In Salem, a tale of fear so real you could touch it

By David Rattigan
Globe Correspondent / October 16, 2011

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The Salem witch hysteria has gone 3-D.

In “The True 1692,’’ filmmaker Paul Van Ness uses 3-D technology, actors, and narrative technique to provide a new look at the strange and sad events of that year, when 19 people were hanged and one was pressed to death as witch hysteria gripped the region. Shot in diverse locations, including Salem’s Pioneer Village, a re-creation of the English colony where Puritans lived surrounded by the potentially dangerous unknown, the film presents the events in a historically accurate way, using theatrical techniques.

“I love 3-D and think it has a huge potential for engaging the audience in a way that 2-D can’t,’’ Van Ness said. “When you’re watching something in 3-D, you actually have to do more work than if you’re watching the same thing in 2-D, and that work is the same work you have to do if you’re actually in somebody’s presence. So there’s a sense of immersion, a sense of engagement that’s deeper.’’

The 35-minute film plays on the hour at CinemaSalem (owned by Van Ness) at the Museum Place Mall, and is one of two films about the witch trials to debut this month, and one of six new attractions for day-trippers and tourists making their annual October pilgrimage to Salem.

“It’s always good to have new things,’’ said Kate Fox, executive director of Destination Salem, a marketing group that promotes the city. “So many people come to Salem year after year that if we didn’t have new things, they’d get bored. The new productions keep it fresh.’’

Among the other new attractions:

■ The Essex National Heritage Commission has produced its own film, playing around the corner from CinemaSalem at the National Park Service Visitor Center at 2 New Liberty St. Called “Salem Witch Hunt: Examine the Evidence,’’ it features reenactors speaking from the words of victims and accusers, taken from nearly 1,000 manuscripts and other written records.

■The Witch Mansion is a new haunted house at 186 Essex St., on the pedestrian mall.

■ The Witches Cottage, 7 Lynde St., is offering a new dramatic production as actors perform excerpts from “The Crucible,’’ with a question and answer period afterward.

■ Gordon College’s History Alive! program plans to add “Chambers of the Curse’’ at the Old Town Hall, scheduled to debut Saturday. The interactive, multimedia theatrical production focuses on some of the more strange and frightening aspects of Salem’s nearly 400-year history, including eccentric characters, other-worldly events, crimes, and the possible curse that ties them together.

Shot this summer, “The True 1692’’ was produced by CinemaSalem and History Alive!, a branch of the Gordon College Institute for Public History. Among the theatrical elements is the use of a fictional narrator - played by 16-year-old Gordon freshman Amelia Haas - who tells the story from the point of view of a witness to the events.

One of the goals of the film was to steer modern audiences to relate to the ethical choices made during the witch hysteria by capturing the confusion and the overwhelming emotional experience of that time period.

“It’s a story about misunderstanding; it’s a story about fear, and the kind of compromises people make with each other and with their values because of fear,’’ said Van Ness, who wrote, directed, and produced the film. He cited the reactions many people had following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks as an example of a population overwhelmed with fear, and choices made in that context.

“We’re hoping to make it a story that people can relate to, even though it’s 300 years later, by making clear - and hopefully emotionally accessible - the sort of life that they lived back then,’’ Van Ness said.

“They were really on the edge, in terms of even basic things like security and starvation, and they had to face death pretty regularly, [because] of conflicts with the Indians and smallpox. So they probably were people in crisis, and their decision-making might have been compromised, just as when we’re in crisis, our decision-making might be compromised.’’

As the narrator mentions in the film, had the events occurred a year later, when they weren’t in the midst of a drought and a terrible season for crops, people may have reacted differently.

“I think there can be a tendency to look back at the witchcraft hysteria and think that if we had been there we would have been able to solve it; we would have been able to act more nobly and put an end to it earlier,’’ said Kristina Wacome Stevick, a Gordon College professor who co-directed the film.

In addition to Pioneer Village, the Rebecca Nurse Homestead in Danvers, and other historical sites, Van Ness filmed in places such as Beverly’s Sally Milligan Park and a beach in Magnolia, where he could recreate wooded surroundings or the undeveloped coastline of the 1600s.

Megan and Sam Leathers of State College, Pa., were at the first public screening of the film, and enjoyed it.

“It was a lot less theatrical then I expected, which made it really refreshing,’’ said Megan Leathers. Said her husband: “I really appreciated the historical side, and the perspective.’’

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