Can Salem Exorcise Its Witchy Reputation?

A witch flies on the side of this city's police cruisers, swoops past the local paper's masthead and leads Salem High into battle as its mascot. This is undeniably the "Witch City," even if not all residents are comfortable about renown rooted in the evil of the Salem witch trials of 1692.

But some wonder if it's time for Salem to expand its reputation beyond witch hysteria, and the kitschy spook industry that's grown up around it.

Now, tourism leaders have hired a marketing consultant, the first step in a campaign to retool the city's image by focusing on its significant, but lesser-known, cultural assets.

Salem has the House of Seven Gables — made famous by the Nathaniel Hawthorne novel of the same name — along with abundant Federal-period architecture and an engaging seaport past. It also has momentum from a $125 million renovation of the Peabody Essex Museum that has turned it into a major draw.

No Whitewash for Witch

No one wants to whitewash the witch, says the consultant, Mark Minelli of Boston, but efforts must be made to attract a different kind of tourist — one who will stay longer, spend more money and make tourism less dependent on the annual flood of Halloween visitors.

"You can't expand upon it," Minelli said. "It doesn't have another dimension. If you don't say anything about the witch for the next 100 years, it would still be there. It's the 500-pound gorilla in the middle of the room that you don't need to talk about."

Christian Day, a practicing witch and host of Salem's Halloween-time "Festival of the Dead," said de-emphasizing Salem's spooky side is as good as trying to kill it. It's an attempt to change Salem's image by those ashamed of history and snobbish about Halloween tourists that he's heard described as "T-shirt-wearing zeros."

"A lot of people don't want Salem associated with a negative blot on history, even if it draws people by the thousands," Day said.

Salem attracts about 800,000 people annually, according to counts at its visitor center, and at least another 200,000 who never check in there, said Carol Thistle of Destination Salem, which promotes local tourism. About a fourth of those tourists come around Halloween, but the problem is in what happens after Oct. 31, said Mark Meche of Salem's Main Streets initiative, which promotes downtown businesses.

A Ghost Town After Halloween

Monthly tourist visits generally don't reach six figures again until midsummer. In the meantime, some fright purveyors make so much money in October that their attractions are all but abandoned until the next fall — not ideal for any business district.

"That is the worst aspect of this whole thing," said Meche, a local architect. "It's so acutely seasonal … Part of our mission is to extend the shopping season."

A key to expansion plans was the renovation of the Peabody Essex Museum, which featured the piece-by-piece transplantation of a home from rural China to Salem. Museum spokesman Greg Liakos said attendance has tripled, from 65,000 to about 200,000, in the six months since the museum's June re-opening, compared to previous years.

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