By Joey Phoenix
Salem tourists are spoiled for choice with the range of distinct tour options in the downtown. Visitors can take history tours and ghost tours and cemetery tours or even follow historic reenactors around, learning about witches, Puritans, Hollywood, tombstone engravings, and much more, sometimes even in the same night.
Because Salem’s history is so unusual, this variety is a positive thing, because it takes a lot of humans with different perspectives to be able to tell the story of Salem well.
Dynamic History Salem, owned and operated by Dr. Rebecca Johnson (she/her/hers), is the newest game on the scene, and she’s bringing her own unique flair to the world of tourism in Witch City. This Halloween season she’s offering two new tours, PopSalem, which celebrates the weird pop history of the city, and the other, MeetSalem, the accessible “Salem 101” option.
Importantly, her tours are also smaller than a majority of the walking tours other organizations in the city offer, allowing for more back and forth discussion and opportunities to ask questions in this more intimate space.
“What I’m most interested in doing is giving people the space to have an authentic interaction with Salem. I never have more than ten people on the tour so that there’s room for people to ask questions and engage with the stories in a conversational, interactive way,” Johnson said.
She’s also made it a point to center accessibility and inclusivity into her tours. As a “Safe Zone” trained tour guide with one of the area’s only distinctly accessible tours for those who struggle with mobility, she’s providing opportunities for people who might not have previously been able to attend a Salem tour the chance to participate in the Salem tourist experience.
“Salem is an old New England town with cobblestones and bricks, which is challenging, but for the MeetSalem tour I scouted out a route where the ramps look pretty smooth, the sidewalks are pretty level, and there are a lot of benches around in case people need to sit down,” she said.
“There are so many experiences that should be available to people but aren’t, because while the changes we’d need to make in order to invite more people into that space are miniscule, we just don’t think of them,” she added.
Dr. Johnson’s Personal History with History
A former educator and academic, Dr. Johnson’s attraction to history began in her youth when she found herself becoming drawn to historical reenactment.
“I kept telling my parents that instead of me continuing in school, we could just move to Plymouth, Massachusetts, and become reenactors,” she remembered. “It was probably for the best that they never took me up on that.”
Despite these early leanings, Johnson’s path wasn’t linear by any means. She initially studied as a biologist in the field of aquatic ecology before transitioning to American religious history and ultimately earning a PhD in American studies from Penn State University.
“Those things might seem disconnected to most, but to me they’re not,” she explained. “What I’m most interested in is relationships, particularly in the way that we relate to our environments, be that natural or cultural, and also to each other.”
Johnson spent a decade teaching before she eventually caught the tour guide bug. Inspired by a friend and Boston tour guide of more than thirty years, she left the world of more structured, academic education for something a bit more interactive.
“I had just reached a point in my life where I was kind of ready to leave the classroom, literally and figuratively. And so guiding tours just felt like a natural fit,” Johnson said.
She secured a position as a seasonal historic interpreter at the House of the Seven Gables, which has been a cultural touchstone for many tour guides who have worked in Salem throughout the years. On her tours, she tells the story of Salem through the lens of the historic 17th century home.
“The history of that house tells you the history of Salem, it tells you Salem’s literary history, it tells you the history of slavery in Massachusetts, there are so many lovely stories that intersect at that one site,” she said.
Take a tour with Dynamic History Salem
You too can take one of Dynamic History Salem’s two tours.
The first, MeetSalem is mobility accessible, goes over a wide variety of different stories from religious history, literary history, military history, and more; and the second, PopSalem, about all the ways that Salem has appeared in popular culture over the years.
On the PopSalem tour, you might learn such things as what Johnny Cash’s connection to Salem is, and what eldritch horrors H.P. Lovecraft might have gleaned from his time here, among many other juicy historical tidbits.
“One of my driving questions is why are we the international capital of Halloween? Of all of the places in the world, why here?” She says. “On my tours I really like digging into the question of what this phenomenon says about us as a culture, and creating space for conversations about that.”
For the rest of this month, you’re invited to take a tour with Dynamic History Salem at a 20% discount. Just enter the code HH2021 at checkout when booking at dynamichistorysalem.com/tours
You can also learn more about Dr. Rebecca Johnson and Dynamic History Salem at dynamichistorysalem.com. For updates on tours and offerings, you can also follow her @DynamicHistorySalem on Facebook and Instagram or listen to her Dynamic History Salem podcast.