Now, we return to Switzerland, to the beautiful and historic little town of Poschiavo, nestled beneath the Alps, Italian speaking, with great food, clean air and sparkling water, and lots of happy, happy cows all around. But what mysteries do those smiling bovine faces hide? As it turns out, there is a dark past to this pretty little town. The picture above is taken from an old courthouse in Poschiavo whose upper floors used to double as a jail. You can’t perfectly make it out, but the long hallways towards the stairs slopes downward. The reason? Because shackled prisoners were dragged downstairs to be tortured and, eventually, executed. The slope made the guards job easier.
During the Seventeenth Century, and probably reaching a peak between 1671-1678, Poschiavo was Witch Hunt territory. There are estimates that the Witch Hunts here took the lives of 100 people over a period of ninety years. That is a remarkable stretch of time. The courthouse and prison cells are fairly creepy and resonant of darker times. But I must confess, I had a very hard time finding anything about this interesting period of history on the Internet, or anywhere in English (with the exception of a few references to the feminist side of the Witch Trials, for which Poschiavo seems to be famous).
Now consider for a moment and for comparison the super-famous Salem Witch trails that took place starting in the late 17th Century in Massachusetts, in the good old U.S. of A. These Witch Trails were gory and fascinating, resulted in the execution of twenty people, and took place over one year. And look at the tourist industry they’ve spawned! American style touristic excesses abound around the Salem Witch Trails. There are, of course, numerous Salem Witch tours to choose from. Do you want to travel to the Witch Trials Memorial? See The Burying Point? There is a also a wonderful Salem Witch Museum in Boston. All around Salem you can find a huge variety of merchandise that is branded with the place and the Witch Trials. You can find books, of course, DVDs, and innumerable t-shirts. But you can also get accessories, jewelry, clothing, cards, games, novelties, housewares, and more. Sign me up for a Salem Witch Trials backpack. Who doesn’t need a set of Salem With Trials tumblers? Of course, if you’re a real witch, you are going to want to pay your respects to the Craft and the Sisterhood and shop locally at Crow Haven Corner: The First Witch Shop in Salem Massachusetts. There are, in short, numerous opportunities to explore and to tangibly realize consumers’ collective fascination with these historical matters of the Dark Arts, and equally wonderful ways for good capitalists to cash in on those needs.
So how about those Alpine Witch Trails? That’s my name for it, I trademarked it, I own the symbol and all the rights are reserved. We need to sensationalize this! Right? We need some gruesome pictures. Some big quotes from the well-stocked Poschiavo archives translated into six languages and put on a board: “Confess, Witch, else Thee Shall Feel The Fresh Anvilled Heat of the Devile.” We need some ancient torture apparatus. Maybe a daily or weekly re-enactment using tourist volunteers. I’m a marketer, forgive me, but this is kind of like discovering oil on public land for someone who is attuned to the potential of touristic marketing.
So why, I wonder, doesn’t Poschiavo do some of these things? I didn’t even mention the creepy Memento Mori full of skulls in the town square, the reminder that we are all mortal, and that the Reaper waits for each of us. I didn’t mention an entire generation of Witchcraft and Wizardly fanatics, via Harry Potter craze, with its Harry Potter Spoiler fever (need I mention it, after so recently writing about it here). I also didn’t mention the growing important of Halloween as a European family holiday, imported from the USA. How important and central Poschiavo becomes in this mystical, historical, horror-drenched Halloween-oriented touristic trend is up for grabs.
I wonder if there is a type of high-class European disdain as the prevailing sentiment here. Poschiavo is an “authentic” place, pretty low key, not a lot of neon, no big hotels with names like “The Venetian.” It is quaint, quiet, and beautiful. Maybe it doesn’t need or want the sort of crass commercialism and promotion that such publicity would bring. Writers about tourism from John Urry to Kevin Hetherington to Shelley Hornstein have all noted consumers’ desire for authenticity in their travel experiences.
Would publicizing the true and truly horrific events of Valposchaivo that took place for NINETY YEARS really undermine the place’s authenticity? Or would it increase it? Would a touristic rush of witch-fans tip the touristic scale and make the place less desirable for Alpine travelers and hikers? Is there a Terrible Touristic Tradeoff that one must account for when branding and promoting a place? Does it cheapen history? Does it degrade the memory of those who perished? I suppose we should ask the same question of the people who profit from and who visit places like the Salem Witch Museum, Gettysburg, Normandy, the Auschwitz concentration camps, and other places of historical interest.
It’s worth thinking about the branding of authenticity in terms of place a lot more, and untapped touristic resources like the Mysterious Sibyls of piazzo del Borgo and the Alpine Witch Trials of Poschiavo are great places for thought experiments like this one, or even more, careful enactments that could start from, oh I don’t know, some blog entry by some marketing professor who is oddly attracted to strange and wonderful things.
But I’ll tell you what: I’d love to go back there to Valposchiavo and help them plan it out. Find the right balance. But let people know what happened there, and what it means, and what mysteries the place holds. And maybe, when I’m done, you’ll have heard about the Alpine Witch Trials, learned their lessons, and those of you who want them will have your t-shirts, Sibyl calendars, torture chamber museums, and Memento Mori toothbrushes to choose from, and to remember. And the residents of Poschiavo can take their town’s amazing history and its authenticity to the (Swiss) bank.