Mass Hysteria In The Crucible Essay Research


Mass hysteria is a psychological illness, where fear and rumors through a group of people create a certain behavior. Almost always, it’s all in your head. It’s like you and the people around you trick and convince yourselves that there is actually something wrong with you. Some examples include contagious dancing, laughing, but some go even deeper than that, like believing there are monsters and the people around you could be one too. Mass hysteria can cause a population or society to completely turn on each other. One epidemic that occurred in 1939 was the Twitching Epidemic, where a girl’s leg was twitching uncontrollably, and soon enough, it was happening to 6 other girls after they saw what was happening. It was a delusion that was caused through rumors and fear. Due to the positive and negative ways that our society has been affected, the Twitching Epidemic of 1939 is an example of mass hysteria, which shares similarities to events in The Crucible, by Arthur Miller.

In the spring of 1939, an epidemic of leg twitching broke out in Bellevue, Louisiana. It all started when a teenage girl, Helen, was in class and her leg started twitching uncontrollably. It got so bad that she couldn’t make it to her dance classes. “She feared her boyfriend would end their relationship if he saw how poorly she danced” (Bartholomew). Soon enough, her symptoms spread to six other girls. Several students wanted her to stay away from the school, scared that her symptoms were contagious and they could catch it if she kept coming into school (Evans). Parents even began fearing that a contagious illness was spreading throughout the school, so they were all showing up to the school to take their children home, and the school ended up closing. Even after the school reopened and a public health authority reassured everyone that the twitching was not contagious, half of the school still did not show up. It took weeks for the symptoms to calm down and everyone was not afraid to come to school. 

This epidemic caused mass hysteria because it was a psychological phenomenon. Helen’s leg twitching made her scared and within a blink of an eye, rumors spread throughout the entire school about it. Helen had been under a lot of stress lately, which is most likely the cause of her leg shaking in the first place. It added so much more anxiety to not only Helen, but to the whole entire society. Although everyone was perfectly fine and the leg twitching wasn’t even close to being contagious, every single person who found out about it, worried themselves sick over it. “The symptoms aren’t just all in their heads, they’re real, though the cause is psychological” (Harrison). Even inspections were being done on the school’s air, water, surfaces, etc. and nothing unusual showed up. One small trigger and a bunch of running mouths caused a whole society to go into a panic. 

Mass hysteria affected society because it sent everyone into a panic. Friends, family, neighbors, were all terrified of catching what they believed was a contagious illness. The society began panicking more and more as they fed off of each other’s emotional reactions. (Fritscher). Although public health authorities confirmed that the leg twitching was not contagious, no one believed it and it caused a bunch of other issues, such as the whole entire school closing and tests being done to see what was causing this mysterious outbreak.  Mass hysteria is groupthink, which in the end, affects the entire population, not so much always in a good way. It occurs when a group of people form an opinion and everyone agrees with it, without taking the time to further evaluate the situation and information. (Fritscher). During The Twitching Epidemic of 1939, it was an example of groupthink because one person came up with the idea that the symptoms were contagious and everyone followed that, instead of taking a deeper look at what was going on with Helen and her shaky leg. 

The mass hysteria demonstrated in this epidemic has both similarities and differences to the mass hysteria shown in The Crucible. For instance, in this twitching epidemic, one girl’s leg started shaking uncontrollably and people began rumors saying that it was an illness and that it was contagious. The same thing happened in The Crucible, when two girls were seen dancing in the woods. Rumors started that they were performing witchcraft and it spread throughout the whole town. Even though authorities were confirming that the school was safe and the symptoms were not contagious, nobody listened. Just like how nobody believed the girls or anyone else when they said they weren’t involved in witchcraft. The Louisiana Twitching Epidemic is also similar to The Crucible, because the people were mimicking Helen’s twitching, just like when Abigail saw a yellow bird on the ceiling. “Mary Warren, pleading: ‘Abby, you mustn’t!’ Abigail AND ALL THE Girls, all transfixed: ‘Abby, you mustn’t’”(Miller, 115). Anything that Mary said, they all mimicked, just like how everyone mimicked Helen when her leg started twitching. Neither of those were actually a contagious disease, it was just in their head.

The Twitching Epidemic of 1939 was indeed a form of mass hysteria because it caused an entire society of people to have a psychological illness from the spreading of rumors and fear. One person’s leg shaking caused a scare to so many people, even though it was all in their head. Everyone’s brain was causing their legs to tremble, which made them think it was a contagious disease, which is what happens when one thing causes a stressful wave of mass hysteria. Although this epidemic occurred in 1939, it also happened again years later, in 2012. Mass hysteria isn’t something that can be prevented, but it is something that can be avoided by using common sense and counteracting misinformation. 

Works Cited

Bartholomew, R., Wessely, S., & Rubin, G. (2012, December). Mass psychogenic illness and the social network: Is it changing the pattern of outbreaks? Retrieved March 23, 2021, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3536509/#:~:text=In%201939%2C%20an%20epidemic%20of,spread%20to%20six%20other%20girls.

Evans, H., & Bartholomew, R. E. (2009). Outbreak! Retrieved March 23, 2021, from https://books.google.com/books?id=7aJVq5-ZkuEC&pg=PA323&lpg=PA323&dq=the%2Btwitching%2Bepidemic%2Bof%2B1939&source=bl&ots=NtX3mWX8MD&sig=ACfU3U2UZ3wcq0FHgO3L_yJb9kL3NVbTuQ&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwi4pZDhhbvvAhWrmuAKHaC9Cxw4ChDoATASegQIBhAD#v=onepage&q=the%20twitching%20epidemic%20of%201939&f=false

Fritscher, L. (2020, July 24). Sticking too closely to a group mindset may cause phobias or hysteria. Retrieved March 23, 2021, from https://www.verywellmind.com/understanding-groupthink-2671595

Harrison, D. (2007, November 18). Mystery illness is stress, expert says. Retrieved March 23, 2021, from https://roanoke.com/archive/mystery-illness-is-stress-expert-says/article_84cee665-dd93-5c00-b54b-86e28bc274b9.html

Miller, A. (1952). The Crucible. New York, NY: Penguin.

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