Witch way to terror? The real historic scary sites are in Danvers, Mass.

BEDFORD – Hundreds of thousands of tourists will invade Salem, Mass., this month for Halloween parades, street fairs, ghost tours and haunted houses, all trying to get a taste of the 17th century witch-trial era. But what they’re really getting in "Witch City" are performances.

Salem is a "witchcraft Disneyland," said Dr. Robin DeRosa, and most of the real witch sites and artifacts are in nearby Danvers.

That’s because Danvers’ name during the witch-trial era was Salem Village, but after its name changed, people forgot about the witch connections. Now, finding most of the sites takes work.

The witch hysteria began in the home of Samuel Parris in Danvers, for example, and the Salem Village Witchcraft Victims’ Memorial is in Danvers.

But Salem had the right name, and it got into the witch tourism business in the 1970s because of businessmen desperate to revive the depressed city after the factories closed in the 1950s and 1960s.

So they latched onto the idea of witch tourism, and it worked.

There is not much authentic "witch stuff" in Salem, DeRosa said, and what is there was brought in.

DeRosa is an English professor at Plymouth State University, and during her recent talk at the Bedford Public Library, she discussed how we produce "history" through popular culture.

Ironically, some people in Salem have turned their attention away from witches, or at least the tacky, commercial side of witch tourism.

The only mention of witches in the city’s visitors center is in the gift shop. But when DeRosa asked 100 people at the center why they were visiting Salem, every one of them said "witches."

The same thing happened at the Phillips Library, where there are authentic witch-trial artifacts and documents, including the walking stick of a man who was executed as a witch and the death warrant for Sarah Good, one of the first three women to be accused.

But when DeRosa visited Phillips, the librarian did not seem to know how to find the artifacts and documents.

The Disneyland aspect of witch tourism "has become so repugnant," she said, that people who are interested in the city’s history see it as tacky.

To request research items at the library, you have to fill out a form, checking off a box showing your area of interest: China, American literature, family history, local history, for example. But there is no box to check witches, which is apparently to weed out tourists.

DeRosa once asked someone working in Salem’s Witch Dungeon Museum for an interesting tidbit about the building, and the woman said she once caught a glimpse of a ghost rounding a corner in the building when it was supposed to be empty.

The problem is, the building was relatively new. The phone company had built its building at the site of the old dungeon.

So DeRosa wonders why no one ever sees ghosts at the phone company.

"The way it’s packaged up, even the ghosts are fooled!" she said.

Salem businesses have gotten rich on witches while "Danvers was snoozing," she said.

Why hasn’t Danvers tried to capitalized on its authentic sites?

After seeing what happened to Salem, there are probably many people in Danvers who feel relieved it missed the boat, she said, because they don’t have to put up with "porta-potties, hot dogs and people."

And which city does she prefer to visit?

Salem is more fun, she admits.

Kathy Cleveland can be reached at 673-3100 or kcleveland@cabinet.com.