America’s biggest haunted house: the echo chamber


Illustration by Meg Richards

Illustration by Meg Richards

By Meg Richards, Staff Writer

Alt-right fringe conservatives are repackaging the same witch-hunt rhetoric that got the likes of Disney’s Sanderson Sisters hanged 400 years ago. The newest right-wing moral panic surrounds the recently released movie “Hocus Pocus 2” and its perceived agenda to bring the devil into your homes and indoctrinate your children into Satanism. Ironically, this proves that the cautionary message of the Salem Witch Trials — one of religious extremism and echo chambers — was never fully learned by the nation.

Cries about Satanism and witchcraft barely dwindled after Salem. They now come in the form of moral panic, like “taking God out of our schools,” and other intense backlash to non-threatening things like heavy metal music. This can be seen countless times in recent centuries. More recently, it manifested in the form of “The War on Christmas” — a panic that ensued after retail employees began saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” Although not on as massive a scale as the witch trials, this behavior is a clear example of religious extremism. 

It is a compounded mix of extreme religious beliefs and an irrational fear of Satanism in day-to-day American life. The lack of a larger force to challenge these perceptions creates an echo chamber. The fear festered inside these communities and all the irrational beliefs that went along with it were echoed to one another, only reinforcing the delusion. These are the same beliefs that led to misconceptions about “witches” 400 years ago, and they’re mimicked again today. Platforms such as QAnon and Truth Social currently host paranoia about Satanism infiltrating mainstream media with every witchy Disney sequel. 

The Salem Witch Trials were a series of trials and subsequent prosecutions in which people in colonial Massachusetts were found guilty of witchcraft. Of the 200 people — mostly women — who were accused, 30 were found guilty and 19 were executed. The Salem Witch Trials were one of the first and most notorious cases of mass hysteria in the history of the U.S. The event occurred as a result of religious extremism, a rigid patriarchal social structure, and a lack of standards in the legal process. Massachusetts settlers sought to build a colony founded on religious ideals and values. 

Intrinsic to these ideals was a common disdain towards women, who were viewed as inherently inferior to their male counterparts and thus inherently sinful. Anything peculiar that a woman did could be considered an act of witchcraft, such as fits of bodily contortions, odd noises, and painful sensations in random areas of the body. In retrospect, medical experts said this to be the earlier cases of epilepsy, asthma, and Lyme disease. Furthermore, women whose reputations were not completely pristine and innocent (such as women who engaged in gossip or promiscuous behaviors) were accused. At a time when our nation’s legal system was still green, these accusations were immediately taken as the truth, and trials were simply customary. This immaturity in the justice system, combined with extremist religious beliefs, led to a moral panic when many women began acting in this accord.

A moral panic only requires few actual incidents of a seemingly irrational event. It begins with a concern, sparked by one or two events occurring. Concern is amplified by environmental factors, such as a newborn colony and its accompanying plights. Starting a new government and society is not easy by any means, and the people of Salem needed something to provide guidance and organization at such an uncertain time. Religion filled this vacuum, doubling as a motivator for their fear. 

When the concern of the issue exceeds its actual threat, moral panic ensues. Along with cataclysmically reacting to an uncommon and unthreatening thing, the bigger problem arises when the reaction to the initial event inflicts more damage than the event itself. When this sort of thing happens, it’s easy for things to get out of hand. 

Religious extremism never died out. Instead, it evolved as communities react fearfully and impulsively to things they cannot — or simply refuse to — understand. 

Irrational moral panic gained a national platform in November of 2016, validating its legitimacy and magnifying the little isolated incidents that trigger mass hysteria. Among these was PizzaGate, the QAnon theory about Hillary Clinton keeping babies locked up in the basement of a pizza parlor. The theory connected this outlandish accusation to her being in cahoots with the Devil and practicing Satanism. 

The sentiment of this religious extremist ideology was perpetuated  by the previous President of the United States for his four years in office. Donald Trump milked every last ounce of influence he had until the very end, up to his incitement of the Jan. 6 insurrection. Trump’s supporters stormed the Capitol building on the grounds that the 2020 election was rigged and stolen. The same concern over a few isolated incidents — in this case, now-debunked claims of faulty mail-in ballots — incited a similar reaction of such high volume from fearmongers, echo chambers, and holy zealots.  

There are two pressing concerns here. First, as seen in the fact that mass hysteria following a moral panic just occurred, we as a nation never learned the lesson of how bad things can get when echo chambers form. Second, the hysteria did not end the following morning after the seditious attack on Capitol Hill. The subsequent year-and-a-half brought grueling committee hearings, trials about secret tapings, and subpoenas. While de jure justice is being served, the base of supporters that launched this attack on democracy are still stewing, thriving, and hysterical.

Because of fearmongering and preying on people’s lack of exposure, this specific demographic’s brains are filled with misinformation and fear instead of truth. Fear turns to anger, and all those feelings explode in a display of mass hysteria. In the 1600s, it looked like the Salem Witch Trials. In the mid-20th century, it was McCarthyism, among many others. Today, it’s the Jan. 6 insurrection, and the fight isn’t over. 

Decades of not engaging in educational, critical conversation about politics and religion at family dinners caused a calamitous reaction after the catalyst that was the 2016 election and Trump administration. Preventing the consequences of irrational fear  begins with breaking the echo chamber: shattering the fun house mirror-maze inside old relatives’ heads where those extreme ideas about women, LGBTQ+ people, and Democrats live. 

Once that vacuum is filled with exposure to knowledge, people who fear what’s foreign can see there’s nothing scary about those who are different. The sooner this exposure occurs, the less likely they are to believe all the extreme urban legends about innocent things like a campy film starring three witch sisters. 

Extreme religious zealots and QAnon-spewing-politicians prey on fear and ignorance. So, this holiday season, start chipping away. Expose your relatives to what’s different. It could be the first step to preventing the next witch trial or seditious attack on democracy.