summer weekends and the first-of-winter snows. There are people who welcome it and people who flee it, but everyone feels it. And though by lineage this creation is at best rarely theirs, by geography and the inalterable stain of days gone by, they are full inheritors of its weight. Because of history—its burdens and allure—a community is held in a periodical and self-imposed state of bedlam. Look beyond the hoopla and you’ll see in Salem a storm, age-old as it is modern, that manages to unmask the knotty, innermost contents of the place and the folks who frequent it.
And one more: a brilliant quip involving bratwursts: the morbid nature of Salem’s appeal isn’t that uncommon among travel destinations. Millions visit the Colosseum every year. Same with Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I have never been to Auschwitz, but I am wholly certain that someone is selling something like bratwursts somewhere nearby. Salem is Salem because, unlike those sites, in Salem a plurality of people come for the bratwursts. They arrive in spite of the history, and they have no shame in this.
THEY COME FOR THE BRATWURSTS! And we can’t get away.
Well I could keep quoting this brilliant piece, but you can read it for yourself: you should read it for yourself if you’re interested in what Salem has become. I was going to conclude with the New York Times’ Salem article for this year but it is quite literally so small by comparison with Mr. Pryor’s piece in its focus on the plague of nip bottles on the streets of Salem that I think I’ll just leave you with the link.