Mass Hysterias Over Time: Salem Witch Trials, Communists, And Mccarthyism
Three important mass hysterias throughout time include the Salem Witch Trials of 1692, the McCarthyism Era of the 20th Century, and the Clown Sighting Hysteria of 2016. As these may appear to have nothing in common, this paper dives into the similarities of these particular events. This paper analyzes and compares the characteristics of mass hysterias which are clearly exhibited in each of these cases with supporting evidence from the times. Points in this paper include the targeting of specific groups, exaggeration of events, and the proliferation of paranoia. From witches to communists to clowns, understanding of mass hysteria events and the mass panic and anxiety associated with them should be developed by the reader. Keywords: Mass Hysteria, Salem Witch Trials, McCarthyism, Clown Sighting, targeting of specific groups, exaggeration, paranoia Mass Hysterias Throughout Time: Witches, Communists, and Clowns Introduction For a number of reasons, panic and paranoia may be spread. A leading reason for widespread panic and paranoia are mass hysteria.
Mass hysteria is defined as a phenomenon that transmits collective illusions of threats, whether real or imaginary, through a population in society as a result of rumors and fear. Three important mass hysterias include the Salem Witch Trials of 1692, the McCarthyism era of the 20th century, and the Clown Sighting Hysteria of 2016. Although there may be many differences of events, these three hysterias share similar characteristics including threats, panic, and anxiety caused by real or imaginary sources. As seen in the historical events of the Salem Witch Trials of 1692, the McCarthyism era of the 20th century, as well as the Clown Sighting Hysteria of 2016, panic and anxiety can be heavily caused through the targeting of specific groups, exaggeration of events, and proliferation of paranoia. Targeting of Specific Groups In each of these mass hysteria events, there was the main focus around the attack, target, or persecution of a certain set of people. In the case of the Salem Witch Trials of 1692, suspicions and panic were high due to the mass accusations of witchcraft, mainly directed towards women. Through the analyzation of Salem Witch Trial statistics, it is evident that many of the accusations of witchcraft were made by men towards women.
A reason for the accusation of women by men may have been out of their fear that women will one day become superior to them. This fear specifically stemmed from the failure of some women to fulfill their role in Puritan society, which included childbearing and catering for all needs of the men. Along with these women, those without brothers or sons, who were in a position to inherit land, were also vulnerable to accusations so that the men could ensure that the system of male inheritance would be sustained, hence why more women were accused of witchcraft than men. Carol Karsen had examined the 344 cases in which residents of New England were accused of witchcraft between 1620 and 1725 and found that 78% of the accused were female (Kakutani, 1987). During the McCarthyism era of the 20th century, also known as the Red Scare, communists were the main target. If someone was found to be a Communist, they were heavily interrogated and put on trial, which fueled mass anxiety throughout the entire country. Communists were mainly being targeted due to past scares around the world, causing the United States to feel seriously threatened that the Communists or “Reds” would take over their government. Events around the world which heightened the anxiety of the Red Scare in the United States include when the Soviet Union tested a nuclear bomb and Communist forces led by Mao Zedong took control of China in 1949, as well as the Korean War in the early 1950s (History.com Editors, 2010).
Communists were thought to pose an extreme threat and were therefore put on Congressional hearings, mainly led by Wisconson Senator, Joseph McCarthy (History.com Editors, 2010). In the Clown Sighting Hysteria of 2016, anxiety and panic was caused by the random sightings of creepy clowns and incidents with killer clowns. This hysteria may have been spurred by the 2016 election and Donald Trump’s political views, which led people to associate him with the clown image (Rebuschat, 2017). Donald Trump had been an agent of chaos, therefore clowns were used to symbolize this “clownish” behavior. Clowns were also used as an element of an aforementioned fear, channeling the “fear of the other,” as Trump does such towards immigrants (Rebuschat, 2017). Many clown sightings had been targeted directly towards children, creating an uncalled-for fear of what should be an innocent party figure. Main events during this hysteria included the stalking of children, as seen in the first South Carolina incident, which led to more and more children to develop a fear of clowns (Bartholomew, 2016).
