SALEM, Mass IT WAS MID-JANUARY of 1692, before the Age of Reason, when about a dozen girls stifled by the rigors of Puritanism started gathering in a kitchen for a bit of naughty talk and inadvertently launched the Salem witchcraft hysteria.
Before the panic subsided and townfolk acknowledged wrong, 20 women and men accused of witchcraft would be dead from hanging or "pressing," while at least another three would die in prison.
"Such was the darkness of the day ..." the Rev. John Hale of Beverly, Mass., would later rue. "We walked in the clouds and could not see our way."
Three centuries later, is the way much clearer? Organizers of the Salem Witch Trials Tercentenary will examine the question next spring and summer with a series of discussions, workshops and exhibitions that explore a most human proclivity to point the finger when life sours.
"We tend to look at Salem events as isolated, a panic from earlier times left far behind," said Linda McConchie, executive director of the Salem Witch Trials Tercentenary Committee.
But only the players and scenarios have changed, according to Ms. McConchie and some sociologists. The moral panic, the secular version of the witch hunt, is alive and well and thriving on an ages-old tendency to, as folklorist Bill Ellis of Pennsylvania State University put it, "find a neat and tidy, us-vs.-them explanation for what's wrong with life."
A United States in the throes of Communist angst 40 years ago allowed Joseph McCarthy to ruin hundreds of lives and careers. Today, panics are provoked by issues such as AIDS, Japan's economic muscle, allegations of abuse at day care centers, sexual orientation, sexual politics, abortion.
"We make up witches because we distrust ourselves," said Gary Alan Fine, a sociology professor at the University of Georgia. "We feel we have bungled the economy, the environment, the family, the future. Our demons are ourselves, but darned if we're going to admit it.
"Joe McCarthy knew the buttons to push four decades ago. Charles Stuart was pushing them two years ago and David Duke is at it today," said Mr. Fine. Duke, in very different circumstances, capitalized on ingrained fears of race. He blamed black "welfare cheats" for the nation's economic ills.
Guilt drives today's witch hunts involving children, according to Mr. Fine. Yesterday, mother stayed home. Today, both parents of the baby boom generation are likely to be wage earners; they pass partial responsibility for parenting to someone they pay. Mr. Fine believes the resulting anxiety has led to suspicion that sexual abuse occurs in day care centers, that Halloween candy is a killer, that satanic sacrifices occur in rural pockets of the United States.
Joel Best, a sociologist at Southern Illinois University, cannot document a serious injury from Halloween candy tampering in 30 years, except for one Texas incident where a father targeted his child.
Mr. Best, who has made it a personal specialty to investigate such cases, said most of the 80 reported tainted candy incidents can be traced to children who booby-trapped their own treats as a prank to scare their parents.
The FBI has never documented a single instance of ritualistic human sacrifice, Mr. Best added. Abuse by child care providers, though real, appears to be isolated and far less pervasive than parents fear.
Children face a 62 percent greater risk of being sexually abused at home than at a day care center, according to a 1988 national study of 270 sexual abuse cases.
Contrary perceptions are fueled by the media "stumbling all over itself" to get attention, according to Mr. Best.
"Imagine being Oprah, Donahue and Geraldo on New Year's Eve. Each of them must be thinking: 'Yikes! I've got to fill 200 shows next year with someone more sensational than the competition," Mr. Best said. "I'm not saying outlandish things don't happen," he stressed, pointing out that one need look no farther than Jeffrey Dahmer, who has pleaded guilty to the slaying and
mutilation of 15 young men and whose sanity is currently in question in a Milwaukee County trial.
"Generally the witch hunt takes off from a real event. It's escalated by fear, insecurity, guilt, whatever. Not until people say: 'Wait a minute. This just isn't plausible' does the panic stop," said Mr. Best.