It’s only September, but I am already seeing signs of ghosts and goblins in stores. Halloween, a yearly celebration of folklore and frivolity is surely on its way with witches and cauldrons always part of the featured characters who lurk about on the night of tricks and treats. We humans have an attraction to stories of wicked women with gnarled faces who cast spells. Such stories have been around for centuries and remain the grist of fears and sometimes even injustice.
Shakespeare alluded to the power of witches in Macbeth when a group hovering menacingly over a fire predicted the hero’s ultimate fate in words filled with irony and intrigue. These creatures set the ominous stage for murder and mayhem. Without them the play would have been just another story about the lure of power.
These days we mostly laugh at the idea of witches able to foresee the future or cast dastardly spells on their enemies. Witches are an almost comic representation of our human foibles, but that was not the case in Salem, Massachusetts in a time when science was unable to explain strange happenings. With religious fervor and a lack of understanding a kind of group hysteria ruled the day, resulting in trials and sentences that were sometimes deadly.
From 1692 to 1693, over 200 individuals were accused of witchcraft and prosecuted for their so called crimes. Nineteen of those people were sentenced to death and hung. The unfortunate series of events began when a group of girls began exhibiting strange fits that included convulsions and fainting. They claimed to have been taken over by the devil and named several people as witches who had cast spells on them. This lead to many months of hysteria and overly dramatic trials.
What had once been a quiet seaport and farming town became infamous for the tragedy that the false accusations created. The lurid reputation of the era has become a kind model of the devastating consequences of embracing superstitions. Nonetheless it would be naive to believe that mythical thinking no longer exists. History has demonstrated again and again that, especially in difficult times, people are willing to suspend rational thinking and accept almost magical explanations for what is happening around them.
It might be argued that the people of post World War I Germany fell for the lies that much of their misery had been cause by their Jewish neighbors because they were grasping for explanations for the hunger and want that they were experiencing. Hitler used their fears, anxieties and already developed prejudices to convince them that ridding themselves of certain people was actually justified. It’s the same age old trope that allowed slavery or turned ordinary people into witches.
During the 1950s Senator Joseph McCarthy created boogeymen out of writers, actors and ordinary people in response to the cold war with the Soviet Union. Much as with the Salem witch trials he began hearings claiming that we were overrun with Communists intent on killing our democracy. Many of the people named in the hearings lost their jobs and became pariahs when in fact they had done nothing wrong. It was indeed a witch hunt of a different kind.
Today we have so many bizarre stories about Covid-19 and the scientists and healthcare community attempting to help us that doctors are being threatened with death and hospitals have had to hire extra security. The stories of tracking devices in the vaccines and made up mortality statistics abound. The anti-science fervor has gone from simply not accepting the precautions and treatments to accusations that scientists and doctors are purposely putting citizens in harm’s way.
We have groups who falsely believe that the presidential election was fraudulent, that teachers are grooming students for devious purposes, and that a deep state of politicians are trafficking children. The hysteria surrounding such beliefs is the same as those that the colonists of Salem felt back in the fifteenth century. We humans are still easily manipulated into accepting fantastical theories over the simple truth.
One of my all time favorite college classes was called “Folklore.” I learned that just as there were people of old who actually believed that King Arthur existed, in modern times we want so badly to know that Elvis is still alive that there are sightings of him all over the world. We share stories that John Kennedy did not die but instead lived out his days on a Greek island. More recently a crowd gathered in Dallas in anticipation that John Kennedy, Jr. was going to return to tell us truths that we needed to hear.
Sometimes it’s easier to believe fantastic stories than face the truth. You would think we might have learned from the tragedy of Salem and other superstitious times, but it seems that we still have a long way to go. The myths and legends may seem silly or even funny until they hurt someone. If it sounds too fantastical, it most likely is and that should give us pause to check for the facts. Nobody should ever be harmed by lies.