Fear is a very potent emotion, an extreme force of nature, in which lies the power to destroy many lives. Arthur Miller’s allegorical play, The Crucible and the sci-fi horror series Stranger Things by the Duffer Brothers enable us to see that those in power often manipulate people’s fear to maintain power and disempower others. Synonymously they explore how institutions of power use the fears of their followers to maintain power. They also explore how powerful individuals manipulate the fears of their contemporaries to maintain power and disempower.
The Crucible, set during the Salem Witch Trials of the 1690s, is an interpretation of how the manipulation of primal fear drives ordinary people to commit heinous acts of disloyalty, in order to gain ultimate power. Miller wrote the play in 1953 as a parable designed to expose the destructive potential of fear during the era of McCarthyism.
Although set century’s apart, Stranger Things the hit Netflix series – which if you haven’t watched yet, you definitely should – also explores these ideas. Set in 1983 Hawkins, Indiana, the communal fears of nuclear war and child abduction are emphasised, along with a sinister government aiming to keep secret their illegal experiments and accidents, creating the perfect storm for fears to be manipulated to maintain power.
Within The Crucible, the church holds ultimate authority. As a theocratic society, the government and religion act as one and together manipulate the puritan society of Salem’s fear of the devil to maintain power. The devil is used as a threat to instil fear and disempower. Before Miller introduces Reverend Hale, he explains how fear is used through a mini essay. He writes, “the necessity of the Devil may become evident as a weapon, a weapon designed and used time and time again in every age to whip men into a surrender to a particular church or church-state” (Act 1, 38). The motif of the devil is contrasted with that of God, to create a binary opposition which symbolises the struggle between good and evil. This motif is also used as a manipulative tool to categorise the people of Salem as either with God or against him. Fear of the devil and evil spirits are used to influence and control and is an effective tool to scare people into joining the church. Through manipulation of fears the church can maintain power as it inculcates the fear that if it is not followed, doubters will be accused of conjuring the devil.
The unquestionable institution of the church uses fear of accusation and punishment to maintain power and authority. Puritan belief that there should be absolute adherence to the religious law is preyed upon – where questioning is viewed as betrayal. This is verified when Danforth confronts Francis Nurse after coming forth with a petition of his wife’s innocence, “a person is either with this court or he must be counted against it, there be no road between” (Act 3, 85). The false dichotomy and juxtaposition of “with this court” to “against it” highlights it is impossible for someone to question the court without being proclaimed an enemy. The church uses this separation of sides and society’s fear of being accused of satanic activity to maintain authority, particularly within the court. It uses the binary between good and evil and the fear of being categorised as the latter to maintain power. This idea is compounded by the metaphor “there is no road between” as it endorses the absolute power of the church. The church being beyond question exemplifies the fear of the people because if they resist the trials, they are not only accused of overthrowing the court but also God – provoking charges of witchcraft. The church uses this fear to inhibit questioning the court, its motives and ultimately its power.
Similarly, Stranger Things reveals the Department of Energy’s attempt to condition the citizens of Hawkins by manipulating fear and reality to hide secrets from public view to maintain authority and power. The cultural assumption that institutions such as governments are acting for the benefit of the people is dismantled by the Duffer Brothers as the authorities within Stranger Things are purely operating for their own interest. This is highlighted when the government uses Joyce’s fear of losing her child to cover up their mistake of unleashing the Demogorgon by putting a fake body of Will in the Quarry – with the purpose of stopping the search for Will before their dirty little secrets were uncovered. The government’s manipulation is demonstrated at Will’s ‘funeral’. The wide shot of all of the people shows that they are manipulating the entire town to maintain power. Joyce acknowledges that she has been manipulated when she is interrogated at the Department of Energy. Her angry tone when she says “we had a funeral for him” emphasises that she is aware and realises she has been manipulated to see things a certain way – where they have absolute control, authority and are infallible. The manipulation of their own people’s fears shows that the Government does not value the truth nor its citizens.
Not only do institutions use fear to maintain authority but individuals do too. Those who seek power manipulate the fears of others to get what they want. This is exemplified in The Crucible through the character of Abigail with her controlling actions. She shows that if a person can control another’s fear, they can use and influence them. Abigail values the power she gains through her accusations of witchcraft. Abigail’s manipulation of her friends’ fears shows her skill in influencing others and is highlighted when she gets the girls to agree on a story to protect herself, “Let either of you breathe a word… I will bring a pointy reckoning that will shudder you… I saw Indians smash my dear parents’ heads on the pillow next to mine” (Act 1, 26-27). Miller’s use of an ominous, threatening and authoritative tone coupled with the violent imagery and verbs “shudder” and “smash”, demonstrates how Abigail has been able to gain power over the other girls. The juxtaposition of the violent act of “smash” and the affectionate adjective of “dear” indicates her willingness to use the fears of those closest to her to maintain power and reveals how intimidation can silence others in fear. Abigail’s taste of power becomes a catalyst for her lust for more power despite the cultural assumption that a woman cannot have any power or authority. Abigail has gained power through her threats and fearmongering, demonstrating how she uses her power to manipulate the fear of others to maintain and gain power.
Likewise, in Stranger Things, Dr Brenner is a powerful individual who uses authority to manipulate the fears of his subjects. Dr Brenner continuously abuses his power in his relationship with Eleven. Brenner does not value Eleven as a person, however, he does value her psychokinetic abilities and the power she could bring him. This is validated when Eleven has a flashback in Mike’s cupboard, where she is being sent to her punishment for not doing as Brenner has asked. The abusive dynamic between Brenner and Eleven is presented in the ironic term of “Papa” which highlights that Eleven has been manipulated to see Brenner as a father figure. “Papa” suggests affection when their relationship is anything but. The dialogue of Eleven screaming also shows her fear escalating through her voice as she knows she will be punished. Her body movement communicates that she is being held against her will and suggests a lack of power. Brenner uses his influence to punish and disempower Eleven to indoctrinate his authority and maintain control. It is through Brenner’s manipulation of emotions and fears that he gains and maintains power by disempowering Eleven.
Another example of Brenner using his power to manipulate Eleven’s fears is in their final moment together when they are reunited after the government agents have infiltrated Hawkins Middle School. Brenner’s abusive nature is again stressed as he manipulates Elevens fear of loneliness. This is revealed through his manipulative dialogue of, “I’m doing this all for you, I’m doing this so you can get better”. Brenner is using Elevens fear of loneliness and isolation as well as her craving for approval from a father figure, to manipulate her into thinking that he cares about her, when in reality he only wants her psychokinetic abilities. The use of lullaby-like music in the background is ironic and is deliberately positioning us to see that although he is seemingly acting like a father, he is purely using her for his own personal gain. Again, Brenner’s manipulation of Eleven’s fears and insecurities demonstrates how individuals use fear to maintain power.
Through Arthur Miller’s classic play The Crucible and the Duffer Brothers’ hit Netflix series Stranger Things we see that those who have power use and manipulate the fear of others to disempower them and maintain power. Both institutions and individuals alike can use fears to maintain power, as said by Eric Hoffer, “it is when power is wedded to chronic fear that it becomes formidable”.