SALEM — This old city, some say, is locked in an eternal wrestling match with itself. Is this the historic seaport of art and culture, or the "Witch City" of psychics and ghost tours?
The Park and Recreation Commission ventured into that quicksand this week when it denied a request by a group of paranormal investigators from Rhode Island to search for ghosts in the Witch House, the former home of Jonathan Corwin, an infamous judge during the Witch Trials of 1692.
In essence, a majority of the board — only three of the five members were present — said it would be in bad taste to allow ghost hunters to go inside an historic, 17th-century house that is tied to such an important and tragic event.
"We have to have respect for the gravity of the injustice that occurred in 1692," member Chris Burke said.
After the rejection, Spirit Finders Paranormal Investigators said they were "severely disappointed."
They asked questions that others have asked: How could a city that licenses psychics, sends its children to Witchcraft Heights School and sells official Salem blood during Halloween turn down a "scientific" investigation of one of its most historic witch properties?
Where does Salem draw the line?
In an interview after the meeting, there was even a suggestion that the city is being hypocritical for calling this 9 North St. property the "Witch House."
"Then don't call it the Witch House anymore," said Eric Fraize, the self-proclaimed "Witch King of Salem," who represented the paranormal group at the meeting. "Call it the 'Jonathan Corwin House.' You can't have it both ways. ...
"If they wanted to have respect, they'd take the witch off the police cars. ... They'd stop calling it 'The Witch City,' and Haunted Happenings would shut down."
Spirit Finders was certainly caught off guard by the board's decision.
After all, only a few weeks ago, they got a warm welcome when they first presented the idea to the board.
In fact, Chairman James Shea, who was absent this week, seemed downright enthusiastic back then.
"I think it could help sell tickets," said Shea, who knows something about selling tickets. His family runs the Salem Wax Museum.
On Tuesday night, Fraize tried to persuade a board that did not include Shea that news of a ghost hunt could only boost attendance at a city tourist attraction that does not draw big crowds.
"It would generate more revenue," he said. "I'm not sure why anybody would say no to money."
A similar spirit search proved to be good business for the Hawthorne Hotel, which was visited by the reality TV show "Ghost Hunters" more than a year ago.
"When people call to make reservations, we ask how they heard about the hotel," said Juli Lederhaus, general manager of the Hawthorne. "Lots of people tell us they saw us on 'Ghost Hunters.'"
(For the record, "Ghost Hunters" failed to find any ghosts in the Hawthorne Hotel).
While not as successful as the Salem Witch Museum, the Witch House is not exactly a loser. It made a profit of $175,000 this year.
"We always like a bigger pie, but it's certainly not insignificant," said Commissioner Laura Swanson.
Board member Maryann Curtin was strongly opposed to opening their doors to a group armed with night-vision camcorders, electromagnetic-force readers and tape recorders.
"I don't see what benefit the city would get from people finding spirits there," she said.
Swanson said she feared that this paranormal activity "has the possibility to overshadow or maybe distract from the historic significance we look to promote."
Since news reports first appeared of Spirit Finders, the board said it has been contacted by two other paranormal groups. If they approve one ghost hunt, one member asked, how can they turn down others?
The board also said it investigated references from Spirit Finders and found that some of the historic properties had mixed experiences.
In his pitch to the board, Fraize said that Spirit Finders is a nonprofit group interested only in scientific inquiry. He said he believes so much in this group that he allowed them to conduct a paranormal investigation of his own home.
"Interestingly enough," he said, "they found nothing."