Sunday, November 4, 2012


Julie Clarke (Copyright 2012)

Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible and the 1996 film of the same name refers to a witch hunt carried out in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692. It was written several years after one with similar themes by the German-Jewish émigré to America, Lion Feuchtwanger entitled Wahn oder Der Teufel in Boston (Delusion, or The Devil in Boston) 1948. Feuchtwanger was, like Miller accused of being a communist sympathizer during the McCarthy era and although both plays underscore xenophobia and mass hysteria and speak to periods of extreme hysteria throughout history in which individuals considered different, disloyal or subversive were accused of evil doing without substantive evidence; I would argue that Miller’s screenplay of The Crucible (Nicholas Hytner, 1996) is more likely emblematic of a fear of the other invariably inscribed on the female body.
The Crucible (Nicholas Hytner, 1996) is significant to contemporary society in that there has been an increased vigilance to identify, locate and investigate Islamic fundamentalist terrorists who pose a threat to human life.[1] Patterns of cultural valuing and devaluing have emerged in which individuals are constituted as other, inferior, dangerous and in need of surveillance.
Those outside Christendom are perceived as alien to western cultural ideals and more often than not during this intense period of Islamaphobia it is Muslim women who are targeted because of their orthodox dress and behavior. Those who wear the black Burqa, a mark of religious and ideological belief, suggests to some that they concealing a dangerous and potential evil not unlike the one unleashed by the cloaked girls in the Salem forest, who were also perceived as being masked by silence.
Abigail in The Crucible
There is certain strangeness in The Crucible for it represents imagination in the minds of the girls who accused many adults (mainly women) in Salem of being witches. A similar mindset is exhibited by Miller who used his imagination to distort much of the historical truth. Indeed, he altered the girl’s ages (from historical facts) so that in the film their sexual desire is a potent force that is a catalyst for much of the hysteria. This may explain why Miller who was aware after reading Charles W. Upham’s rather benign account of a small group of young girls (possibly under the age of twelve years) who met at Mr. Parris's house ‘for the purpose of practising palmistry, and other arts of fortune-telling, and of becoming experts in the wonders of necromancy, magic, and spiritualism’ (Upham, 1867); included in the screen drama, a more potent scene in which girls dance with Tituba around a crucible and create love spells. We may also ask why in the film he introduces George Jacobs Senior as a new (albeit historical) character in the film and how his character relates to the strangeness of the girls involved in an exotic ritual.
Whilst undertaking research on the Salem witch trials, Miller saw a lithograph of bearded men of the court, shrinking back in horror as a woman on trial summoned supernatural energy[2].
A shaft of sepulchral light shoots down from a window high up in a vaulted room, falling upon the head of a judge whose face is blanched white, his long white beard hanging to his waist, arms raised in defensive horror as beneath him the covey of afflicted girls screams and claws at invisible tormentors. Dark and almost indistinguishable figures huddle on the periphery of the picture, but a few men can be made out, bearded like the judge, and shrinking back in pious outrage. (Burns, 2011)
This reminded him of an event at a synagogue in his childhood when he saw old men dancing and singing crazily.[3] Miller explains: ‘I knew instantly what the connection was: the moral intensity of the Jews and the clan's defensiveness against pollution from outside the ranks…I understood Salem in that flash; it was suddenly my own inheritance’ (1996a). We can assume from this statement that Miller understood the puritans of Salem, who wished to protect their way of life from evil that would pollute and contaminate them. I would argue that there is a definite link between Miller’s memory of fifteen Jewish men dancing in a circle with shawls over their head, his discomfort witnessing something strangely forbidden, and the ecstasy expressed by the girls in the forest who also participate in and witness a clandestine ceremony in which blood, sexuality and race are revealed as corrupting elements. In both instances, an irrational fear of the unknown and unseen is evoked. Indeed Miller conceded that there was a ‘living connection between’ himself and Salem and that the Un-American Activities Committee hearings ‘in Washington were profoundly and even avowedly ritualistic’.[4] I admire what I would call, the feminization of Miller’s experience and memory of these men, who appear hysterical, a state of being stereotypically ascribed to females.
