Late last August, Lori Brownell passed out while head banging at a concert. A few weeks later, she lost consciousness at her school’s homecoming dance. Her doctor didn’t know the cause of her illness but he put her on medication. However, the symptoms only got worse. She showed symptoms of involuntarily twitching, clapping, snorting, and shouting. Since this case was made public, thirteen girls and one boy local to Brownell had begun experiencing similar symptoms. The New York State Department of Health investigated the school in which most of the teenagers with the illness cases had come from, and found no harmful substances on the premises.
This left townspeople, parents, students, and the public baffled. After researching however, scientists came to the consensus that this wasn’t a case of poison or injury, for it was merely a case of mass hysteria. Gender imbalance was one clue the doctors used to differentiate hysteria from poisoning since one theme has remained consistent; the victims of mass hysteria are overwhelmingly female. Mass hysteria is a condition affecting a group of persons, characterized by excitement or anxiety, irrational behavior or beliefs, or inexplicable symptoms of illness.
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Perhaps the most famous case of mass hysteria in America, the Salem, Massachusetts Witch Trials, dates back to almost 400 years ago. The events surrounding the witch trials began when 4 girls started to suffer from mysterious fits. Theories that contributed to the growth of the hysteria in Salem were of jealousy, lies, and arrogant law officials. Betty Parris and Abigail Williams began to exhibit strange behavior, such as screaming, convulsive seizures, and trance-like states which were assumed to be because of mysterious spells.
Within a short time, several other girls, including Mary Warren and Mercy Lewis, began showing the same behaviors. They most likely acted in this manor to make themselves seem like victims of witchcraft, not followers of the devil, Satan himself. They shifted blame to other members of their community. One member accused of witchcraft was John Proctor’s wife, Elizabeth. John Proctor had had an affair with his house servant, who just happened to be Abigail Williams, 7 months prior to the beginning of the witch trials. Elizabeth fired Abigail as soon as she found out.
Mary Warren took Abigail’s place as their house servant and one day bought home a poppet which Abigail made for Elizabeth. Little did Elizabeth know, the poppet had a needle inside of it. That night a warrant for Elizabeth’s arrest was issued and bought to the Proctor household. The police asked Elizabeth if she had any witch dolls, and she responded “No, this poppet belongs to Mary”. However, the police didn’t believe her, and she was removed from the household that night. Elizabeth prompted John to expose Abigail as a fraud, but John hesitated in fear that his secret affair would be revealed and his good name ruined.
And so, Elizabeth left the house in handcuffs. This act was of pure jealousy on Abigail’s part. She wanted John Proctor to herself, and the desire to remove Elizabeth from her path to John drives the hysteria that soon develops. John, enraged at Abigail, confesses his affair with her in a court of law and accuses her of being motivated by jealousy of his wife. Not only was Abigail jealous of Elizabeth, but other members of the community were jealous of each other as well. Two families, the Putnams and the Nurses, had hidden agendas against each other prior to the trials.
They fought over land boundaries for years and had different views on who should be the minister of Salem. The nurses joined with several others in attempt to break away from Salem, and tried create their own town, named Topsfield. This was one further insult to the Putnams, and highly offended them. When the trials arose, and accusations were the only way to gain immunity, who better to accuse then members of a family that they’ve despised for years. Mrs. Ann Putnam believed that a witch was responsible for the deaths of her seven infant children.
Her jealousy of Rebecca Nurse’s large family, leads her to accuse Goody Nurse of being a witch. However, Rebecca Nurse is one of the most respected individuals in Salem. This is because of her kindness and charity that she is well known for. She’s an honest woman and in the name of justice, she argues against the witch trial investigations. At the hands of her arguments and Ann Putnam, Rebecca Nurse was denounced as a witch and sentenced to death. This especially led to mass hysteria because everyone in the town knew the Nurses.
They knew Rebecca for her good deeds, and the smart ones knew it was all so wrong. The numerous accusations and mass hysteria that arose in Salem weren’t only driven by jealousy, but also by pure lies. This all begins when Betty Parris, Abigail Williams, Mary Warren and Mercy Lewis are caught by Reverend Parris, dancing in the woods with Tituba, who is the house servant of Reverend Parris. Then, by the next day, Betty falls into a trance-like state. No doctor in town can figure out what is wrong with her, and they all assume that she has been struck with witchcraft.
This causes proctor to call in Reverend Hale, who is a “witch expert”. Hale questions Abigail in reference to what had happened in the forest, and with growing suspicion of her behavior, demands to speak with Tituba. After Parris and Hale interrogate her and accuse her of being a witch, Tituba confesses to signing the devil’s book, and she begins naming various townspeople she’s seen at the devil’s meetings with her. Suddenly, Abigail joins her, confessing to having seen the devil conspiring with even more townspeople. Betty of course, arises from the dead, and joins them in naming witches too.
