Fear is often based on an absence of information. This year celebrates the 65th anniversary of ‘The Crucible’ written by Arthur Miller. A play based on the Salem Witch trials of 1692 when, nineteen people were persecuted and subsequently imprisoned or hanged after they were accused of witchcraft based on nothing but accusation and hearsay. Arthur Miller himself had been condemned by the US congress for his un-American communist political leanings. He was blacklisted and his career suffered as a result. This inspired Miller to write the play reflecting the political madness that developed when the United States Government fought to eradicate radical liberal sentiment and communism (Glass, A. (2013).
‘The Crucible’ is an allegory of the McCarthyism insanity. During the late 1940s the prospect of communism terrified many with many believing that it would undermine the morals and traditions of society at the time. Republican Senator Joseph R. McCarthy misused and exploited this fear to gain political power. Miller used the Salem witch trials as a metaphor for McCarthyism. The Salem witch trials, and McCarthyism both manipulated in order to ruin reputations and ultimately gain power. Accusations were often biased and unreliable and based on little or no evidence.
The result of the manipulation of fear is the basis on which Miller bases his play ‘The Crucible’. It is the overwhelming theme illustrated throughout. In his play Miller uses fear to show manipulation of a whole town. He uses stylistic devices, aesthetic features and characterisation such as the forest, dancing naked, and supernatural themes to evoke fear and a subsequent reaction. The poppet used to accuse Elizabeth Proctor for example was a symbol denoting witchcraft and subsequently something to be feared. Mainstream media, politicians, corporations and activists use these techniques still today. Propaganda based on fear rather than fact is widely used to manipulate public opinion. False accusations and mudslinging is often used to persuade the public during an election for example and there seems to be little to no accountability for misrepresenting the truth. Fear manipulates by preying on our concerns and subsequently triggering an emotional response upon which we ultimately act. Miller uses this premise throughout his play. Abigail’s fear for her future upon being discovered dancing in the forest causes her to act irrationally, ultimately leading to widespread hysteria and panic.
In ‘The Crucible’ the people of Salem fear the unknown and what they cannot control. This fear of the unknown and of all things supernatural fuelled the conflict around which the play is based. People were terrified of being labelled a witch if they voiced any disagreement towards the trials or what was considered widespread public opinion. This represents the McCarthyism insanity, where people feared being blacklisted because of a perceived association with communism or for being a communist.
Fear has been responsible for some of the most abhorrent actions by man and has caused the collapse of some of the world’s largest organisations and political powers. 9/11 brought terrorism to the forefront. Fear of subsequent attacks now impacts most aspects of our lives, destabilising normalcy and invading rational thinking. Mainstream media often manipulates public sentiment by evoking fear through sensationalised journalism. The media would have us believe all Muslims are potential terrorists. Terrorists use this fear to their advantage to gain power and control. Fear based stories pray on our anxieties and weaknesses. The fear of crime can often be worse than the crime itself.
Climate change and our destructive ecological footprint is another nightmare worrying today’s society. Climate pessimists are on a scaremongering campaign using any chance to pin naturally occurring environmental disasters on climate change. Whilst climate change is a real issue and should not be overlooked, using fear as a tool of manipulation to achieve a point is not the correct approach or an ethical way to go about it.
The anti-vaccine movement is another modern-day manipulator. The movement began in France in 1763. Recently UK researcher and surgeon Dr Andrew Wakefield implied a connection between the measles mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism upon which the anti-vaccine movement jumped. Thanks largely to sensationalised journalism and modern media this led to a 20% fall in MMR vaccination rates soon after. The fear of harming one’s own children was responsible for this decrease. Interestingly his research has since been discredited. Despite the growth of anti-vaccination groups however, over 93% of five-year-old’s are up to date with their vaccinations thanks to government initiatives. In ‘The Crucible’ Abigail used fear to redirect the focus away from her wrongdoings onto innocent parties. By accusing others of witchcraft Abigail played on the towns fear of witchcraft and the ramifications if accused. It was accuse or be accused. Terrorists, climate pessimists and the anti-vaccination movement all use propaganda and sensationalised journalism to prey on our fears and manipulate in order to push their own agenda.
Fear is a powerful tool. Arthur Miller portrays in his play ‘The Crucible’ how destructive it can be when misused. Whether it is real or perceived seems to be of no consequence. Miller uses aesthetic features, stylistic devices and characterisations to heighten the sense of fear for his readers and to capture the paranoia and violence that resulted in McCarthyism, an allegory for the play. History demonstrates how detrimental a role fear can still play in today’s society. Whilst the subjects of human hysteria may change, the underlying mistrust and wariness makes us all susceptible to manipulation. Modern day media infiltrates our everyday lives like never before. Portable personal devices allow us to be accessible and up to date 24/7. We can experience any occasion as if we were truly there. Modern mainstream media uses this to pray on our fears and manipulate our opinions. A dose of healthy realism is often required to temper our fears.
- Glass, A. (2013). Arthur Miller testifies before HUAC, June 21, 1956. Retrieved 17 November 2019, from https://www.politico.com/story/2013/06/this-day-in-politics-093127