Volume Seven, 2008
Psychotic Element in Everyday Group Thinking:
Reflections on the Salem Witch Trials
Diana Semmelhack and Larry
We are often shocked to hear of groups that are said to take irrational
actions, radically undermining the basic values on which they had
previously relied. This is what some believe to have happened in the
recent incidents of brutality by American soldiers at Abu Ghraib
Prison. The Holocaust and the Inquisition have been described as
related acts of group irrationality. These events, however, can be
explained another way. According to a Kleinian analysis of group
dynamics, these group behaviors can be linked to a pre-existing form of
psychotic-like thinking that already tends to characterize our social
groups, thinking that stubbornly fends off members’ inquiry into the
underlying principles of the groups’ operation. Extreme incidents such
as those at Abu Ghraib can then be seen to occur, not because unusual
events have led the group to suddenly become irrational, but rather
because these events have led to an increase in the dimensions of
psychotic-like thinking which already tends to characterize our social
groups. The primary issue, then, is not that extraordinary conditions
have led to a situation where things have gotten out of hand, but
rather the unchecked existence of psychotic-like processes in the
everyday operation of our social groups.
A striking example of the phenomenon under discussion occurred on
American soil during the Salem Witch Trials. According to Roach (2004),
from the first arrest warrants on February 29, 1692 to the last
executions on September 22, 1692, eighteen people were executed by
hanging, one person was pressed to death, and four people plus one
infant died in prison. When the executions ended, fifty-five people had
confessed to being “witches” and over a hundred and fifty remained in
jail, waiting to be tried or enduring temporary reprieves due to
pregnancies. What happened in Salem to trigger the bizarre, murderous
self-destruction of a community based on what are often referred to as
irrational grounds? This essay explains the event in terms of the
intensification of psychotic processes unknowingly accepted as part of
our everyday group dynamics.
Overview of Klein’s Theory
Researchers have shown a close relationship between certain group
phenomena in our society and psychotic processes (Jaques, 1954). Basing
their views on the work of Melanie Klein (who believed that personality
development includes psychotic processes), these theorists suggest that
understanding psychotic mechanisms can facilitate the understanding of
group behavior. Bion (1954), for
example, believes that the
emotional life of the group is understandable only in terms of
psychotic processes. Jaques (1954)
emphasizes how individuals use
institutions to help defend against primitive anxieties linked with
psychotic phenomena. And Menzies-Lyth (1960,
1988) has come to
understand social structures as a defense against primitive forms of
anxiety, guilt, and doubt.
Klein’s theory derives from Freud's dual-drive model (Summers,
1994). Klein adopted Freud's view that the infant is born
both libidinal and destructive impulses. She believed, however, that
psychoanalytic theory had focused too much on the libidinal drive,
while insufficiently recognizing the aggressive drive (or death
instinct). Up until 1934, Klein accepted Freud's model. From 1934
onward, however, she began to formulate her own ideas about human
development which emphasized the aggressive drive. A key is her
structural concept of “positions” (Segal, 1973).
Klein's model of the human mind includes two basic positions: the
paranoid/schizoid position, dominant when the infant is 0 to 3
months old, and the depressive position, which emerges when the infant
is about 4-6 months old. In the paranoid/schizoid position, the infant
relieves itself of anxiety by attributing its anxious feelings to an
attacking external object, which the infant thus hates and rejects. The
object (or caregiver) is seen as all bad, incapable of good. The infant
is thus relieved from responsibility for the anxiety-provoking
situation. Simultaneously, this fantasy of the all bad object enables
the infant to seek refuge in the alternative fantasy of an all good
caregiver who unerringly satisfies the infant’s needs. (In
reality, the infant is typically thinking of different “parts” of the
same caregiver.) When the infant shifts into the “depressive
position,” she begins to feel guilty for her assault on the object, and
then sets out to repair her relationship with the object.
Klein’s “positions” offer different ways of dealing with anxiety:
persecutory and annihilation anxiety in the paranoid-schizoid position,
and depressive anxiety in the depressive position. The shift from the
paranoid-schizoid to the depressive position has been described as a
change from a predominantly psychotic way of processing information to
a predominantly non-psychotic mode.