Soon enough the accused are accusing. The dominoes stop falling on the ones who will not confess, for lying is a sin. Religious people such as Rebecca Nurse, Giles Cory, Bridget Bishop, Sarah Good, are only a few who were hung to their deaths, except Giles, who was crushed by stone. They took their religious beliefs to the grave. The sinners all begin to name witches with the intentions to focus the negative attention on others. Betty, Abigail, Mary and Mercy lie in self-defense, and are presumed to be victims, thus they receive sympathy. In court, they “speak for god”.
Every girl continues to follow Abigail’s lead in accusing everyone in the town of witchcraft. Not at any point, are any of the girls are even close to being honest in The Crucible, for not even Mary Warren could keep her confession to exonerate Elizabeth in court. Another contributor to the mass hysteria in the witch-bidden town of Salem, Massachusetts was the arrogance of Deputy Governor Danforth. Danforth was a judge who was assisted by Judge Hathorne, and signed the death sentences for those individuals who refused to confess to their crimes of witchcraft.
When John Proctor, with intentions to free his wife, forced Mary Warren testify that she and the other girls were only pretending to be afflicted by witchcraft, Danforth proceeds to question Proctor about his religious beliefs. It is made obvious that Proctor rarely attends church. Cheever added that Proctor plows on Sundays, which is a serious offense in Salem because the Puritan town is ruled by theocracy. The judge was also informed that John tore up Elizabeth’s arrest warrant. Then, in efforts to oppose Mary’s testimony, Danforth calls for Abigail, Mercy and Mary. Read about conflict in Salem the witchcraft trials compromise
Proctor leaps at Abigail and calls her a whore. He confesses his affair with her and explains that Elizabeth fired her when she discovered it. He claims that Abigail wants Elizabeth to hang so that she can take her place in his home. Danforth orders Abigail and Proctor to turn their backs, and he sends for Elizabeth, who is said to be unfailingly honest. Danforth presents Elizabeth with the question of why she fired Abigail. Elizabeth glances at Proctor for a clue, but Danforth demands that she only look at him while she answers, and to speak the truth.
To protect her dear husband, Elizabeth claims to have gotten the mistaken thought that Proctor fancied Abigail, so she had simply lost her temper and fired the girl without a cause. Elizabeth was removed from the court room and was still sentenced to hang after giving birth to her unborn child. Danforth refused to delay any execution for fear that he will appear weak. His excuse to members of the community was that it would be unfair to those who already hung for their failure to confess. He is a pretentious and selfish judge who strictly follows the rules, regardless of justice.
Danforth believes the spectral evidence presented by the four girls, and he fails to examine evidence critically or to act when he should stop the hysteria. He refused to see the role that he played in the destruction of Salem. As the accusations of witchcraft begun to surface in Salem, the town took on a gloom of suspicion. In upstate New York, suspicion also arose in the sense of the unknown. “What in god’s name is causing the strange symptoms?! How is it all in their head? ”- states a parent of one of the girls affected by the mysterious illness.
Some victims are often accused of faking the illnesses for attention or other reasons, both back then, and now, but more often the victims are suffering real physical symptoms that are originated physiologically. In The Crucible, innocent people look at each other critically and questions such as “What are you concealing? Have you sold yourself to Lucifer? ” circle the town of Salem. Old people in the community began to be bullied, for they were faithful to god and would die before confessing, and kind citizens such as Goody Nurse are wrongfully accused and finally hanged.
Jealousy gets the best of the members in Salem, and numerous lies arise. These lies and jealous accusations were enforced by Danforth and at his hand, marriages are broken up, farms are ruined, countless die unnecessarily, and Puritanism is marked forever. The community was left shattered and changed forever. It doesn’t regain stability for another decade after the trials. This event brought out the dark side of man, for dishonesty seemed to be the only way to exonerate yourself.
The Crucible Unit
"Playwright Arthur Miller was personally affected by two major events of 20th century American history. In the 1930s, the Depression ruined his father financially. During the McCarthy era, Miller himself was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee to name people he had seen at a Communist writers' meeting. Miller refused and was found guilty of contempt of Congress, a conviction that was later overturned. Many critics consider The Crucible a critical commentary on McCarthy's persecution of Communists." (From: http://www.classzone.com/novelguides/authors/miller.cfm)
Throughout this unit, students will connect the events of McCarthyism and the Salem Witch Trials to other events of mass hysteria in history and in present day.
Helpful Links and Information
• Literature can be used to strengthen the individual and regain power
from those who would use it for their own purposes.
• Truth has no meaning when men believe only what they want to believe.
• What is the importance of individuality?
• How can people use their power to make a difference in their lives and
the lives of others?
• What are the risks and rewards of using the power of the individual?