SALEM — The story of how the Salem Witch Museum was named the No. 2 tourist trap in the entire world — a badge it wears proudly, according to the museum’s executive director — began with online reviews. Those reliable things.
In July, USA Today analyzed 23.2 million Google reviews to determine the world’s 500 most popular tourist attractions, across 65 countries and six continents. The Witch Museum, which draws more than 300,000 visitors a year and is the most popular attraction in Salem, made that global list. Which is good, except that was not the purpose of the list.
With the goal of helping savvy travelers avoid “destination letdown,” the analyses dove into those reviews, searching out the terms “tourist trap,” “overrated,” and “expensive.” And it was here that the Salem Witch Museum stood out, placing 98th on the list of overpriced sites (tickets are $17.50 for adults) and 61st on the list of overrated sites, before taking the penultimate prize in the ranking of the world’s biggest tourist traps. It was second only to the Four Corners Monument in the American Southwest, which allows visitors to stand where Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah meet. Apparently, many people were disappointed after paying $8 to see a dot in the desert.
For the Witch Museum, though, there were consistent complaints, namely that it was dated and that visitors were practically forced into the gift shop. So let’s pay a visit, shall we?
On a Tuesday afternoon in early October, as peak Halloween tourist season in the Witch City was getting rolling, the museum was mobbed, sold out for the day, with crowds lined up outside the former East Church, a Gothic Revival brownstone built in the 1840s. In 1972, the building — which had been serving as an auto museum — was converted into the Salem Witch Museum, capitalizing on a renewed interest in the city’s witch history spurred by the 1953 Arthur Miller play, “The Crucible,” and the television show “Bewitched,” which ran from 1964-1972.
The main exhibit, a dark room filled with mannequins portraying 13 scenes from the witch trials of 1692, features a recorded Vincent Price-esque narration along with spooky music and lots of moaning and shrieking. When it opened in 1972, the Salem Evening News wrote that “the figures don’t move, but they seem to.”
Fifty-one years later, those figures still haven’t moved, and that is the chief criticism lodged by reviewers. The figures themselves look dusty, and several seem like they need repair, and the only thing dynamic about the presentation is the lighting, which illuminates such scenes as an old woman sitting on a bed; four women watching a large pot; and a man in hunting garb with a musket and a dog.
The climactic scenes, of a man being pressed to death under a pile of rocks, and a man hanging from a tree, feel both disconcerting and comical. The exhibit is largely unchanged since 1972 ― save for some minor tweaks to the mannequins and narration — and the whole thing, in a word that comes up again and again, feels “dated.”
“There are some people who say it’s nostalgic, but we are aware others say it’s outdated,” said Tina Jordan, the museum’s executive director, who said plans to revamp the exhibit have been in the works for years but have been derailed by COVID and costly repairs to the stone exterior.
“We’re not trying to be Disney. Our focus is on history, and the most accurate information we have been able to glean to explain to visitors why the Salem Witch Trials are important,” she added.
Another point made in negative reviews is one of the times. “I feel like I could have just watched a YouTube video,” said Jeremy Barneck, a visitor from Tennessee. Counterpoint from Jordan: “There are great YouTube videos about everything,” she said. “But YouTube didn’t exist when we were created.”
Barneck’s father-in-law, Dave Rogers, went further in his criticism of the presentation. “It was a good nap,” he said.
And then there is the gift shop, where some tourists complain they are literally trapped. After the presentation in the main exhibit, the group is divided in half. One group goes straight to the second of the two exhibits, Evolving Perceptions, which was added in 1999 and features self-guided displays. The second group must go to the gift shop for 12 minutes to wait, and perhaps shop, before it is their turn to go into the second exhibit. As they do, the first group exits. Through the gift shop.
Outside, a group of older women from New Jersey who had just left the museum were sitting on a bench having a lively debate when a Globe reporter approached. Their topic: Was the museum worth it?
“I say no, but I’m being voted down,” Eileen Farrell said. “It looks like they haven’t put a penny back into it. It needs to be upgraded.”
Others in her group thought the whole thing was informative and said the ticket price ($16 for seniors) was hardly a rip-off.
Elsewhere outside, Ross and Kayla Hanna, a couple from Michigan, said the price was right but didn’t have much else good to say. “The music, the displays, everything could have been better,” Kayla Hanna said.
“It was definitely more of a tourist trap than an attraction or a museum,” Ross Hanna said, as he looked around at the huge crowds waiting their turn to go in. “But they really pack them in, don’t they? Hard to blame them for not putting money into it when all this money is still coming out.”
And it’s worth noting that of the 9,240 Google reviews of the museum used in the analysis, only 113, or 1.22 percent, called it a tourist trap. As Jordan, the museum’s director, put it, the criticism is a testament to its popularity. Roughly 100,000 people will visit in October alone.
“I was just in Greece, and there were people calling the Acropolis a tourist trap,” she said. “And when you look at that tourist trap list, with Ben & Jerry’s and Mystic Seaport, we’re in good company.”
She was referring to the Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream Factory in Waterbury, Vt., and the Mystic Seaport in Connecticut, which were the other two New England destinations to score high (or is it low?) on the list. Ben & Jerry’s was No. 22 on the tourist trap list, No. 28 on the most overrated, and No. 75 on the most overpriced, while Mystic Seaport ranked 68th as a tourist trap and 54th for most overpriced. Canobie Lake Park in New Hampshire, the only other New England attraction to make the list, was ranked the 14th most overpriced.
“But with anything like this, you have to expect it to be a tourist trap,” said Rogers, the good nap guy. “It’s Salem in October. Isn’t that kind of the whole point?”