Sunday, November 2, 2014

The Devil in Massachusetts

Marion Starkey’s 1949 study of the Salem witchcraft trials bears revisiting in light of the recent public hysteria over Ebola.

We like to flatter ourselves that we have progressed beyond the kind of mass delusion based on superstition, fantasy, and fear that resulted in the deaths of twenty innocent people in 1692.  And, indeed, it is hard to imagine a repeat of those events occurring in 21st century America.  However, Arthur Miller, in The Crucible, found them a salient analogy to the McCarthyism of the 1950s, and we could cite any number of examples in recent history of persecution based on fears surrounding race, religion, gender, and homosexuality.

The Ebola scare, originating in West Africa, obviously has a racial component.  Would it be so scary, would we react the same if it had originated in Northern Europe?

In 1692 there were those who claimed the devil was attacking the spread of Christianity into the so-called “New World” by unleashing bands of witches on the God-loving people of Salem.  Irrational fears of the native “heathens,” not to mention the “voodoo” practices of the slave, Tituba, from Barbados, fed this religious fantasy.

In addition to documenting the seeds of the Salem events in the Parris household and the spread of hysteria through the village and into the courtroom, Starkey uses modern psychological theory to argue that the good people of Salem suffered from a kind of mass projection of guilt over their own “sins” onto certain individuals who were feared or disliked. 

Nathaniel Hawthorne, in “Young Goodman Brown” and The Scarlet Letter (see post 10/24/12), had earlier dramatized the same phenomenon without the aid of modern psychology.

In the current Ebola scare, we project our fear and sense of vulnerability, not only onto the victims of the disease, but also onto anyone who had contact with them or who even looks like them.  We almost perversely ignore the medical and scientific facts of how the disease is spread in favor of our worst fears.

This contemporary scapegoating suggests that the 322 years between 1692 and 2014 may be shorter than we like to think.