For seven years the Salem Witch Museum was my archenemy, my nemesis, my Magneto. I ran programs at the Peabody Essex Museum, where we tried to present an authentic and scholarly account of the Witchcraft Trials of 1692…and ended up spending a lot of our time debunking the nonsense peddled at other “museums” in town. One decade, a graduate degree, and a career in film later I went back as a local resident and tourist.
So how does Salem’s most popular attraction stack up as pure entertainment?
The Salem Witch Museum is a lot like a Hammer horror movie. Some of the audio effects–especially the rushing wind–even sound borrowed from one. It’s not bad to look at: there are costumes and scenes that ought to be dramatic: jail cells, trial courts, a gallows–even a giant Devil. But the same qualities that make it bad history, make it poor entertainment. The Witchcraft Trials are presented as lurid, unrelated episodes. There’s no cause and effect to string this story together, to make it truly chilling. It’s dusty and dated and the mannequins have seen better days. If you’re looking for a clear and concise summary of the events of 1692, you won’t find it here.
Sadly, these days, you can hardly find it at all in Salem. The Peabody Essex, repository for the 600 surviving trials documents owned by the Commonwealth, no longer displays or interprets them. Most tourists don’t have time for a side trip to Danvers, former Salem Village, where the trouble started, and the excellent Rebecca Nurse Homestead.
But there is one site in Salem where you can hear an accurate account of the trials and peek inside an authentic 17th century home. The Witch House, on Essex Street at the edge of the McIntire district, was owned by trials judge Jonathon Corwin, and offers a great introduction to the events of 1692, but the house is small and tours are limited. If you have only one day to spend in Salem, start your visit there.