There is a continuous tension between the two positions throughout the
life cycle (Klein, 1958). Moreover, when a
child, adolescent, or adult
is under stress, paranoid-schizoid and early depressive mechanisms and
phantasies can emerge, greatly reducing the individual's grasp of
reality. The fixation point of the psychotic illnesses, according to
Segal (1973), "lies in the paranoid
schizoid and at the beginning of
the depressive position" (p. 74). If an individual regresses to these
early developmental points, a sense of reality is lost and psychosis
The infant in the paranoid/schizoid position tends to undergo a cycle
that includes shifts between 1) projecting fantasies onto the object
and 2) introjecting the object (Klein, 1958).
drive gives rise to annihilation anxiety (anxiety that one will be
annihilated by the object of one's aggression). While the infant is
also born with the life instinct (or libido), this force is not yet
strong enough to assuage the aggressive drive. The infant uses
projection to cope with annihilation anxiety. Summers (1994) describes
the infant's use of projection as follows:
The infant attributes its own
destructiveness and the attendant anxiety
to the breast, which frees the primitive ego from the anxiety of being
destroyed from within… [but] the cost to the primitive ego of
projection of aggressiveness onto the breast is the preconception
of a new state of danger from without, as the breast
holds the threat of destruction that once resided within-the ego (p.
Thus projection of the aggressive drive onto the breast transforms
annihilation anxiety into persecutory anxiety. The infant then attempts
to reduce the external threat by introjecting the bad breast in an
effort to control it. A cycle of projection/introjection develops
through which the infant attempts to reduce one type of anxiety while
triggering the other. If the infant has a large enough buildup of
internalized good object experience (via adequate mothering and
handling) and does not have an abundance of innate aggressiveness, the
introjective/projective cycles will ultimately reduce the magnitude of
persecutory and annihilation anxieties.
Summers highlights 'projective identification' and 'splitting' as two
important defensive maneuvers infants use to reduce anxiety in the
paranoid/schizoid position. These maneuvers tend to dissipate as the
buildup of good object experience starts to outweigh bad object
experience and the ego begins to integrate. An over-abundance of bad
object experience, however, may greatly delay ego integration, causing
the infant to continue to rely on paranoid schizoid defense mechanisms
in order to control its aggressiveness.
In "projective identification, the infant attempts to reduce anxiety
by projecting the badness . . . into the breast and identifying
with the object; that is, the infant attempts to control its own
aggressiveness by endeavoring to control the aggressiveness in the
object" (Summers, 1994, p. 77).
Klein (1946) viewed projective
identification as the prototype of the aggressive object-relationship.
In projective identification, as Segal (1992)
describes it, the child
or adult places in someone else something belonging to the self that
may be too painful to bear. She does this by acting in such a way that
the painful parts of the self are evoked in the other person. This
defensive maneuver "involves a very deep split, where the aspects of
the self projected into others are very deeply denied in the self” (p.
36). Projective identification is one way that children and at times
adults attempt to deal with their own destructiveness. We attribute our
own rage to someone else and then fear those whom we hate.
In 'splitting,' the infant attempts to keep the good and gratifying
object (or breast) unspoiled by aggressiveness. In fantasy, the infant
splits the breast into a good and a bad object. The infant thus avoids
having to experience the anxiety of injuring the good object through
its aggressiveness. In addition, since intra-psychic contact between
the good and bad object is threatening to the infantile ego, the ego
splits into good and bad selves.
In splitting, the infant directs all love and desire toward the ideal
object which it wants to introject, possess, and identify with (Segal,
1973). Concurrently, she directs all hatred toward the persecutory
object in an attempt to rid the self of everything that is felt to be
bad or disruptive to the self. Adults often try to resolve conflicts by
splitting their perception of people into all good or all bad aspects.
When an individual relies chiefly on the defense of splitting,
reality becomes grossly distorted, creating a world of
"one-dimensional, one characteristic part objects" (p. 41).
Developmentally speaking, when early positive experiences and innate
libido have been strong enough to solidify a good internalized object,
the ego will begin to recognize that good and bad objects are the same
(Summers, 1994). Split off
components of reality start to become
integrated, leading to a more realistic perception of reality. The
infant comes to recognize the rather scary reality that the hated
object is the same one which is loved and depended on for sustenance.
She gains an awareness of objects and the self as whole (with loved and
hated aspects). Infants begin to understand that they are aggressive
agents, not simply victims of persecution. This integration of split
off parts leads to the beginning of the “depressive position.”
In the depressive position, the child's primary anxiety stems from her
fear that her destructive impulses have or will destroy "the object
that he loves and totally depends on" (Segal,
1973, p.69). As the infant
recognizes a desire to injure the object, she feels guilt and a desire
to repair the object, which is both loved and hated. If she has a
sufficiently stable build up of good object experiences, the infant
will be able to see that her destructive impulses have not irreparably
damaged the loved object.
