Mass hysteria in The Crucible

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In the late 17th century, accusations and rumors of witchcraft spread rapidly across the New England colonies. The strict, disciplined, theocratic colony of Massachusetts was aghast as the demonic sensation washed over the community. The mere possibility of devil worship challenged the church and its power. In Arthur Miller’s historical drama, The Crucible, the Puritan town of Salem, Massachusetts undergoes a tumultuous time as the witch trials begin and introduce mass hysteria into the once peaceful colonial town; this palpable confusion and panic results in the skewing of rational thought and consequently the deaths of nineteen innocent Christians due to the hubris of one scorned female.

The American Playwright, Arthur Miller (see Appendix I), experienced hardship as a child. He endured through the Great Depression at a young age and consequently could not attend university due to a lack of funds. Eventually, after working multiple jobs, Miller attended the University of Michigan and graduated in 1938 (“The Crucible”). During his time there, Miller received the position of night editor of the Michigan Daily.

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This writing job was his inspiration to start writing plays (Harmon, Justin). Upon graduating, Arthur Miller worked with the Federal Theatre Project in 1938. (“The Crucible”). This would prove to be a learning experience as Miller would be introduced into the world of theatre and film. A mere six years later, Miller produced his first Broadway production in 1944: The Man Who Had All the Luck (“The Crucible”). Gradually over the next decade, Miller would transition from entertainment plays to ones of more value and substance.

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In addition, Arthur Miller began to focus on more controversial topics like anti-Semitism, on which he wrote a novel. In the middle of the 20th century, Miller would become more involved politically. Miller would participate in political debates, most of which revolved around inequality issues. His views and opinions, however, brought suspicion upon him during the early 1950s (“Arthur Miller”). The House Un American Activities Committee of the McCarthy era eventually accused Miller, himself, of being a communist. In 1957, he was charged with contempt of congress as he refused to divulge any names of anyone having communist ties or sympathies (“The Crucible”). It was these experiences during these the 1950s hysteria that inspired Miller to write about how reasonable behavior can turn irrational as a result of fear and the desire to blame others for the problems in a society.

Although the play takes place in Salem, Massachusetts, a small agrarian town in 1692, the play is also an allegory of 1950s America under McCarthyism. This two-fold social milieu deepens the meaning of the play as it compares a piece of history to a contemporary event and situation. McCarthyism and the fear of communism is reminiscent of the Salem witch trials happening throughout the play. McCarthy’s and HUAC’s blind persecution of those suspected to be communists is comparable to the accusations of witchcraft occurring at the time of the historical drama. The main difference between the two eras, however, is the type of fear existent. During colonial times, the fear experienced by the settlers was one of internal fear–the colonists feared their neighbors because of the chance that they might be witches. On the other hand, 1950s America was covered in a fear of what was outside of the United States. The fact that the communist countries could attack at any moment frightened the United States. These two fears, while different, paralyzed the masses; society almost stopped completely due to that high level of alarm and panic. Chaos ensues when order disintegrates and the people are too scared to think.

In The Crucible, the overarching theme of mass hysteria is shown throughout the play due to the start of the witch trials in Salem. The once tranquil, Puritan town of Salem is overrun by chaos as allegations of witchcraft spread. Abigail Williams is the prime suspect of being a witch but also simultaneously the chief accuser. She rampantantly and excessively accused members of the town of being involved in witchcraft. She did so in order to take attention off of herself and her alleged actions and to turn the rest of the town on whomever she accused. In addition to her tactics and trickery, the town itself was descending into hysteria and utter confusion by itself. Reverend John Hale described Salem’s situation, “There are orphans wandering from house to house; abandoned cattle bellow on the highroads, the stink of rotting crops hangs everywhere, and no man knows when the harlots’ cry will end his life” (The Crucible 135). The witch trials have not only affected those accused or those in religious professions, it has affected the entire town. Hysteria not only causes disorder and chaos, but it has the potential to draw in those usually not affected or involved. Susanna Walcott is a good example of how some people just become taken over by the hysteria. Walcott is one of Abigail’s friends and employs the same tacticas Abigail does of accusing village members in order to give herself more power and standing. In her case, she did it because she enjoyed the attention she received and the power that came along with accusing others. As the literary critic Phillip G. Hill once stated, “What Miller seems to be suggesting in his play is that examples of collective hysteria which lead to false accusations by a body of people who know those accusations to be untrue are not just examples of malicious slander but may also reveal deep-seated neuroses about individual freedoms caused by an excessive focus on social acceptance” (Hill). In stating this, Hill gives reason behind the actions under hysteria as the girls used this time as an opportunity to augment their social freedoms and powers that they held. John Proctor sums up the the chaos quite well, “I’ll tell you what’s walking in Salem – vengeance is walking in Salem. We are what we always were in Salem, but now the little crazy children are jangling the keys of the kingdom, and common vengeance writes the law!” (The Crucible 55) Proctor’s statement vividly expresses the backwardness of Salem at this time. Salem was so overwhelmed by the hysteria of the witch trials that it allowed itself to be ruled by adolescents. The pandemonium that Salem experienced reversed the social order and the power balance that had been in existence for several decades. The second theme found throughout The Crucible is the skewing of rational thought.

As mayhem wreaks havoc in the town, the loss of individualized thought or dissent amongst the town people occurs. “The Salem witch trials stand as an example of religious hysteria and mob mentality in American history” (Warshow 297). The critic here is clearly stating that the town in 1692 was one that operated as a singular body–accusations made were not questioned and the hunt for the witches would not stop until all had been caught and hanged.

As another literary critic described, “The boundaries between fact and fiction are easily blurred when there are so few opportunities for expression” (“The Crucible”). This quote describes the situation of Salem and how the townspeople operated as a result of the mass hysteria. The widespread hysteria in Salem altered any rational thought or opinion at this time. For example, the town was clearly in a state of disorder when Rebecca Nurse, a woman of substantial wisdom and insight along with great moral strength, was charged with performing witchcraft. This collective madness resulted in a poor, innocent woman’s death.

Sarah Good and her being jailed is also another example of how eager the inhabitants of Salem were to accuse every person not under the mentality of everyone else. Giles Corey is the last example of how an innocent person was put to death solely based on the fact that he did not confess or deny the charges upon him. These uninvolved members of the community suffered due to the hysteria and lack of impartial thinking. The hive mind common to Salem was its demise as the only ones that tried to rectify it were hanged.

The events in Arthur Miller’s modern tragedy, The Crucible, portray a society where mass hysteria and herd mentality overtook the population for the worse. The characterization of Abigail Williams and her friends as they used the hysteria to their own benefit demonstrates the results of a desire of freedom and power and the abandonment of rational thought under the conditions of confusion and chaos. The overall historical context of the novel reflects the paranoia of the era in which it was written and the height of McCarthyism of the 1950s. The historical drama runs a parallel to the accusatory times under Senatory McCarthy and HUAC as the government attempted oust all sources of communism in the country. The themes of The Crucible are still vastly relevant today as people are swayed and controlled too easily by the fear of the unknown and by the opinions of others.

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Mass hysteria in The Crucible. (2022, Jun 09). Retrieved from

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