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.

The museum draws the kind of culture-seeking tourists who can be redirected to lesser-known historic sites, he said — from the 1797 replica merchant vessel Friendship, docked at Salem's waterfront, to a collection of Federal period homes lining Chestnut Street, touted by locals as one of the most beautiful streets in the world. Eventually visitors will be able to spend their extended stay in a new hotel, currently under construction.

Salem’s Identity Crisis

Minelli's marketing proposal, with the theme "if you think you know Salem, think again," extends beyond tourism, with business and real estate leaders encouraged to help promote Salem as a good place to live and work.

Day said he's all for promoting Salem's hidden attributes, but added that it's a waste of money if they ignore the one thing that makes it unique — the Salem witch trials. Boston is just a few miles away and offers as much, if not more, architecture and history, not to mention the Museum of Fine Arts.

"You will never compete with Boston, you just won't," Day said.

Bob Murch, creator of Cryptique, a Ouija board dubbed "the spirit board of Salem, Massachusetts," said a distaste for the Halloween industry — including traffic jams and a belief that it exploits a tragedy — has led to an identity crisis.

"I think there are those that don't realize that most of the money they bring in is because of something they hate," he said. "You don't kill the past because you hate it. … Salem is 1692."

Liakos said the much of the kitsch associated with Salem's horror industry — vampires, werewolves, haunted houses, etc. — has nothing to do with the actual witch hysteria, when 20 people were executed and more than 200 imprisoned.

"When [the witch history] is used for the wrong reasons, it can be damaging," Liakos said.

Paul Durand, an architect and incoming head of the Chamber of Commerce, said Salem's witch-related industry will thrive even as the city focuses on promoting its other historic assets. But he said people don't want any more of it.

"You don't want to live in Disneyland," he said. "You want to visit, but you don't want to live there." If You Go…

LOCATION: Salem, Mass., is a 16-mile drive northeast of Boston. By train, from Boston's North Station, take the Newburyport/Rockport Commuter Rail; by bus, the No. 450 or 455 from Haymarket Square and South Station in Boston, or the No. 459 from Logan Terminal C.

HISTORIC BUILDINGS: The Derby Street Historic District includes the 1819 Custom House, the 1762 Derby House. The House of the Seven Gables complex includes three 17th century homes. The McIntire Historic District includes the Corwin or Witch House, built before 1672, and the 1651 Pickering House. The Chestnut Street district, laid out in 1796 and lined with mansions, is considered one of the most architecturally significant streets in America.

HISTORY: In addition to the famous witch trials, the Salem area was home to the first Filene's and boasts connections to a number of famous Americans, including Scarlet Letter author Nathaniel Hawthorne, Parker Brothers founder George Parker, and General Electric CEO Jack Welch.

ATTRACTIONS: Various themed walking tours, Pickering Wharf and museums including the Peabody Essex Museum, New England Pirate Museum and the Salem Witch Museum. For a guidebook or more information, contact Destination Salem at (877) SALEM-MA or