In its fragile state of ego integration, the infant relies on certain
defensive maneuvers to help her cope with depressive anxiety. This
includes, according to Summers (1994),
the infant's omnipotent phantasy
that it can magically control bad objects and restore good objects, or
mania. The child's belief in her omnipotence strongly suggests a denial
of reality. The “manic defense” denies external and psychic reality,
exaggerating the internalized good object (Klein,
When the manic defense does not succeed in repairing the object, the
infant may frantically attempt to repair it by means of obsessive
mechanisms "in a desperate effort to repair the object over and over to
prevent psychic disintegration" (Summers,
1994, p. 92). If all of the
infant's reparative efforts fail, depressive anxiety will not be
reduced and psychopathology may ensue. The individual may become locked
in an obsessive compulsive pattern, or fixated in a manic defense. If
the anxiety triggered by not being able to repair the object is
overwhelming and the internalized good object not solidly in place, a
regression to the paranoid-schizoid position may develop. The ability
to sustain loving relationships depends on the experience of having
repaired the loved object. Individuals who have not had this experience
may be unable to form intimate relationships out of fear that they will
destroy the loved object.
Bion (1954) believed that Klein's
psychology of the individual applied
to groups. He theorized that the emotional life of the group could be
understood only in terms of the psychotic processes characteristic of
the paranoid-schizoid and the early depressive positions.
Individuals, according to Bion, are driven to make contact with the
emotional life of the groups in which they live. The task of making
this contact is akin to the infant's need to make physical and
emotional contact with the breast. Connecting emotionally with the
group and securing membership requires a "massive regression, to
mechanisms (e.g., splitting, projective identification) described by
Klein as typical of the earliest phases of mental life" p.
regressed state is suggested by the fact that in most groups people
forfeit their distinctiveness in order to become members.
Bion (1954) delineated two trends of
mental activity that occur simultaneously
in any group, the “work group” and the “basic assumption group.” The
work group pursues the basic activity that the group has come together
to accomplish (the task). This activity "... is related to reality, its
methods are rational, and, therefore, in however embryonic form,
scientific" (p. 442). The work group recognizes the need for the group
to understand experience and to develop. Much like the individual who
has dealt successfully with paranoid-schizoid and depressive anxieties,
this level of group functioning is characterized by a relationship to
whole objects, a prevalence of ego integration and the use of the
symbolic function to give meaning to group activity. The work group may
be distinguished by a leader who is focused on the task at hand, and
therefore possesses contact with external reality.
Work group activity, however, can be obstructed by basic assumptions.
Group members, according to Bion, place aspects of their deepest
anxieties outside of themselves and pool them to create the emotional
life of the group. Basic assumptions act as defenses against these
pooled primal anxieties, anxieties characteristic of the
paranoid/schizoid and early depressive positions.
Bion describes basic assumptions as giving meaning to the complex,
chaotic, underlying emotional life of the group. The basic assumption
operating at any given time is communicated to members through
projective identification. In projective identification unwanted parts
of the personality of individual members are split off and projected
into the emotional life of the group. Bion goes on to say that
basic assumptions are:
. . . worked out on a level of part
objects, and associated with
psychotic anxiety and mechanisms of splitting and projective
identification such as Melanie Klein has described as characteristic of
the paranoid-schizoid and [early] depressive positions (p. 457
Bion identifies three types of basic assumptions: dependency, pairing,
and fight-flight. The work group bases itself on one basic assumption
at a time. Group members are typically unaware of the powerful effects
that a basic assumption may be having on the group's functioning,
including obstructing the task at hand. While the work
group's task may remain unaltered, the basic assumption can change
quickly in response to the emergence of psychotic anxiety. If, for
example, a 'pairing' basic assumption is unable to contain the group's
anxiety, a sudden shift may occur to a 'dependency' or a 'fight-flight'
The dependency assumption appears to emphasize guilt and depression.
This basic assumption manifests in the phantasy that the group has met
in order to be sustained by a leader on whom it depends for
nourishment, protection, and material well being. The leader may become
a deity who group members believe will magically solve all of their
problems, including completion of the task. Members may experience
guilt and depression in response to thoughts about the leader not
living up to the group's expectations. They may feel guilty or
depressed in response to not feeling worthy of the leader.
The pairing basic assumption involves projections of messianic hope.
