10/24/97- Updated 02:02 AM ET

History clashes with commercialism

SALEM, Mass. - This is a tale of two cities.

One a historic New England seaport, home to Nathaniel Hawthorne, Federal-style homes and the infamous 1692 witch trials.

The other a tacky tourist town, rife with hot dog vendors, second-rate wax museums and fly-by-night haunted houses. And shops. Shops selling everything from $300 witches' capes and herbal potions to T-shirts that proclaim "Born-Again Pagan."

Both are Salem, Mass.

This is also a tale of history vs. commercialism, and some here think Salem's rich heritage is coming up the loser.

Salem's 24-day Haunted Happenings peaks next weekend when thousands will flock here for Halloween. As many as 200,000 overrun this town of 38,000 during the annual event, which in 15 years has grown from a one-night Halloween party to a three-week carnival. It now brings in $5 million.

It has also brought in everything from witch dungeon and pirate museums, to those who read auras, to Christian fundamentalists who turn up periodically to rid the town of Satan.

Salem's struggle between revenue for today and reverence for yesterday has become so touchy several people refused to go on the record about the flourishing witch business.

And Witch City, a documentary that takes an unflattering look at Salem's "witch industry," has only added fuel to the fire. The film has become an unwelcome guest at the party.

Filmmaker Joe Cultrera, a native son who now lives in New York, calls Salem "a company town," the company being the witch-related tourism that he says does much to line the pockets of local merchants but little to tell the true story of the 20 people executed here in 1692 during the witch trials.

To tourism director Mariellen Norris that's a bunch of bunk.

"This isn't about the witch hysteria, it's about Halloween," she says. "It's about fun. . . . What we're trying to do here is make it a wholesome family event."

Helen Gifford, city editor of The Salem Evening News, agrees. Earlier this month she told her readers to lighten up.

"Shall we all observe Halloween in Salem by holding candlelight vigils at the Witch Trials Memorial, while we recall our ancestral sins of bigotry and intolerance?" she asked.

"As if that would be less appropriate than what's happening now?" responds Cultrera.

Salem Mayor Neil Harrington, meanwhile, is running for re-election and trying desperately to steer clear of the whole topic. When asked about the documentary, he says he only knew "a Salem native had made a movie.

"But I don't know anything about it," he quickly adds, despite the fact Witch City is the talk of Salem and stories about it have run everywhere from the The Boston Globe to the front page of Salem's Evening News, which called the documentary the mayor's "Halloween nightmare."

The documentary also put Salem's scholarly Peabody Essex Museum in an awkward position. It was scheduled to be aired there during Haunted Happenings, but museum officials withdrew the invitation after realizing the controversy it was causing.

"We didn't want to alienate any of our neighbors," says Debbie Kane, the museum's spokeswoman. The movie is now playing on weekends at a nearby church hall.

Norris says it "doesn't really tell us what Salem is about."

Others say it shows present-day Salem all too clearly.

Donna Vinson, a Salem resident and history professor at Salem State College, is one.

"I don't think they care about Salem's historical legacy," she says of Salem's elected officials and witch-industry promoters. "They don't know anything about it, and they don't care to know. I could lighten up if there's only three weeks of this, but it's getting larger and longer every year."

Even Norris says, "Our people have to put up with a lot in those 24 days."

"There are a lot of people in town who care and want to do the right thing," says Patty MacLeod, director of the Salem Witch Museum, which gets 350,000 visitors a year. "It's in our best interest to do the best job we can or they won't come."

But MacLeod, who spearheaded construction of the stark Witch Trial Memorial dedicated at the trial's tercentenary five years ago - Arthur Miller and Elie Wiesel were in attendance - would not comment on other "witch" businesses in town.

"Everyone's idea of integrity is different and everyone's sense of what's in good taste and what's not is different," MacLeod says.

Many in town have complained that the four-year-old Salem Wax Museum of Witches & Seafarers, adjacent to the city's 1637 Old Burying Point Cemetery, blares haunted house sounds from its rooftop and has rubber-masked employees dressed as ghouls and goblins at the entrance to the historic cemetery and the adjoining memorial.

Wax museum director Barbara Fanning admits "it's like a carnival this time of year," but adds, "it's good for Salem."

She says her museum can't ignore the fact that it's next to the cemetery where a number of famous Salem residents are buried, including witch trial Judge John Hathorne.

"Anyone here (at this site) would want to take advantage of the cemetery," she says. In a letter to the editor of the Evening News countering criticism that the wax museum had literally assimilated the graveyard into its operation, she said the cemetery "belongs to us all, and should be available to everyone."

Asked about the loudspeaker blaring eerie sounds over the burial ground, Mayor Harrington says he hears similar sounds coming from a "haunted house" near his downtown office.

"You have to expect that in October," he says. "Private enterprise is generally beyond the control of the city."

Tad Baker, another history professor at Salem State whose specialty is witchcraft, says he's concerned such private enterprise isn't giving visitors the full story.

"The thing that bothers me is what you're seeing is rude stereotypes of the 17th century, of witchcraft and the trials," he says. "When you go to the (witch trial) memorial you should get that - that people were willing to die for their beliefs. . . . That's an important story, but you don't get that story, you get spectacle and gross generalizations and haunted house music. . . . That's what a lot of people here object to."

A lot of it has to do with giving people what they want.

Salem's Peabody Essex Museum has a permanent exhibit on the witchcraft trials - it includes the original documents - but during Haunted Happenings it offers Eerie Events, where costumed actors tell ghost stories.

"We see a completely different audience than we do the rest of the year," says Kane. The audience doubles in October. This month 8,000 will go through Eerie Events, double last year.

Storeowners aren't complaining either. Kathie Gauthier, owner of A Touch of the Past gift shop and chairwoman of this year's Haunted Happenings, says business has been phenomenal. "There are days I can't get to my store for the traffic."

In the last few years the crowds and traffic have grown to Manhattan proportions. There are tour buses, amphibious "Moby Duck" tourmobiles (they plunge into Salem harbor), horse-drawn carriages and throngs of revelers, many in costume. The Haunted Happenings parade, which kicked off the celebration earlier this month, had traffic backed up to Route 128, five miles away.

But the large modern-day witch community that resides in Salem isn't always happy with the attention.

"You can see the wave coming now" says Teri Kalgren, a witch and owner of Artemisia Botanicals on Salem's Pickering Wharf, predicting the coming weekend crowds.

As a resident and businesswoman she understands Haunted Happenings' reason for being. "We don't have much of a tax base. Unless we want to sink, we have to do something."

But Kalgren doesn't like the more base course Salem's tourism industry has taken. Witches, and their religion, aren't taken seriously by most Salem businessmen, she says.

"I don't like the way witches are depicted. They're usually old ugly women and that's just not true." To spread the truth she helps out at the Witch Education Bureau, which has a booth on Salem Common.

Other witches in Salem agree the message of tolerance is getting lost, even those who work in the tourism industry.

Tony Guerriero, who with his wife Marie will perform a circle ceremony near the Witch Trial Memorial at midnight on Halloween, is on staff at Salem Witch Village.

"We have to use this time to educate people," he says.

If true, Baker sees all this as a good trend. He thinks Witch City is "an important start" in turning Salem around from a third-rate tourist destination to a first-rate historic destination.

"When we had the local premiere (of Witch City) here last spring, we had two full houses," he says. "There was some intelligent discussion emerging about how this city wants to portray itself. Maybe we can continue that."

By Craig Wilson, USA TODAY

©COPYRIGHT 1997 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.