Arthur Miller’s play, “The Crucible,” is inspired by the McCarthyism hysteria which occurred in the 1940s and 1950s due to the inconsistencies in the Salem witch trials. The play is based on extreme behavior when people had hidden agendas and dark desires (Li 116). Thus, the word McCarthyism means making disloyal accusations to achieve hidden agendas. Salem trials generate fear among the people, which leads to internal and external conflicts. The townspeople are afraid of expressing their displeasure in the trial, and other characters like John Proctor are experiencing internal and external conflict. This paper will evaluate how “The Crucible” represents the subject of mass hysteria, human emotion, and fear and how it creates a group of people perceiving a great threat.
Mass hysteria in Salem spreads quickly as people are accused of witchcraft. Thus, the power of mass hysteria overcomes the fewer rational voices in the community against mass witchcraft. When Abigail, in Act One, is asked what she was doing in the woods, she accuses Tituba of witchcraft so that she cannot be punished. Although the accusations were false, the town had been brainwashed with rumors of black magic, which made them easily accept the accusations against the slave. Therefore, most people in the town do not notice the children cheating because they are considered innocent, and the accused confessed to avoid the death penalty (Towns 5). Due to the false confessions, the court people do not hesitate to persecute anyone accused of witchcraft. Thus, mass hysteria has blinded the people to believe that there is grand witchcraft in the town and, therefore, do not hesitate to condemn anyone accused.
This shows how mass hysteria can make people perceive a great threat out of fear. Even the people who are supposed to be reasonable, such as the court men, do not provide wise judgments because they are brainwashed that mass Satanism is going around the city. They forget that they have to examine the culprits and ensure that they are judged fairly from their actions and not assumptions. For instance, as a slave, Tituba had no status in Sale. Parris was supposed to beat her to death if she did not confess (Li 116). Therefore, it was better for her to confess falsely and go to jail than deny the confession and be beaten to death. It shows that there was no fair trial because she did not have an opportunity to reject the accusations made against her. The only options were; to accept the accusations and go to jail or deny confessing and be beaten to death. Thus, no justice for the people accused because of the mass hysteria, which had twisted the people’s perceptions to believe that there was a significant impending threat of grand Satanism.
Mass hysteria had caused the townspeople to fear more than just evil. They feared being caught doing evil because of the harsh judgment laid out due to mass hysteria of evil spirits living in the forest. For instance, the young friends; Mary, Abigail, Mercy, Betty, and Ruth performed rituals dancing around a boiling pot while casting spells as Tibuta, the reverend’s slave from Barbados, had taught them. Abigail wished her lover’s wife to die, so she performed rituals and drank blood. However, when the reverend found them, two of her friends, Ruth and Betty, fainted.
During that period, had they been caught doing their rituals, they would have been whipped to death or hanged. However, due to the fear of the corresponding punishment, Abigail was forced to put the blame on the Tribute and take the rest of the girls to hide. Abigail states, “Now look you. All of you. We danced. And Tituba conjured Ruth Putnam’s dead sisters. And that is all. And mark this. Let either of you breathe a word, or the edge of a word, about the other things, and I will come to you in the black of some terrible night, and I will bring a pointy reckoning that will shudder you “(Miller 12). It shows that Abigail and the girls are afraid of being caught doing the rituals. In addition, the mass hysteria and rumors of witchcraft that had been accepted in the people’s minds had made the punishments so severe that people used all means to evade them. It implies that mass hysteria led to the great belief in evil spirits, which commissioned harsh judgments, leading to the great fear of being caught.
The mass hysterical has led people to fear being associated with witchcraft if they disagreed with the trials. Towards Act Two’s end, almost 40 people had been prosecuted for witchcraft (Li 117). Most of those confess to practicing witchcraft when threatened with executions, intensifying the paranoid atmosphere. The court systems have been brainwashed by the madness and do not believe in any inconvenient objection about the convictions. This hysterical atmosphere causes people to be afraid of being associated with or defending any person labeled with witchcraft. Every confession is pulled up as new “evidence” of witchcraft, and as the pile grows, people become more afraid of disagreeing with trials regarding witchcraft (Li 117). This situation represented McCarthyism insanity in the US, whereby people were afraid of being black-listed because of being associated with communism. The common mass hysteria in the US against communism made people fear the association with communists, which shows how mass hysteria can make create a group of people perceiving a great threat.
