Eerie Similarities Between the Salem Witch Trials and the Red Scare

It turns out witch-hunts didn't only happen in the 17th century.
December 29, 2022
8 mins read

Tales of supernatural creatures have been around for centuries, and questions of whether they are true or not have been around for just as long. Throughout history very serious and cruel — and sometimes downright bizarre — measures have been taken to combat supernatural theories and prevent these creatures from lurking and causing terror. Of these measures, the Salem Witch Trials are among the most well-known.

The Salem Witch Trials began in 1692 in Salem Village, Massachusetts, after a group of adolescent girls claimed to be possessed by the devil and began accusing other women in the village of witchcraft. From that point on, chaos ensued, and it wasn’t long before a formal court was formed to adjudicate cases. According to History.com, “the first convicted witch, Bridget Bishop, was hanged that June.”

While the rumors of witches lurking about in Salem riddled the whole town with fear, eventually their witch-hunts, “would be fueled by residents’ suspicions of and resentment toward their neighbors, as well as their fear of outsiders.” This is one of the major reasons why the Salem Witch Trials got out of hand; people began accusing their neighbors of witchcraft out of hatred and spite, knowing there was a chance that their neighbors would be hanged. The people of Salem Village were Puritans who had very stern beliefs on how things should be run, and they were known for trying to permanently eliminate practices that were not rooted in the Bible — ones they deemed “impure.”

Salem Witch Trials in Modern Media

The famous Arthur Miller play, “The Crucible,” is based on the Salem Witch Trials and did include some real-life details from the trials, characters Betty Parris and Abigail Williams were based on actual accusers. John Proctor and his wife Elizabeth Proctor are also real figures from the Salem Witch Trials, but unlike in “The Crucible,” Abigail and John Proctor didn’t have an affair — Miller just included that in his play to add to the drama.

Another sad real-life fact of Miller’s play is that Tituba, a Caribbean slave who worked for the Parris,’ was tried in court for witchcraft. After enduring repeated beatings at the hands of Parris, she confessed and claimed that other witches were working with her. This wasn’t the truth, but Tituba was desperate to save herself and thought she could only do so by lying and saying that the devil had overtaken not only her but others as well. Tituba wasn’t the only accused person who falsely confessed and turned others in; several others did the same thing in the hopes of saving themselves.

The 1950s Witch Hunt

It has always been said that history has a way of repeating itself, and unfortunately, in this case, it did. In the 1950s, the Red Scare spurred intense public hysteria that resulted in Hollywood censorship. The Red Scare was a result of McCarthyism — an extreme form of anti-Communism — and was eerily similar to the Salem Witch Trials. Joseph McCarthy, a U.S. senator and the main accuser of the Red Scare, continuously claimed that there were communists in the United States, much like Betty and Abigail claimed there were witches in the town. The only difference between the two hysterics was that no one in Hollywood was murdered because of the claims. Other than that, the finger-pointing was very reminiscent of the Salem Witch Trials.

Similar to the Puritans, McCarthy attempted to keep Hollywood and the media “pure.” Films weren’t allowed to have anything “vulgar” or “provocative” in them; essentially, they were made to be family-friendly, and if anyone violated these rules, they’d be interrogated. The Red Scare in Hollywood was weaponized to catch communist spies and prevent them from causing harm to the public, yet only succeeded in pitting stars against one another. McCarthy and the people who worked for him began interrogating people who they believed to be spreading communism in Hollywood through music and films. In these interrogations, these actors and musicians were asked if they had ever participated in communism, if they were a member of the communist party or if they knew anyone who was a member of the party.

Like in “The Crucible,” which Miller wrote based on the Red Scare and McCarthyism, Hollywood stars began turning on each other in an attempt to save their careers and avoid incarceration or blacklisting. Anyone who refused to speak, confess or turn someone in was arrested and their career in the industry was terminated — effectively ruining both their Hollywood and real-world lives.

What Really Caused the Witchcraft Hysteria?

Just as widespread social paranoia contributed to the rise of McCarthyism, the development of mass hysteria surrounding the Salem Witch Trials can be traced back to ecological factors. In 1976, Dr. Linnda Caporael posited that the cause of the Salem Witch Trials can be traced all the way back to moldy rye bread; Kate Lohnes, an Encyclopaedia Britannica editor writes:

“The behavior exhibited in 1692 fits the bill of rye-induced ergotism. Ergotism forms in rye after a severe winter and a damp spring–conditions that Caporael and other historians claim were present in 1691 and therefore affected the rye harvested for consumption in 1692. After the rye plant contracts ergot, the fungus grows and replaces shoots on the grain with sclerotia. Ergot sclerotia are purple-black growths that contain lysergic acid ergotamine. Since medical knowledge was sparse, the presence of darker shoots on rye was probably thought to be the product of overexposure to the sun, so it was most likely eaten despite being poisonous.”

While this is just a theory, the facts to support it do seem completely plausible, since consuming rotten food can cause a plethora of health issues, even hallucinations and paranoia. Nevertheless, the recurring cycle of accusation and betrayal throughout history begs the question of whether external factors were truly to blame, or rather the intrinsic human propensity to evil.

Andrea Cepeda, University of North Texas

Writer Profile

Andrea Cepeda

University of North Texas
Creative Writing

First year college student majoring in creative writing. I love reading and writing, mainly fiction, but I am open to all genres.

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