Film Views the Pitfalls of Witch City Hype

Ann Driscoll
Journalist for the Globe

"Shall we never, never get rid of this past? It lies
upon the present like a giant's dead body!"
-Nathaniel Hawthorne

Before the five filmmakers who produced "Witch City" decided to film a documentary about Salem's past and its influence on the present, they wrote a screenplay about it. They soon threw out the script, however, deciding instead that in Salem's case, the truth was far stranger than fiction - and more compelling, too.

That truth speaks for itself throughout "Witch City" in the voices of hucksters and hawkers, witches and Christian fundamentalists, preachers and politicians, longtime residents and daytripping tourists, historians and those who are now living through history in the making, as the film documents a city wrestling with its own conscience and, perhaps more important, the consequences of ignoring it.

Director Joe Cultrera¹s narration in "Witch City," which premiered in Salem last weekend before capacity crowds at historic Hamilton Hall, is both personal and provoking. He remembers growing up in Salem, a place of hometown parades and downtown shopping excursions on Saturdays. But, as the film documents so clearly, the city began to change as a dwindling economy created pressure to promote Salem as the horror capital of the world, especially during Halloween.

And so it has become a city that increasingly relies on tourism as its economic base, and many wonder whether in peddling the persecutions and deaths of 20 people, Salem has not made its own pact with the devil.

It's impossible to watch, "Witch City" and not be struck by the many contradictions and curiosities it contains. There is Peter McSwiggin, a Salem Housing Authority employee, hawking packages of dirt from Gallows Hill for $2.95 a piece. There is Shaun Shea, a co-owner of the Salem Wax Museum, announcing on a bullhorn that the 8:30 graveyard tour has been sold out.

Then there is Bif Michaud, owner of the Salem Witch Museum, the most popular tourist destination in the city. "The witch persecutions of 1692, are no different than the Holocaust of 1942," Michaud says. "In any case, they're dead." He describes Salem's fascination with the persecutions as "the sizzle of the city" and adds, "I don't think we commercialize it at all."

If the Salem witch trials of three centuries ago became a metaphor for intolerance and survive as a compelling message for today, the confrontations depicted in the film between Christian fundamentalists and practitioners of the nature-based religion, Wicca or witchcraft, are powerful indeed. So too is the footage of Salem Police Captain Paul Murphy promising to uphold the civil rights of anyone whose rights are threatened. It is impossible to ignore his arm patch: a witch on a broomstick, which is the Salem Police insignia.

It is understandable why the city gravitated toward Haunted Happenings and tourist attractions to save itself from economic ruin, but it's also logical for people to wonder if Salem hasn't sold out.

Phil Lamy is a sociology and anthropology professor at Castelton State College in Vermont, a former Salem resident and one of the filmmakers. Lamy argues there is a risk in exploiting history for commercial gain or to fulfill a political or religious agenda, because it will be distorted or abused. At a time when tourism and travel is the No. 1 industry in the world, the risk of such abuse has never been greater, Lamy says, citing Disney's efforts to create a Civil War theme park at Manassas as an example.

The filmmakers have made no money from their film, unlike most who have worked over the city's history. Even Arthur Miller, who visited Salem to unveil the new Witch Trial Tercentenary memorial, described the commercialization of these deaths as in, "very bad taste" and shook his head over the sale of Gallows Hill dirt, has achieved significant gain from his screenplay of the movie version of his play, "The Crucible."

For the makers of "Witch City" - Cultrera, Lamy, Henry Ferrini of Gloucester, and Bob Quinn and John Stanton, both originally from Peabody - the purpose of the film was not material as much as social. They received a $1,000 Salem Arts Lottery grant and donated the rest of the money, plus the time and resources it took to complete the film. Their purpose was to provoke discussion and help the city assess itself and its future.

The Hamilton Hall audience last Saturday night was eager to discuss the ways in which Salem needs to come to terms with its past - including a suggestion that the city rid itself of the witch on a broomstick logo of the police, fire and football team. Regrettably, there were some voices not heard. Salem's mayor, Neil Harrington, could be seen on screen, but not at the screening. Nor was anyone representing the city in any official capacity present. Also absent was anyone from the hometown paper, the Salem Evening News.

Truth is strange indeed. And sometimes it's easier to avoid it than to look in the face, particularly when that face is on the big screen staring back.

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