Paradoxically, in the screen play Miller includes not a pious gentlemen defending contamination from outside (as in the lithograph), but a reversal of sorts, for he includes in the film version, George Jacobs Senior (William Preston), an arthritic, who was most likely of Jewish descent[5] and one of three men tried and hanged for wizardry in the actual Salem witch trials.[6] Miller also alters this account, for in a painting entitled The Trial of George Jacobs, by T. H. Matteson (1692), Jacobs is depicted as able-bodied, but his gesture of outstretched arms does mirror the body of the witch in the lithograph.
Accused of being part of the contagion of evil that had supposedly infiltrated puritanical Salem, Jacobs is aligned with other old or poor woman indicted with witchcraft and his body marked as different by his dependence upon two walking sticks is echoed in the contorted bodies of the young girls (who display supposedly interior evil on the exterior of their bodies). However, it is Abigail Williams (Winona Ryder) who is set up, not only as femme fatale (she seduces John Proctor and then points her finger accusingly at his wife as witch) but as the penultimate witch of Salem and it is through her that pollution becomes evident.
Barbara Creed argues that women are, by virtue of their gender, monstrous and throughout western history has been aligned with outsiders, such as Jews, blacks, the poor and the disabled and are therefore posited as different and inferior[7]. The Crucible follows a long line of films that equate voodoo with Satanism and black skinned people with the black arts, however, the girls who accuse others of witchcraft display a body of evidence used to substantiate evil.[8] We must remember that within the religious climate of Salem the devil was ubiquitous and was believed to be able to tempt women into transgressing. Female compaction with the devil supposedly gave them supernatural powers such as flying and shape shifting and their secrecy about such concord was substantiated by their silence or exterior markers on their body.
The Crucible
The Crucible (Nicholas Hytner, 1996) is an account, albeit inaccurate, of the witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692. The film begins with a potent scene in a forest in which local girls from Salem village together with Tituba (Charlayne Woodard), a black slave, most likely from Barbados, engage in a clandestine ceremony around a boiling cauldron.[9] Blood, sexuality and race are revealed as corrupting elements and what follows is hysteria borne out of an exacerbated fear of the unknown and unseen, ignited by visible signs on the girl’s bodies.[10] Undeniably the bodies of the girls become a screen on which passion and hysteria is mapped. In ancient times menstrual blood incited fear, for if women could produce life they were considered to be able to cause it to wither. The blood also indicates the gruesome death of Abigail’s parents in which their blood was spilled. ‘I saw Indians smash my dear parents' heads on the pillow next to mine and I have seen some reddish work done at night’, Abigail says to the village girls (Miller, 1996:19)  In all cases blood and silence becomes a strange marker associated with the female body; and the correlation of Abigail with the almost supernatural powers of blood establishes her as evil and other.
The Reverend Parris (Bruce Davison) who witnesses this highly sexualized event in the forest, involving love spells, chanting, nakedness and voodoo is shocked to discover that his niece Abigail (Winona Rider), his daughter Betty (Rachael Bella) and his black slave Tituba are participants. The next morning Betty Parris and Ruth Putnum (Ashley Peldam) are found unconscious and since Doctor Griggs (Peter Maloney) cannot find an earthly reason for their condition, Ann Putnam (Frances Conroy) assumes their narcolepsy is the work of vengeful spirits, possibly evoked by Sarah Good (Sheila Pinkham) and Goody Osborne (Ruth Maleczech). Much speculation has occurred as to why the young girls appeared paralytic after their experience in the forest, since Miller’s account of the Salem witch trials was considered to be an accurate account,  however, I would argue that the inclusion of a rooster and blood ritual in the opening scene of the film, evokes voodoo[11] and is utilized to explain the negative effects on the afflicted girls - one whose eyes are closed and does not move, the other whose eyes are open, but hears naught, sees naught, and cannot eat.[12] The girls have become aligned with evil through their silence and in Ruth’s case her stillness is attributed by her mother to her becoming more secretive. The attribution of furtiveness is important here because human nature has shown that when we identify a person’s behavior as unusual we immediately become fearful or suspicious of them.
