Understanding Witch Hunts

One of the signs of good literature is the ability to stay relevant with the passage of time. Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible, written in the 1950s, uses the Salem witch trials as an allegory for the paranoia surrounding Communism in the US after the end of the Second World War. It is a testament to the strength of the play that it resonates just as strongly in the world of today, with the fears around fake news and the targeting of individuals and communities.

The play has a fairly straightforward narrative (minor spoilers to follow): a group of young women lie and claim that certain members of their town are indulging in witchcraft. This sets off a chain of events both absurd and scary, with the accused being presumed guilty until they either confess (leading to a loss of reputation and property) or refute the charge (leading to a death sentence).

As I read the play, two things struck me as being particularly relevant for understanding the nature of witch hunts in general.

One, the women who accuse others do not create a new divide in their society but instead widen existing ones. They allow the townsfolk to give voice to their prejudices and social distrust, something that normal bounds of propriety would have otherwise prevented them from acting upon.

Two, and a related point, is that the people who back the claims of the women often have baser reasons for doing so. This includes the pursuit of material profit at the cost of a neighbour’s, petty dislike, or to right perceived historical slights. In other words, these people are self-aware. They are not acting for the “right reasons,” even if they claim otherwise.

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