The play shows that fear can lead to mass violence in society. More than twenty people in town had been killed as a result of fear (Towns 7). If it were not for the hysteria which led to irrational reasoning and judgments, the lives of the twenty people would have been spared. From a broader perspective, Miller incorporates this aspect into America’s lives and violent periods. For instance, Putnam promoted violence when the Royal Charter was revoked in 1692, and all original title deeds became invalid, creating a property rights crisis. This moment caused violence as people were no longer secure with their holding as they would be reassigned at any moment. Neighbors would no longer trust each other and instead engage in serious fights, sometimes leading to death, so that they could acquire land. This indicates that the mass hysteria caused by fears can lead to mass societal violence.
The mass hysteria of fear can affect human behavior, emotions, and psyche. Miller’s play explores the impact of mass hysteria on human emotions and behavior. He addresses a dark period in America whereby everyone in the town of Salem believed that the devil was within them and could manifest in anyone, including their families, close neighbors, or even spouses (Li 118). In addition, the author moves further to explore human motivation. This play later shows that people have hidden agendas and dark desires which they seek to pursue during the mass hysteria.
For instance, Abigail, a young Salem woman, uses this opportunity to reverse fate. Abigail has a secret affair with Proctor, a married man in Salem. However, guilt and loyalty pushed Proctor from her as he wanted to have a faithful relationship with his wife, so he wanted to cancel his affair with Abigail (Miller 10–14). When Abigail knew this, she took advantage of the situation in Salem to reverse fate by accusing Proctor’s wife of witchcraft so that she would be jailed or killed. On the other hand, she was elevating her status within the Salem community to be accepted as the legal wife of Proctor after her wife was jailed or killed. She acts as the chief witness in the court and is ready to do anything, including mutilating herself to obtain Proctor. This shows that she uses the mass hysteria for her gains to satisfy her human emotion of love.
Another example is when the Royal charter is revoked, and all title deeds are invalid. Some people use this opportunity to pursue their greed for land. When the Royal Charter revoked the title deeds, there was mass hysteria and fear of losing property. Thus, on top of having much violence in the town, some people used the opportunity to satisfy their greed (Li 118). Miller uses the character of Putnam to bring out this agenda by showing how he pursues his hidden agenda during this moment. He does not hope for anything to stop him from gaining land, even if it means accusing his neighbors of being witches and murdering them so that he can claim their land. This indicates that some play characters used great threats to pursue their gains. In the current US, some people, especially politicians, use mass hysteria for personal gains. For instance, the great threat of terrorism, 9/11, has been used by various politicians to achieve personal gains.
In his play, “The Crucible,” Arthur Miller shows how fear is a powerful tool and can be used with mass hysteria to manipulate individuals. Whether real or perceived, human emotion and fear have been misused for different purposes on the subject of mass hysteria. The people of Salem fear the great threat of evil spirits due to mass hysteria in the town. In addition, it causes them to fear being caught, associated with, or even defending people accused of witchcraft. Fear can lead to violence and affect human behavior, emotions, and psyche. However, some individuals take advantage of such situations to pursue their interests. Abigail and Putnam use great threats for their personal gains, whereby Abigail pursues love while Putnam pursues his greed for land. This shows that the play “The Crucible” represents human experiences in the US, whereby the subject of mass hysteria, human emotion, and fear are used to create a group of people perceiving a threat.
Li, Hanyue. “The idea of tragedy in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible and a view from the bridge.” English Language and Literature Studies, vol. 8, no. 2, 2018, pp. 115–20.
Miller, Arthur. The Crucible: Drama in two acts. Dramatists Play Service, 1982, pp. 1–95.
Towns, Jon. Summary and analysis of the Crucible by Arthur Miller. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2018.