News of the girls’ strange affliction travels quickly with some in the village believing that Parris’s daughter has supernatural powers and can fly.[13]  Afraid that his reputation will be tarnished, Parris calls a meeting to announce that he has invited the Reverend John Hale, an expert in the demonic arts, to visit Salem to establish whether or not the devil is present.
After examining the girls and consulting his books in which ‘the Devil stands stripped of all his brute disguises’ [14] Hale and Parris coerce Tituba into confessing her compaction with the Devil. Tituba’s confession whilst being brutally whipped by her master is no different to contemporary accounts of confessions extracted by torture from detainees suspected of being potential terrorists, who would offer an admission of guilt rather than endure further pain and anguish. The assumption in contemporary accounts as well as during the Salem witch trials is that secretiveness suggests guilt and those, such as John Proctor (Daniel Day-Lewis), Rebecca Nurse (Elizabeth Lawrence) and Martha Corey (Mary Pat Gleason) who did not confess to witchcraft or accuse others of same were eventually lead to the gallows.
Tituba introduces voodoo ritual to the girls and Kelli V. Randall explains that racial identity is the sole criteria for identifying her as a witch for she is the first to be accused and the first to accuse others of witchcraft. (Randall, 2008)  Following a medieval tradition of perceiving the devil as black-skinned, many Euro-colonists of the time regarded Indian religion and culture as satanic, and since Salem was often under attack by these ‘devils’ skin color became a signifier of evil.[15]
Indeed the girls of Salem often said they saw a ‘black man’ standing next to those they accused, substantiating that the entity was not only not human but evil.[16] (McDermott, 1999:1) Since slaves generally had dark skin, they were considered less than human and consequently inferior to white people. The devil as non-human other is brought forth here through the notion of slavery, since slaves did not have human status. Since Abigail refused to be Elizabeth Proctor’s (Joan Allan) slave and Mary Warren (Karron Graves) said she would no longer cower under threat of John Proctor’s whip they share Tituba’s non human status. Both girls use the hysteria in Salem to inflict retribution upon the Proctors for past deeds and they accused others of witchcraft simply because they were easy targets and would be more readily accepted as purveyors of evil. Some of those accused, such as Sarah Good, George Jacobs (William Preston) and Rebecca Nurse already bore marks of difference and aging on their body and were loathed by members of the Salem community so it was easy to graft this further ‘otherness’ of evil upon them. We are reminded here to be rational, rather than emotional when confronted with difference; a method adopted by the Reverend Hale who eventually relied upon empirical knowledge, rather than speculation to uncover that jealousy and covetousness were the prime motivators behind the witchcraft accusations. Abigail was certainly jealous of Elizabeth for she desired her husband John Proctor and could not abide the fact that he would rather cut off his hand than reach for her again.
Abigail who sees the potency and power of Tituba’s admission also demonizes local women and fearful that the truth will out, threatens the girls with a ‘pointy reckoning’ if they reveal what really happened in the forest. They began to act in strange ways, attesting to the fact that they had been ‘witched’ by certain undesirable members of Salem society, whom they name. Several of the other girls follow suit and before long many innocent residents of Salem are accused of witchcraft.  