Pairing usually finds expression in ideas related to marriage, or new
ideas that would put an end to the status quo (e.g., phantasies
concerning the birth of a messiah). For hope to be sustained, it is
necessary that these ideas remain unrealized. During pairing, the work
group tends to be pressured to produce "a Messiah, be it person, idea,
or Utopia" (p. 448). This task, however,
is likely to be sabotaged
because hope requires that the Messiah cannot materialize.
Pairing, according to Bion (1954), “…is a
person or idea that will save
the group-in fact from feelings of hatred, destructiveness and despair,
of its own or another group, but in order to do this obviously the
Messianic hope must never be fulfilled” (p. 448).
The fight-flight assumption involves projecting hatred through violence
against an enemy, or flight from a hated object. This assumption offers
an opportunity for the unmitigated release of hatred. It meets the need
for instantaneous satisfaction. The group may follow any leader
licensing instantaneous attack or flight. Leaders not demanding a fight
or flight will be ignored.
Panic and scapegoating often suggest the fight-flight assumption. Bion
(1954) links panic with the primary
emotions of fear and anger. The
stimulus for panic is almost always an event that falls outside of the
work group's function. Police officers, for example, will not
likely panic in response to a murder. A group of students in a
classroom, however, would be prone to panic.
Those scapegoated, according to Volkan (1985),
serve as a receptacle for
the projections of unacceptable impulses experienced by the group.
Typically, scapegoats are vulnerable to attack because of some
characteristic that makes them different from the main group. The
projection of unwanted parts temporarily relieves anxiety while
justifying this displaced aggression. And this act of projection binds
members of the “good” group closer together.
Certain factors typically make an individual or subgroup a candidate to
become a respository for unwanted group parts (Hazell,
status, being a singleton, being located at a boundary, and one’s
personal predisposition. Low status persons frequently become the
containers of things that are regarded as dirty, unseemly, foolish,
etc. Being the only one of a kind in a group can set an
individual or subgroup up to be a container. Prejudice
contributes to the projection into this minority subgroup or
individual. The input and output boundaries of groups are hotbeds
for unconscious activity, leaving gatekeepers particularly vulnerable
to group projections. Lastly, individual history can prime an
individual or subgroup to receive a certain type of group
projection. Individuals, for example, who have been designated as
black sheep in families may be predisposed to become scapegoats in
Bion, identifies subgroups that exist specifically for the purpose of
stimulating the activity of a particular basic assumption. He calls
these subgroups specialized work groups. These groups neutralize basic
assumptions so as to prevent them from obstructing the main group's
Two examples of specialized work groups highlighted by Bion include the
church (utilized by the larger group to neutralize the dependency
assumption), and the army (which neutralizes the fight-flight
assumption). Basic assumption phenomena can become dangerous when
translated into action. Such a phenomenon "does not lend itself to
translation into action, since action requires work group function to
maintain contact with reality" (Bion, 1954
p. 452). Specialized work groups
translate work group activity into the basic assumption mentality. The
army evokes the illusion of absolute protection by force, while at the
same time vigorously avoiding the use of it. The army therefore helps
to neutralize the fight-flight assumption by preventing it from
vitiating the main work group task. The church enables the larger group
to pay homage to a deity (dependency function) for some notable product
of the work group. The church thus fortifies religious beliefs, without
obstructing the task at hand. If a specialized work group cannot cope
with a basic assumption phenomenon effectively, however, the work group
function could deteriorate. According to Bion (1954):
As work group function consists
essentially of the translation of
thoughts and feelings into behavior which is adapted to reality, it is
ill-adapted to give expression to basic assumptions. For basic
assumptions become dangerous in proportion as the attempt is made to
translate them into action (p. 452).
A disturbed group, in Bion’s view, is one in which the basic assumption
level of functioning dominates, or even obliterates work group
functioning. Such a group is usually characterized by part object
relationships associated with psychotic anxiety and defensive
mechanisms such as splitting and projective identification.
Jaques too (1954) stresses that Klein's
theory applies to group
processes. Rather than highlighting basic assumption phenomena,
however, he focuses on how individuals unconsciously use institutions
to reinforce defenses against paranoid/schizoid and depressive anxiety.
Jaques suggests that group members externalize “bad objects” and
impulses that could give rise to primitive anxiety. Once externalized,
these objects and impulses are pooled, thus creating the emotional life
of the group. Members share unconscious phantasies with respect to the
objects and impulses through projective identification. The group
phantasies that evolve unconsciously defend against anxiety. Groups not
only have explicit functions, but have "manifold unrecognized functions
at the phantasy level" (Jaques, 1954, p.
Jaques gives examples of social defenses against paranoid anxiety.
