The Crucible

The Drama of Mass Hysteria.

The Crucible (1996), written by Arthur Miller and directed by Nicholas Hytner, resurrected the historical event of Salem witch trials in colonial Massachusetts between February 1692 and May 1693. As the result of the trials, over 150 men and women were accused of witchcraft. In total, 24 people died: nineteen men and women convicted of witchcraft were hanged on Gallows Hill, several died in prison, and one man, Giles Corey, was pressed to death by heavy stones because he refused to submit to a witchcraft trial. Fifty more people confessed to making a pact with the Devil for special powers. As seen in this movie, the mass hysteria had impelled the accusation and execution of innocent people.

Mass hysteria, also called collective hysteria or epidemic hysteria, is a condition in which a large group of people exhibit the same state of violent mental agitation. In the Salem witch trials, hysteria played critical roles to tear apart the community by supplanting reason and logic. The mass hysteria drove people to believe that their neighbors were committing evil crimes like communing with the devil, killing babies, and so on. The normal people accepted and became active in the hysterical climate. Those  who disagreed with the witch trials did not vocally oppose them, for fear of being accused themselves. What is interesting is that, people who acted in mass hysteria were not only out of genuine religious piety but also because it gives them a chance to express repressed sentiments and to act on long-held grudges. Hysteria could thrive only because people benefit from it. It suspends the rules of daily life and allows the acting out of every dark desire and hateful urge under the cover of righteousness.

The most obvious case is Abigail, who uses the situation to accuse Elizabeth Proctor of witchcraft and have her sent to jail. But others thrive on the hysteria as well: Reverend Parris strengthens his position within the village, albeit temporarily, by making scapegoats of people like Proctor who question his authority. The wealthy, ambitious Thomas Putnam gains revenge on Francis Nurse by getting Rebecca, Francis’s virtuous wife, convicted of the supernatural murders of Ann Putnam’s babies. In the end, hysteria can thrive only because people benefit from it. It suspends the rules of daily life and allows the acting out of every dark desire and hateful urge under the cover of righteousness.

Arthur Miller's The Crucible raised central questions of psychology and society: Why were the leaders of Salem's clerical and civil community ready to condemn to death 19 people, who refused to acknowledge being witches, based on spectral evidence and the hysterical words of young girls? Why would the church and government authorities continue to credit these wild and unsubstantiated stories as respectable people from all walks of life—landowners, women of independent means, neighbors, even clergy—were arrested and brought to trial? What was it about the time period that made such hysteria, and ultimately tragedy, possible?

The causes of the Salem witch trials continue to be debated among scholars. Scholars point to the desire for more power on the part of the clergy, local town politics, mass hysteria, economic tensions among townspeople, the suppression of women, the ingestion of ergot, and adolescent pranks. One of the most concrete studies, published in Science in 1976 by psychologist Linnda Caporael, blamed the abnormal habits of the accused on the fungus ergot, which can be found in rye, wheat and other cereal grasses. Toxicologists say that eating ergot-contaminated foods can lead to muscle spasms, vomiting, delusions and hallucinations. Also, the fungus thrives in warm and damp climates—not too unlike the swampy meadows in Salem Village, where rye was the staple grain during the spring and summer months.

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