John Proctor, who has had a clandestine relationship with Abigail, suspects that she has something to do with the hysteria. There is an assumption that women have a secret life outside the domain of men or the Church. Massachusetts woman Anne Hutchinson, who spoke out against religious orthodoxy and encouraged an individualistic, rather than theocratic view was persecuted and banished in 1637 ‘as being not fit for our society’ by Governor John Winthrop, because Winthrop thought her testimony that God had ‘revealed himself’ to her was delusional. Paradoxically, the young girls who cried ‘witch’ and who spoke of invisible evil forces, had little trouble in convincing men of the Church half a century later of the power of the unseen, by acting out that evil upon the surface of their body. Of course, accusing others of witchcraft empowered the girls at a time in which Salem women had little political or judicial propriety, however, this only added to long held views about complicity between the feminine gender and evil. Giles Corey (Peter Vaughan) unwittingly implicates his wife Martha in witchcraft by assuming that since she was secretive about her reading habits she must have been reading something other than the Bible. There is a fear here that the knowledge and power that women gained from reading books is different by degree to those of man and God and was certainly threatening to the men of Salem village.[17]Indeed the lust of ‘Christian women and their covenanted men’ spoken about by Abigail to John Proctor, may suggest that the strange book that Martha reads is one that offers an outlet for her passion or opportunities for challenging established norms.
Corey’s suspicions about his wife are fueled by Walcott who charges Martha of bewitching his pigs with her books and the power of the book, its hidden knowledge and influence is raised when Mary Warren accuses John Proctor of coercing her into signing her name in the devil’s book, Abigail and Sarah Good’s confession to writing in it and Sarah’s accusation that Goody Osborne wrote her name in it with her own blood. Women already had a secret life linked with blood through their shared experience of menstruation and childbirth, and in ancient times menstrual blood incited fear, for if women could produce life they could also cause it to wither. Ann Putnam, jealous of the fecundity of other women, believed that the death of seven of her own children was due to witchcraft. Blood is a powerful signifier of initiation into womanhood and a primal element, said to be used by witches to perform ritual magic, and, it is through the vehicle of blood and race that the secret life of women was evoked, for it was Titiba who swirled a live rooster around her head in the forest as she sang a song from Barbados and Abigail who thrashed the rooster to death on the cauldron catching its blood in her hand and raising it to her lips.  In Haitian voodoo, blood is smeared on the mouth as a reminder to participants to remain circumspect and the blood that sealed Abigail’s orifice was analogous to Betty’s closed eyes, blind to the external world and alluding to one unseen.
The correlation of Abigail with the supernatural powers of blood establishes her as evil. She drank a blood potion so that Elizabeth Proctor might die and after seeing Mary Warren (Karron Graves) place a needle in a poppet she was sewing during the trial of George Jacobs (a portent that Mary later gave to Elizabeth), Abigail, versed in the doll’s power as a vehicle for casting spells, later collapses in the tavern with a needle stuck two inches into her belly, which she maintains was pushed in by Elizabeth Proctor’s (Joan Allen) familiar spirit.
This association between witchcraft and difference became evident when Sarah Osborne and George Jacobs Senior are called to court to face Thomas Danford (Paul Scofield), Deputy Governor of the province, Judge Samuel Sewell (George Gaynes) and Ruth Putnam (Ashley Peldon) who accused Jacobs of witchcraft. His supposed evil may be prefaced not only on the convincing nature of Ruth’s accusation but by virtue of the fact that his contorted, arthritic body may have indicated to those present, evidence of a twisted mind capable of conjuring a spirit to press against Ruth’s young body.[18]  His body, so marked is echoed in the contorted, fitful and hysterical bodies of the young girls who recount their experiences and mirror his supposed evil. There is often an assumption that those who look or behave differently not only challenge our cultural norms but may be concealing a desire to break down our ideologies.
Ultimately the evils that existed in Salem were less to do with a belief system that fueled fear of an unseen power (historically linked to women) that could threaten piety and life, and more to do with envy of another’s position, power or influence and since some of the girls were subject to domination and abuse they took the opportunity to seek revenge in order to better their situation and challenge the laws of men and the church. More than this, The Crucible reveals that white/black, good/evil; able bodied/disabled, superior/inferior, west/east dichotomies continue to prevail and color our perceptions of others.


