Hysteria has a long and damaging history in America. The Salem witch trials of the 1690s are one of the first instances of American hysteria, a madness dramatized in Arthur Miller’s 1953 classic The Crucible. Miller penned this play during the height of “McCarthyism,” an era eerily similar to contemporary “terrorism” panic. Hysteria in The Crucible, and in modern American life, has many damaging effects. It fosters abuse, distorts facts, enables hidden agendas, kills true spirituality and crucifies truth.
In Act 1 of The Crucible, witchcraft rumors transform a group of teenagers into the most influential and abusive women of Salem. Abigail Williams, trying to establish a relationship with the married John Proctor, leads a teen group who promote slanderous rumors of spirit possession. Abigail accuses the Barbadian servant Tituba (the only person of color in the story) as the one who opened Salem’s door to the devil. Many more are soon identified as “possessed,” including Betty Paris, Mary Warren and eventually Proctor’s wife, Elizabeth. Like Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s hunt for Communists in the 1950s and contemporary promoters of anti-Muslim sentiment, the Salem accusers hold tremendous power over the accused, due to the surrounding public hysteria. Without hysteria, such a small group could not steer society.
Hysteria also blinds citizens to objective examination of facts. Common sense is lost as bits of information, rumor and suggestion spin into “factual” narrative. In The Crucible, Mary Warren sews a puppet which is found in Elizabeth Proctor’s home with a needle stabbed into its torso. Abigail then declares that she feels “stuck by a needle,” and the townsmen hysterically cart Elizabeth to trial, while ignoring Mary’s ownership claim to the puppet.
During fits of American terror hysteria, official narratives often overwhelm basic facts. It is physically impossible for two aluminum airplanes to perfectly implode the steel-framed buildings of the World Trade Center. What actually happened on 9/11? Hysteria blames radical Muslims, not the architects of an obvious demolition. Other terrorist events like the Boston Marathon bombing and the San Bernardino shootings have official narratives that also don’t logically add up. Yet hysteria, combined with severely limited facts, keeps half-truths from critical investigation.
Why not allow an objective third party to debrief Dzokhar Tsarnaev and ascertain his motivational sources? Would a newlywed couple with a 6-month-old child randomly conduct a suicidal religious-political rampage? Where is the third shooter who was present in all of the initial reports from San Bernardino? Hysteria blinds objective investigation of basic questions when it comes to terrorism and witchcraft in America.
In the introduction to his collected plays, Arthur Miller said that he was moved to write The Crucible because a campaign “was capable of creating not only terror, but a new subjective reality, a veritable mystique which was gradually assuming even a holy resonance.” Contemporary America has re-entered this state of mind.
Who benefits from hysteria? Herein lay the promulgators. In The Crucible, Abigail Williams coveted John Proctor. Additionally, Thomas Putnam wanted land from Giles Corey to settle a long-standing resentment. Both Putnam and Williams promote hysteria in Salem, because it serves their ends. What parties benefit from American terror, hysteria and increased anti-Muslim sentiment?
Arthur Miller noted that many biblical references appear in the real Salem witch trial testimonies. Miller laments that “even as religious belief did nothing to temper cruelty—and in fact might be shown to have made the cruel crueler—it often served to raise this swirling and ludicrous mysticism to a level of high moral debate; and it did this despite the fact that most of the participants were unlettered, simple folk.”
Honesty hangs in the end. The Crucible closes with John Proctor, the only sinner who sincerely confesses his misdeeds, heading to the gallows. Truth is executed in Salem, just like truth is killed in contemporary America during “terrorism” hysteria. Here are facts: In America since 9/11, forty-five people have been killed in terrorist attacks and forty-eight people have been killed by white supremacists or right-wing extremists, while 200,000 people have been killed by “conventional murder,” a definition that could also read "gunned down for other reasons."
Like our ancestors in Salem, we can follow the facts or follow hysteria. If we follow hysteria, we must then accept hysteria’s effects. Arthur Miller noted in a 1991 speech, “We can be led or misled by a purity of belief.”
Lee Miller graduated from Cornell University and has taught writing for over 12 years at the secondary and post-secondary levels. This column connects current events with classic literature.