Image courtesy of Essex National Heritage Commission and Don Toothaker
The first questions most tourists usually ask the park rangers at the National Park Service Salem Visitor Center are about the history of the 1692 Salem Witch Trials, which resulted in the hanging of 20 people accused of consorting with the devil.
Now a new movie based on the most recent scholarly research of the causes, events and aftermath of the infamous trials can answer all those questions and more.
After premiering at 7 p.m. tomorrow night at the Visitor Center (2 New Liberty St.), the 35-minute movie — "Salem Witch Hunt: Examine the Evidence" — will be the best resource for rangers to help tourists looking for a factual but entertaining summation of the Witch Trails.
“The rangers would try to explain some history, plus we have information for the professional attractions that portray some of the Witch Trials,” said Annie C. Harris, Executive Director of the Essex National Heritage Commission, which made the movie in partnership with the National Park Service.
“It certainly gives [tourists] a way to have an accurate story and it gives the background for understanding what happened. Then they can go to the attractions afterward. But it really gives you an accurate first step in telling the story.”
The new film, which will be shown four times a day for $5 for adults and $3.50 for seniors and students in the visitor center’s 200-seat theater, is just in time for the crush of tourists who will mob Salem for its annual Haunted Happenings’ events.
“We tried to get it done for October,” Harris said. “We had to do it by early October because by the end of October we’re totally taken over with witches and other Halloween stuff, which is fun.
An accurate telling of the story, however, is long overdue for many folks who would argue that the movie does not go far enough in telling the story. In fact, the new film was created in response to a Globe editorial last October that called on the National Parks Service and the state to create a museum devoted to the Witch Trails.
“Despite some area attractions based on the witch trials and a few witch-trial events associated with Haunted Happenings, there is a crying need for a serious museum to encourage the study of the trials and what drove the hundreds of peaceful villagers to murderous hysteria. Once this year’s Halloween revelry is over, Salem, along with the state and federal government, should dedicate itself to creating such a museum,” the editorial said.
“Haunted Happenings is not, in itself, disrespectful of Salem’s witch-trial past. Its long list of events includes a highly regarded tour of witch-trial sites, a re-enactment of a trial, and actors playing characters from the trials at the birthplace of Nathaniel Hawthorne, whose writings were deeply influenced by his horror at having descended from one of the judges.”
The editorial was forwarded to University of Virginia professor Benjamin C. Ray, who has written extensively on the religious aspects of the trails. He also maintains the Salem Witch Trials Documentary Archive and Transcription website.
Ray, who said he traces his ancestral roots back to Salem Village (which is called Danvers today), was eventually taped to collaborate on the film with award-winning director Tom Phillips and several other leading and local academics on the subject, including Mary Beth Norton of Cornell University, the author of In the Devil’s Snare.
Emerson (Tad) Baker of Salem State University, who recently published The Devil of Great Island: Witchcraft and Conflict in Early New England and Danvers archivist Richard Trask also worked on the movie.
“It seemed like a good juncture for several of us historians who have been working together to see if it was possible to make a short video documentary that could be made for the benefit of the tourists of Salem so they could have a very well-grounded story,” Ray said. “And what we focused on was the question of ‘How it began’ and if you understand that you understand a great deal.
“It’s the first time in Salem that there’s been a presentation about the Salem Witch trials which is really created by historians, a team of historians. It’s important because it’s historians who have access to the primary sources and there’s an extensive amount of them.”
The film draws on a reexamination of nearly 1,000 manuscript records and published material, including recently discovered documents.
The movie is also the first of its kind that bases the dialog of its reenactment scenes on what was actually said in the courtroom based on court records from the time. The film also draws on sermons from the minister of Salem Village.
“You can’t believe they really had these conversations but they did,” said Phillips who also directed ‘Salem Unmasking the Devil,’ which is set to premier on The National Geographic Channel. “So the real dialog is terrifying that they said this and let it continue. You hear exactly what they said and that is shocking.
‘The big attraction for me is that it even happened. I worked in TV and most of the stories I do are all fiction … but in this case the truth is unbelievable and it has all the elements of an excellent script by the best writer in the world. But it wasn’t written for that reason. It actually happened that way.”
The film was shot on location at sites associated with the actual events, including the Rebecca Nurse Homestead and the Parris Parsonage foundation in Danvers and the Corwin House (Witch House) in Salem.
Phillips said while the audience will find the movie entertaining, he also hopes “you will walk out wanting to learn more and pick up a book or go to a website.”
Ray said he hopes the audience comes away with an understanding and foundation of what happened, where it happened and why it happened.
‘You see that it’s a community where the authorities from both levels of community and state government and the church all panicked,” he said. “There was fear that the central institution, namely the church itself, was under attack. This is unique because witchcraft up till that time was one neighbor attacking another. In this case it seemed it was the whole church under attack.
“It seems the bay colony of Massachusetts at the time had a global enemy that was attacking the central institutions and there are [modern] parallels to that which are obvious. It seemed like Salem Village was Ground Zero. It seemed like the best reaction was to arrest as many people who seemed suspicious; to stamp it out. That activity, the legal activity, is what actually caused the alarm and is what drove it forward.”
Tomorrow’s opening night is free but reservations are required. Refreshments and a brief presentation will be followed by a 7:30 p.m. show time. The scholars, director and others involved in the making of the film also conduct a discussion on the film. For reservations contact Essex Heritage at 978-740-0444 or visit the website at www.essexheritage.org/salemwitchhunt/.
Justin A. Rice can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.