Exaggeration of Events In these hysteria cases, the widespread exaggeration of events led to excess panic and anxiety. In the Salem Witch Trials, “attacks” by witches were overly exaggerated by the accusers. To add unnecessary fuel to the fire, these accusers would claim to be physically attacked by witches, such as being punched or saying that the accused was causing them to twitch (Schiff, 2017). Along with this, accusers may have claimed to see things that were never really there as if the accused caused it to appear. This is shown when many girls exaggerated the sight of a bird in Act IV of The Crucible in order to get their way and have the judges believe that Mary Warren was truly possessing them as a witch (Miller, 1953). During the McCarthyism era, the danger of communists taking over the country was overly exaggerated. The United States government had an extreme fear of the communists taking over their government due to Soviet incidents and others, so they feel the need to interrogate and get rid of all communists. Joseph McCarthy overly exaggerated this in a way which caused the United States to believe that just a few Communists in the country would suddenly take over the government and the country would turn Communist, which was not at all the case (History.com Editors, 2010). This exaggeration though led to countrywide panic, anxiety, and fear of Communists and Communist sympathizers.
Any and every communist is seen as a threat (History.com Editors, 2010). In the Clown Sighting Hysteria, posts on social media and panicked and anxious people overly dramatized and exaggerated the clown sightings. During the time of the hysteria, Twitter and Instagram “clown” accounts created posts threatening certain areas and people. For example, posts saying things such as “We are coming to kill you, watch out,” were created in order to scare the target audience and make them believe that the clowns were coming. Fear and anxiety may have been raised through the creation of fake videos of first-hand clown sightings ([_.killer.clowns._] 2016). Although videos such as the one cited may have been fake and not very plausible, the sight of a creepy clown in someone’s social media feed could still be alarming and cause more panic and anxiety. Overall Influence on Population, Entertainment, and Media, and the Proliferation of Paranoia Finally, these mass hysteria events had an overall influence on populations, entertainment, media, and the proliferation of paranoia. The Salem Witch Trials first started in Salem, Massachusetts, then the witch trial paranoia later spread throughout communities and beyond Massachusetts. Salem Witch Trials originally started due to controversies about Reverends and others. Reverend Samuel Parris, Salem’s first ordained minister, was controversial because of his greedy ways and many Puritans believed that he may have been compacting with the Devil (Blumberg, 2007). The paranoia and anxiety of witches in Salem was soon spread and proliferated to other surrounding communities, such as Suffolk, Essex, and Middlesex counties (Blumberg, 2007).
The McCarthyism era began with the governmental fear of communists and spread paranoia about communists to the rest of the country. The scare of Communism was overly exaggerated, as mentioned before, which spread panic throughout the entirety of the United States (History.com Editors, 2009). The McCarthyism era of the 20th century is classified as a “witch hunt,” as it was similar to the Salem Witch Trials in that communists were found and put on trial, just as the witches were in 1692. This inspired Arthur Miller to write his play The Crucible, which combined the Salem Witch Trials with his personal experiences during the McCarthyism era. Suspection of Communism usually resulted in an intense trial, similar to a witch trial, where they would be interrogated and forced into making statements. Arthur Miller’s defiance of McCarthyism landed him a hearing, where he refused to name communists. From his experience, he went on to write his play The Crucible, inspired by his life experiences and the Salem Witch Trials of 1692. He had cheated on his wife with Marilyn Monroe, which is reflected in his play through the character of John Proctor cheating on his wife, similar to his situation with Monroe (History.com Editors, 2009). The Clown Sighting Hysteria originally began in South Carolina and quickly spread to other places all over the country (Bartholomew, 2016).
In Greenville, South Carolina, the first accounts of clowns stalking children came to be in late August 2016 (Bartholomew, 2016). This account further led to paranoia throughout the country and sightings slowly growing in numbers. The creepy clown stereotype negatively affected the occupation of children’s party clowns due to the new widespread fear and panic caused by sightings of creepy killer clowns. Due to children’s new fear of an innocent funny party figure, less and less party clowns were hired because of the new killer stereotype, which killed the career of many. The main cause of the loss of jobs may have been the release of the new version of Stephen Kings IT in September of 2016, which introduces the idea of a demon-like clown to children (Hooper, 2017). For this reason, party clowns began to get confused with creepy clowns by the general public, therefore causing them to lose business (White, 2017). The Clown Sighting Hysteria also sparked the entertainment industry, inspiring American Horror Story’s seventh season, Cult, which featured killer clowns in association with paranoia spread by the presidential election of 2016.
American Horror Story uses the creepy clown sightings as a way of people targeting others with different political views because Trump is seen as a crazy clown figure (Rebuschat, 2017). In the case of the show, Trump supporters, such as Evan Peters’s character Kai Anderson, dressed as clowns mainly go after people with opposing views or anyone who may expose or overpower them. Towards the end of the season, Kai tells democrat character, Ally, that women should not have any power, which also relates to the ideals during the time of the Salem Witch Trials (Peters, 2017). This season in the show combines the hysteria and politics in a way that may show that the election could be the leading cause of this hysteria.
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