Touring History: Guidebooks and the Commodification of the Salem Witch Trials

By Gencarella, Stephen Olbrys | Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA), September 2007 | Go to article overview
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Touring History: Guidebooks and the Commodification of the Salem Witch Trials


Gencarella, Stephen Olbrys, Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)


The documentary Witch City, a scathing critique of tourism in Salem, Massachusetts, stirred tremendous discussion upon its premiere on Boston public television in 1997. Penned by Salem native Joe Cultrera, the film charts the city's transformation from a blue-collar town into "a sort of witchcraft Disneyland" overrun by callous tourists, unscrupulous businesses, and a "confusing mix of fact and fiction" (Witch City) in preparation for the tercentenary of the Witch Trials in 1992. The filmmakers draw upon interviews with, among others, Elie Weisel and Arthur Miller to distinguish historical knowledge from kitsch and to shame businesses thought exploiting the Trials. Vilified by many residents and hailed as an earnest cry against commercialization by others, Witch City is a significant "performance text" (Denzin) that asks how local citizens understand their relation to judgments of the past and for the future.

The film is also a record of the public debate in Salem that arose during a period of intense national and international gaze. Despite the filmmakers' pleas, tourism in Salem continues unabated-especially during Halloween-and its consequences remain sharply contested.1 Countless performances now emphasize supernatural elements or the occult, loosely tied to the Trials or witchcraft. Recent attractions, for example, include the Haunted Footsteps Ghost Tour, the Museum of Myths and Monsters, the Spellbound Museum, Dracula's Castle, Strega restaurant, numerous boutiques dedicated to psychic phenomena, and a statue of Samantha from the television show Bewitched. In response, the local government has actively promoted other aspects of Salem's history, especially Nathaniel Hawthorne and its maritime legacy; a renovation of the Peabody Essex Museum formed the cornerstone for this movement.

All that alarms Witch City, however, bears a much more complex history than the film suggests. Salem has drawn tourists since the 1850s; concerns over the commercial usage of its notorious history promptly followed. Two loosely-defined groups have sparred over Salem's representation in popular media and public consciousness since the inception of tourism. The first are local business owners who recognize opportunity in the cornmodification of the Witch Trials. The second are local (often amateur) historians and preservationists who decry pervasive witchcraft imagery as indecorous. Adding to this complicated exchange, tourist guidebooks to Salem have been in circulation for well over a century, written to support both perspectives.

Studies of Salem tourism (Hill, "Salem;" McAllister; Rosenthal; White; Wright) do not explore guidebooks at length.2 This article does so and argues that they reveal an important site for deliberation within a local public sphere. Reading guidebooks as marks of competing political attitudes, this article analyzes several representatives and follows their permutations, responding to and influencing tourist expectations. The aim is to map traces of ideological shifts wrought through changes in guidebook content and form. First, this article proposes an appreciation of guidebooks as a vibrant form of public discourse. It then describes the contest over commodification of the Witch Trials as it evolves throughout the guidebooks, complemented by other influential forms of popular media and ephemera, to provide a genealogy of the debate. It concludes with a brief summary of the relationship between tourism and the rhetorical uses of history.

Tourist Guidebooks as Rhetorical Practice

The development of New England tourism is well-documented and implicates the invention of American identity and the ascent of a middle-class (Brown; Conforti; Purchase; Schaffer; Sears), yet studies of guidebooks as a rhetorical force in this process are few in number (Gassan "Birth" and "First"). Guidebooks are, however, a means to understand the reception of socio-political orientations towards the past, present, and future.

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Touring History: Guidebooks and the Commodification of the Salem Witch Trials
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