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!
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) here. Witch 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.