Burns Margo,  Arthur Miller's The Crucible: Fact & Fiction (or Picky, Picky, Picky... 
Revised: 9/27/11.

Carlson, Laurie Winn (1999).  A Fever in Salem: A New Interpretation of the New England Witch Trials. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, Publisher.

Christiane Desafy-Grignard (2004), ‘Jewishness and Judaism revisited in two Short Stories by Arthur Miller: ‘Monte Sant' Angelo’ and ‘I Don't Need You Anymore’, Journal of the Short Story in English [Online], 43 | Autumn 2004, Online since 05 août 2008, Connection on 08 mars 2012. URL : (Accessed March 2012).

McDermott, Gerald R. (1999) Jonathan Edwards and American Indians: The Devil Sucks Their Blood’, The New England Quarterly, Vol. 72, No. 4, Dec.

Miller, Arthur (1983). The Crucible: A Play in Four Acts, USA: Penguin.

Miller, A (1996a) Arthur Miller, Life and Letters, “WHY I WROTE "THE CRUCIBLE",” The New Yorker, October 21, 1996, p.158

Miller, Arthur (1996b). The Crucible: A screenplay by Arthur Miller, Great Britain: Metheun Films.
Randall, Kelli V. (2008).  ‘Corrupted by Skin Color: Racist and Misogynist Perceptions of Hoodoo in Maryse Condé’s I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem’, Women Writers: A Zine.
Roper, Lyndal (1991). ‘Magic and the theology of the body: Exorcism in sixteenth-century Augsburg’, In: (ed) Charles Zika, No gods except me: Orthodoxy and Religious Practice in Europe 1200-1600, History Department, The University of Melbourne.
Upham, Charles W. (1867) Salem Witchcraft: With an Account of Salem Village and A History of Opinions on Witchcraft and Kindred Subjects, New York, Frederick Ungar Publishing Company. Vol 2, p3.

[1] Indeed many Muslims are concerned that FBI guidelines could target innocent people.
[2] The lithograph of the Salem witch trials was possibly made by Joseph E. Baker (1892). The image may be found at the following link:
[3] Desafy-Grignard,  Christiane (2004)
[4] Miller, Timebends A Life, 1987
[5] A bearded elder with white hair, he mirrors a representation of him in an oil painting entitled The Trial of George Jacobs (T. H. Matteson, 1855).August 5, 1692 by T. H. Matteson, 1855. The following site states that George Jacobs was Jewish.
[6] George Jacobs was not a character in Miller’s original play.
[7] Creed, Barbara. (1993). The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis, London and New York, Routledge, p3.
[8] Angel Heart (Allan Parker, 1987) is one such example and includes a voodoo ritual scene in which Epiphany cuts the throat of a chicken and smears its blood on her body, creating not only fear of the other, female black sexuality but also associates voodoo with the devil.
[9] This scene may have been inspired by William Shakespeare’s play Macbeth (1603-1607) in which three witches prepare a magic potion in a cauldron. The cauldron is a cliché image popularized in children’s books and associated with magic.
[10] Miller’s childhood memory of witnessing fifteen Jewish men dancing in a circle and singing ecstatically in a synagogue and his discomfort witnessing something strangely forbidden may have influenced his decision to include this scene in the film, which was not in his original play.
[11] It should be noted that animal sacrifice has been practiced in many religions.
[12] Encephalitis lethargica was offered as an explanation (Carlson, 1999) and in Lion Feuchtwanger’s play Parris’s daughter is inflicted with paroxysms. However, voodoo death (psychosomatic death caused by a strong emotional response) maybe referenced.
[13] Abigail pretends to see Mary Warren’s spirit manifest in the form of a yellow bird on the ceiling rafters in the court room, attesting to the notion of her supernatural power.
[14] The books may be the Malleus Maleficarum (1486) a medieval treatise on witches or the Compendium Maleficarum: A Handbook on Witchcraft from the 1600 
[15] This thinking may also have been adopted for in biblical accounts it was Judas Iscariot, a dark-skinned Jewish man who betrayed Christ. 
[16] At the trial Ruth informs Judge Danford (Paul Scofield) that a black man was whispering in Jacob’s ear.
[17] A fear that females may become powerful if educated is evident in a recent case in which a fourteen year old Pakistani female activist Malala Yousufzai, who promotes girl’s education, was shot in the head by a member of the Taliban for vocally opposing the militant group’s behavior.
[18] George Jacobs was one of three men tried and hanged for wizardry in the actual Salem witch trials.


  1. I like Winona Ryder in Crucible. Been a while since I saw it. I read the blood references as continuity actually, madness passed down generations from some unspeakably savage time. For me Miller s always asking why we are driving ourselves crazy?

  2. Interesting observation about blood/genetics Steve. But I ask: Are we not still living in 'unspeakably savage times' in regards to our inhumanity to others? Are 'we' still involved in a witch-hunt to uncover undesirables? Recent example to 'silence' was when the Taliban shot Malala Yousafzai - a fifteen year old girl for supporting education for girls.

  3. Atavism is what prompted me to think about blood. Blood as speech, speaking from one generation to the next.