In the past, present, and undoubtedly in the future, deceptive individuals take advantage of the anxieties and fears of society. When a society’s insecurities are exposed and raw, a disconcerted mood spreads throughout the people. This contagion can engulf an entire population and become like a living entity, causing people to act rashly and hypocritically. Whether or not the fear is justified, a convincing individual can exploit a certain mentality called mob psychology. Mob psychology involves manipulating the hysteria of a crowd to fulfill one’s desires. In Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, Abigail Williams and other characters spread a fear of witches in the Puritan town of Salem. The fear that they spread ends up permeating their community and dominating the lives of everyone in the town. The psychological phenomenon known as mass hysteria has an important effect on the events in The Crucible.
The Crucible contains many important events that precede the madness that ensues by the end of the play. Abigail Williams, for instance, has a love affair with John Proctor, and wants Proctor to leave his wife Elizabeth for her. Another character with a hidden agenda is Mr. Thomas Putnam, who hopes to take over some of his neighbor’s land. To amplify the situation, a group of girls are questioned by ministers for performing witch-like rituals in the forest. A Puritan belief of the 17th century is that the devil and other demons live in the forest, and that witchcraft is performed there as well. Dissembling citizens begin to accuse others of witchcraft, with a very selfish motive. As John Proctor describes the hysteria that ensues,’vengeance is walking Salem’ (1079). The vengeance that Proctor is talking about is the motive for all the accusers. The accusers are able to get away with injustices in the court because the townspeople are extremely afraid of witchcraft, and thus are eager to annihilate any signs of it.
The mass hysteria also has an incredible effect later in the play, when the witchcraft trials take place. Many people are being convicted with very insubstantial testimony, and with no tangible evidence at all. This is because the people of the town have been surrounded by the witchcraft frenzy so much, that they ignore their conscience. They become infatuated with the existence of witches, and seek to eradicate them. Since the people of Salem are very vulnerable, ‘ It is not hard to see how many could have been led to believe that the time of confusion had been brought upon them by deep and darkling forces’ (1036).
The Puritans believe that all evil and disorder is linked to the Devil. At the trial, even people as wise as Reverend Hale are confused as to what is the truth and what is false. This is an example of illusion vs. reality, because so many people are ‘crying witch’, that it becomes impossible to discern the people that have selfish intent from those that actually believe in witchcraft. The mass hysteria causes the citizens to assume the defendants are guilty before they are officially tried.
Though the hysteria in the Salem witch trials takes place in 17th century Massachusetts, a more modern version of this psychological phenomenon takes place during the 1950s. The hearings of Senator Joe McCarthy also utilize mob psychology for the benefit of an individual. McCarthy uses the fear of an attack by the Communist Soviet Union to build up hype in order to develop his political career. This fear that, ‘in America, any man who is reactionary in his views is open to the charge of alliance with the Red hell’ (1052), is an example of the fears people have of Communist infiltration.
The ‘Red hell’ mentioned by the narrator is the Communist Party, and during the 1950s, one would be tried for treason if he or she is accused of being affiliated with this unfavorable party. The reaction of the people to this hype is just as McCarthy expects. The people become frightened and the truth becomes hazy. As a mechanism of defense, people begin to scapegoat each other. When high officials are eventually accused, the entire idea is dropped, and the emotions return back to normal. This is a parallel to the part Rebecca Nurse has in The Crucible. She is a highly respected community figure, and when she is accused of witchcraft, people begin to reevaluate the validity of the claims.
In other great literary works, the theme of mass hysteria is present to show the hypocritical side of society or in portraying effective ways of persuading a crowd. One such instance of persuasion is in William Shakespeare’s, Julius Caesar. The character Mark Antony speaks to the mourners at Caesar’s funeral, which are completely against him, and he turns the crowd entirely in his favor. Mark Antony uses verbal tools such as sarcasm and repetition to turn the crowd in his favor, so that he might have people help him retaliate against Caesar’s murderers. The phenomenon of mass hysteria strongly influences the events in literature, and parallels can be drawn between those events and modern events. The Crucible is a powerful example of mass hysteria invading a population like a rampant virus consuming its host.