The “Psychology” of Salem
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; I saw Indians smash my dear parents’ heads on the pillow next to mine and I have seen some reddish work done at night, and I can make you wish you had never seen the sun go down!
- Act I: The Crucible, by Arthur Miller
Returning as an adult to historic Salem, Massachusetts, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I also didn’t know what I was looking for. As a child, Salem was terrifying. Make-believe witches were scary–carrying off children in the night to eat them–but now what’s frightening is that innocent women were accused of being witches simply because they didn’t fit in, and then hanged for it. My father claims that one of our people, a ‘Morse’ in Newburyport, Mass., was at one point convicted of witchcraft and consequently hanged. There is something so utterly inhuman about it. The idea of a swinging body in a tree (a “strange fruit”) is completely disarming. It’s eerie and odd and tragic. But what of the girls who had the women accused in the first place? Without them, would the hysteria have occurred?
Were these girls just bored? Like drugs or petty theft, did they decided to get there hands dirty. Is that why they cried ‘witch’, to slyly watch the horror unfold? Was it for the attention? Were these girls so incredibly starved for attention and excitement that they took to writhing around on the ground foaming at the mouth? One account states that one of the girls took to crawling around on the ground like a dog, barking. Having been a teenage girl myself not so very long ago, I can recall the strange psychology of a girl’s mind at this pivotal age. The mind of a teenage girl is a slippery and amorphous thing. It is unpredictable, wily, and damage that may occur during this time period can have long-lasting affects on both the teen, and those around her. Perhaps the most dangerous element of the teenage mind is the inability to grasp the concept of linear thinking. Some teenagers cannot see beyond immediate gratification. This makes decision making tricky.
Having said all this, can I understand letting something that started out as a prank get so out of hand that innocent people would be put to their deaths? I think I can. I can remember that out of control feeling that comes with being a teenager, that feeling that the world was slipping out my control and I was powerless to stop it. These girls must have felt the same.
As mentioned in the presentation at the Salem Witch Museum, life would have been incredibly dull and stifling for the daughters of Puritan households. The day would have been long and tiresome, and imagination, creativity and individuality were certainly not acknowledged or encouraged in a typical home. Where would these girls have channeled their pent up energy? Where would they have looked to for entertainment? Living in the 21st century, there are endless distractions: Facebook, Twitter–the virtual world is practically designed for bored teenagers. But in 1692, all young girls would have had was each other. It seems only natural that as Abigail Williams and her cousin Betty Parris became “afflicted”, each girl simply followed suit…and then tried to out-perform.
Another aspect of teenage mentality is pack-like thinking, in which groups are formed and leaders are chosen, and followers fill in the gaps. Clearly some girls were more invested then others, but all the girls were bonded together by what must have been the greatest play-acting of all time. Once a single lie is told, the subsequent lies becomes easier and easier. Perhaps these girls took on the role of the bewitched so intensely that they began to believe it themselves. Not to mention how important these girls must have suddenly felt! How powerful! Physicians, priests, parents and townspeople, looking to them for answers. They went from being virtually powerless to dictating the fate of members of their community. It must have been addicting.
In Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, he creates a complicated network of relationships, suggesting that Abigail Williams and John Proctor were engaged in an affair, and that Williams was acting out of jealousy. Miller paints the girls as conniving and selfish; power hungry and intoxicated by the affect their accusations have. Abigail Williams is charismatic and ruthless and will stop at nothing to have John Proctor back. Reading The Crucible, it becomes possible to blame the trials on Abigail alone. But what about the townspeople and juries who fell for it?
Sitting in the darkened room at the Salem Witch Museum, watching the representations of the trials light up, and seeing these young girl’s faces illuminated, I realize there are no easy answers. Because wrapping up the details in a neat little story is exactly the kind of thing we can learn from.
As an adult in Salem, I found myself still amazed by the power this particular group of young girls managed to grasp. Should we fear witches, I thought? Or should we fear the dangerous nature of a bored mind?