Mass Hysteria. Hysteria describes a state of mind, one of unmanageable fear or emotional excess. Mass hysteria refers to a condition affecting a group of persons, characterized by excitement or anxiety, irrational behaviour or beliefs or inexplicable symptoms of illness. History is said to repeat itself, and in the case of hysteria this seems to be a certainty. Over thousands of years numerous events have began a whirlwind of mass hysteria blowing situations out of proportion escalating to extreme results.
Three significant events throughout history that demonstrate the effects of mass hysteria on societies and even the world include the 1692 Salem witch trials, the McCarthyism era from the late 1940’s to the late 1950’s and 9/11 terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers, New York in 2001. Arthur Miller is significant when looking at both McCarthyism and The Crucible. Inspired by “The Red Scare” during the McCarthyism era Arthur Miller wrote his drama The Crucible, based on the historical events of 1692 Salem, Massachusetts, Miller depicts the society which crumbles under the pressure of lies and threats to the accusation of “witchcraft”.
The accusations began out of fear from the young girls in Salem who were found “dancing” in the woods, the fear that they would get in trouble for what they had done the immediate response was to push the blame elsewhere. Abigail Williams is the known leader of these accusations, her head and heart tainted by lust and greed she refuses her name to be as black in the village as it is in her mind, she gains the support of the other girls in the lie through threats “We danced…
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. And you know I can do it”. Lust mistaken for love for a married man of the village, John Proctor, saw her lies spiral out of control being told out of feeling of greed, vengeance and jealously rather than out of the original fear.
Abigail had once worked for the Proctor house hold as a servant, during which time she shared a sinful affair with John Proctor until a time in which his wife, Elisabeth’s suspicions got the better of her and she dismissed Abigail from her duties. A whirlwind of hysteria swept the village and Abigail created an environment in which receiving a funny look began suspicion of witch craft and any speaking out or suspicious action would see you accused leaving you with only two options: lie and confess to witchcraft and be free or stay honest and truthful and be hung at the gallows.
The hysteria cased by one girl saw over 200 people accused “I saw Sarah Good with the Devil! I saw Goody Osburn with the Devil! I saw Bridget Bishop with the Devil! ” , 19 hung to their death at the gallows, including her love John Proctor, 1 man pressed and other dying in the prisons. Abigail then fled Salem, leaving behind her the lies, death and hysteria she caused. The historical period known as the McCarthyism refers not only to the time period in which Senator Joseph McCarthy was involved, but also to a time period long before his own involvement.
McCarthyism now refers to the political action of making accusations of disloyalty, subversion or treason without proper regard for evidence and specifically refers to the time period in the US known as the “Second Red Scare” characterized by heightened fears of communist influence on American institutions and espionage by Soviet agents. 1949 – 1950 increased the sense of threat from Communism in America began the hysteria with no one being safe of suspicion of communism, one sentence out of place could see you accused of communist activity or being a communist sympathiser.
These accusations had life changing power, seeing many people being questioned by committees, losing their jobs or being imprisoned. The day after the House of Representatives approved citations of contempt for the Hollywood Ten, President of the Motion Picture Association of America, issued a press release on behalf of the heads of the major studios and stated: “We will not knowingly employ a Communist or a member of any party or group which advocates the overthrow of the government of the United States”. Accusation just kept coming, the largest of these accusations was known as the Hollywood Blacklist.
Senator McCarthy made a speech on Lincoln Day, February 9th, 1950 and produced a piece of paper “I have here in my hand a list of 205—a list of names that were made known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party and who nevertheless are still working and shaping policy in the State Department”, However there was never any proof that this Hollywood Blacklist ever existed. During this time no one was safe from accusation, and an accusation was all it took, no one cared for proof or evidence.
During the McCarthy era the identities of any accusers and even the nature of any accusations were typically kept secret from the accused, over 300 actors, authors and directors were denied work in the U. S. through the unofficial Hollywood blacklist and many other lives were affected. The event that possibly affected the most lives occurred on 9th of September in 2001 as the world went into shock as breaking news announced that a plane had just hit one Twin Towers, of the World Trade Centre in New York city. Not even an hour later another plane was flown into the second building.
The Pentagon was then hit and a fourth plane crashed into a paddock near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. The hysteria began to spread like wild fire, with fears that these attacks could be warnings of many to come, sending the whole world into shock, panic and disbelief. It was then released that Muslim terrorists and members of Al-Qaeda were behind the life changing attacks that took the lives of 2,995 people. People all over the world became terrified of where they would strike next, many people avoiding going out during yearly celebrations, being afraid of major sights and attractions and beginning to look at Muslims in a new light.
Muslims became a symbol of fear and terror, wearing a turban or a burka meant that you were looked down on, ran away from and considered a terrorist. Your religion does not determine if you are or are not a terrorist, as quoted from a West Wing episode “Islamic extremists are to Islam as Christianity is to the KKK”. But still we make the assumption as the hysteria has overtaken as and drilled into us the irrational fear. Many people feel fear if a man with a turban steps onto a train with a backpack or if there is a bag left unattended anywhere.
And whilst terrorist attacks have affected the lives of everyone in terms of fear and loss, the actions of the extremists such as Al-Qaeda and the Taliban have to affect the lives of the people of their own religion who now do not have the right to freedom, to live by their religion as they are unable to walk down the street without constant glares of suspicion, words of abuse and hatred and people being too fearful to be to close. Hysteria is easy to spead, it can be caused through the actions of one like
Abigail Williams or extreme actions taken by those like Al-Qaeda. It has the ability to affect the whole world, and is the common characteristic that all three of these historical moments share. They say history repeats itself, and this seems most certainly true as hysteria as wound itself through the pages of history playing a major role in many of historic moments, embedding itself into the heads and hearts of many with the ability to create disastrous endings.