Witch City
Reviewed by Devan Kirk

Salem Witch Trials in History and Literature
An Undergraduate Course, University of Virginia
Spring Semester 2001

Witch City is a documentary film focused on what Salem, Massachusetts has become three-hundred years after the Salem Witch Trials The film examines the social, religious, and commercial turmoil that plagues Salem even today. The documentary covers a period of about five years beginning at the time of the preparations for the tercentenary commemoration of the witch trials and ending about three years later. Local film makers, Joe Cuthera and Henry Ferrini intersperse hometown family footage with the contemporary shots and interviews with Salem residents and visitors to Salem's most famous tourist sites to create a diverse picture of how Salem developed from 1692 to 1992.

Joe Cuthera is the friendly narrator who takes the audience with him on his return to Salem, his hometown. His native accent guides the audience as they walk with him through the streets of Salem today and yesterday, introducing them to relatives and strangers alike. Joe notes that the Salem of his boyhood cannot be found easily in the Salem of the 1990's, and that what Salem has become is a product of a misconception of what it was in the past.

After introducing the audience to Joe, the film turns to a brief synopsis of what "really" happened in Salem in 1692. This brief portion of the film stays close to historical facts, offering only pieces of interpretation from notable scholars of the Salem Witch Trials such as Stephen Nissenbaum, co-author of Salem Possessed and editor of The Salem Witchcraft Papers. He tells the story of the impressionable afflictedgirls finally succumbing to pressure from their elders and naming names after an extended period of being asked questions such as, "Who torments you? Give us a name. Was it ?" The historians also treat the socio-economic situation of those involved, claiming that the accusations were from girls who lacked some element of social importance and that the accusations themselves were first directed at women lower on the socio-economic scale. Nissenbaum then claims that, once the accusations started implicating prominent people of Salem who would not have participated in witchcraft, such as Increase Mather, it reached a point when pressure began to end the trials. Throughout all of the information given by the historians, Cuthera and Ferrini include visuals of various paintings of the Trials and pictures of people in period clothing, etc. to provide graphic support of what is recounted by the historians. This method collapses the time frame of the documentary since they use footage of plays and other such popular culture mediums within Salem in the 1990's as they discuss what took place in 1692 - a technique that places the two periods in Salem's history in closer proximity to each other.

The documentary then returns to the Salem of the '90's, and returns to the semiotics of representing Salem as the "Witch City." The documentary hints that the beginning of commercial fascination with the Salem Witch Trials began when Nathaniel Hawthorn (descendant of Judge John Hathorne) began writing novels that romanticized the tragic history of the town in his use of gothic imagery in his depiction. Hawthorne created a fantasyland of witches, mystical elements, and romance that Americans, and the world, could not resist.

Exploring deeper into the Disneyland simulacrum that Salem became after Hawthorne, the focus of the documentary is again shifted to the owners of Salem's attractions, such as the Salem Witch Museum, Wax Museum, and Dungeon Museum. The different business leaders are questioned about the town and the present-day interest in the trials, and why the have their businesses and what they think of them. Bif Michaud, director of the Salem Witch Museum, compares the Salem Witch Trials to the Holocaust during World War II. "In any case, they [the victims of the Trials and the Holocaust] are dead," Michaud states as a similarity between the two tragic events. The misrepresentation is even further demonstrated when they interview some tourists who, wanted to come to see the Salem Witch Museum, did not even know what state it was in until they arrived. Michaud, as with other business owners and religious leaders, claims that he is not trying to commercialize Salem - something that the directors do not admire. They do find one man, later in the documentary, who admits that he's "out for a buck" when he packages and sells dirt from Gallows Hill. The commercialization segment ends with the filmmakers presenting the packaged dirt (which was priced at $2.50) to Arthur Miller at the unveiling of the winning model for the memorial. They then point out that Miller, a man of words, is at a loss for words when he sees an example of such shameless commercialization. The question that the filmmakers do not ask of Miller, however, is if he is any better as the creator and profiteer of the play The Crucible, a moderately fictionalized account of the Trials.

The other section of the documentary that is presented simultaneously with the commercialization segment focuses on the present religious turmoil in Salem. The documentary focuses mainly on the Wicca movement and their confrontations with Christian fundamentalists. They interview several religious leaders, and create a dizzying visual collage of the many different faiths at odds with each other. Of particular focus is Laurie Cabot, named "Official Witch of Salem" and a religious leader within the Wicca movement. The filmmakers do question Cabot's motives in relation to her desire and willingness to have so much publicity, commercial and otherwise, and her attachment to her faith. The "Heritage Day Parade" that is shown from Joe's childhood at the beginning is recapitulated at this point in the film in its current form, with religious turmoil angrily displayed between groups and ending with one Wiccan's observation of the anti-Wiccan protesters, "Do you see that? It's all about hate!"

The climax of all of the tension that the filmmakers capture is the creation and execution of the Tercentennial Commemoration of the Trials. The religious and commercial strife comes to a breaking point when Michaud, one of the primary monetary contributors to the Tercentenary, is placed upon its planning board and no Wiccans are. However, the Tercentenary is still depicted as a success. In an eerie recapitulation of an earlier moment when Michaud equates the Trials with the Holocaust, one of the primary speakers at the Memorial dedication is Elie Wiesel, a famous and prolific writer who survived the Holocaust. Wiesel declared at the dedication, "It is because people were fanatics that Salem was possible it is so easy to believe fanaticism is the worst evil then and that faces us today there are more Salems."

Three years later is where the documentary then picks up, and it begins with the changes in the Chamber of Commerce's "Haunted Happenings" celebration in October. The religious strife is no longer the most critical issue - in fact, Wiccans and members of other faiths work together at this point to better Salem. However, Salem's commercialization has grown worse. The theme for Haunted Happenings is "Stop by for a Spell" and the event has been extended to three weeks, with the hopes that it will be a month-long event by the next year.

Witch City ends with Joe's comment that in Salem, "good commerce is the rule by which everything evolves" but that is the strongest statement he makes. The subtle undercurrents of disapproval that run throughout the film are undercut by its lack of a strong point of view and its own participation as a commercial product focused on the Trials. Throughout all of subtleties, however, the film is an engaging representation of the problems and complications of commercialization upon tragic events in the commodified world of America today.

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