To put this kind of theory in context, think about delusional social crisises of our time. The “pro-life” movement is of course an enduring movement built on bullshit-based crisis thinking, and taken in the larger context of social conservatism that’s in a full-blown panic about contraception, gay rights, etc., it becomes clear that the “saving babies” thing is a cover story for anxieties about sexual freedom and women’s liberation. Or for a historical incident that’s similar to a witchcraft crisis—the Satanic day care panics of the 80s. In retrospect, it’s easy to see how these panics fit into a larger backlash against women’s growing presence in the workplace. Day cares were an anxiety-laden symbol of middle class women’s willingness to leave the hearth and enter into the paycheck-drawing workplace, and the panic created a convenient way to rebuke women for abandoning their child-rearing duties. The myth that Mexican immigrants are coming to the U.S. to conquer us by stealth is a racist cover for anxieties about trade and labor issues that drive immigration. Really, name your poison.
I’d always written off the Salem witchcraft crisis as a dying thrash of medieval thinking during the Enlightenment. No doubt that was a huge part of it, but Norton points out that it was unique even then for what it was. Not only bigger, but a lot of the accused were men and prominent members of the community. What she argues, then, is that the witchcraft crisis fed on community anxieties in the wake of repeated attacks from the Wabanaki Indians, working hand in hand with French Catholics. Many of the accusers had seen raids first hand while living in Maine and had retreated to the relative safety of Salem. New England Protestant leaders, the very sort who gave power to the witchcraft accusations by taking them seriously, had this great shame hanging over them because they were unable to completely guard their communities against the French and the Wabanaki. In other words, they were ripe to hear scapegoating accusations that posited that the community was under attack from Satan, who was using the very people most frequently gossiped about as agents of his Satanic will. God knows that plenty of the people who wrote about it or gave sermons during the crisis drew a direct line between the Wabanaki, the French, and the witches.