Group members defend against “bad impulses” by putting them into
members unconsciously selected to "introject these projected objects
and impulses and either to absorb or deflect them" (p.
483). In the case of absorption, the members introject and
contain the impulses, while in deflection they do not contain them, but
project them onto someone else. Jaques cites war as an example of this
defensive maneuver in operation. War manifests explicitly as a social
structure consisting of two opposing armies backed by their respective
communities. On a phantasy level, however, members of each community
may be putting their “bad impulses” into the accepted enemy, who
absorbs them. Community members rid of aggressive impulses by
projecting them onto their armies, who in turn deflect them, directing
them against the enemy.
Jaques describes a common group defense against depressive anxiety
(characteristic of the depressive position). This consists of the
"manic denial of destructive impulses, and destroyed good objects, and
the reinforcement of good impulses and good objects, by participation
in group idealization" (p. 486). This
social defense mechanism is best
seen in group mourning ceremonies. These ceremonies provide both the
community and the bereaved with the opportunity to unconsciously
co-operate in splitting the destroyed “bad” part of the loved object
from the loved part. “Bad” objects and impulses are buried; “good”
parts protected and idealized as eternal memories.
According to Jaques, social defense mechanisms can be beneficial to the
individual as well as to the community as a whole. Consider, for
example, the case of the group mourning ceremony. The social idealizing
and manic denial characteristic of the group ceremony provides bereaved
individuals with an opportunity to reduce internal chaos, to cope with
the intense impact of death, and to continue mourning at their own
pace. On a community level, all those associated with the ceremony can
further their own mourning . They can therefore work through unresolved
conflicts related to the infantile depressive position.
Menzies-Lyth (1960, 1988) further elaborates on social
mechanisms. She examines how social structures defend against primal
anxieties. Menzies-Lyth highlights the need for individuals’ defense
structures to match those of the organizations to which they belong.
Social organizations develop a structure, a culture, and a manner of
functioning. These depend on the primary task, the available tools,
environmental pressures, and, most importantly, the need to deal with
anxiety. The social defense system protects members from experiencing
anxiety. Such systems often institutionalize primitive defense
mechanisms. These defense mechanisms include splitting, projective
identification, and denial. While these defense mechanisms may
facilitate the temporary evasion of anxiety, they contribute very
little to its permanent modification and reduction. Rather than
enhancing the organization's effectiveness, social defense systems
typically reduce an organization’s ability to accomplish its primary
From the perspective of Menzies-Lyth, paranoid/schizoid mechanisms may
be especially significant when life and death anxieties are prevalent.
Menzies-Lyth highlighted these ideas in a study of a British teaching
hospital during the 1950s. In the hospital, part object relationships,
splitting processes, and paranoid anxiety flourished. Nurses conformed
to an unspoken rule which required them to split patients by referring
to them as part objects, such as the kidney in bed five. They treated
patients as if they had no existence before or outside of the hospital.
Families of hospitalized patients oscillated between a view of
themselves as under attack by incompetent hospital staff to an
idealized view of staff members as miracle workers who would magically
cure their stricken loved ones. Nurses were prone to see other nurses
above them in the hierarchy as either wonderful leaders or horrible
despots. And nurses perceived those beneath them in rank as
incompetent. Finally, more mature nurses who refused to split their
perceptions in the aforementioned ways either left the system or were
rejected by it.
The fate of those nurses who would not conform to the hospital's
defense structure suggests that in any institution an unconscious match
must exist between an individual's defense structure and the
organization's defense structure. If the discrepancy between group and
individual structures is too great, the group may feel that the
individual poses a threat to the state of equilibrium maintained by the
social defense structure. The individual may temporarily or permanently
lose membership. An individual's ability to survive in an institution
may be determined by the capacity to behave in accordance with the
institution's defense system.
Resistance to social change, in the view of Menzies-Lyth, can indicate
an organization’s reluctance to give up social defense structures used
to ward off primal anxieties. Efforts to initiate change when such
primitive defenses are operating may be extremely difficult. The
institution is likely to respond to such efforts with acute anxiety,
aggression, and hostility. Resistance to change is most likely greater
in organizations which have social defense systems dominated by
primitive defense mechanisms characteristic of the paranoid-schizoid
position, such as splitting and projective identification. Paranoid/
schizoid mechanisms distort reality, preventing insight into the nature
of problems. This prevents a realistic appreciation of the problems’
Application of Group Theories to the Salem Witch Trials
The ideas put forth by Melanie Klein and utilized by Bion, Jaques, and
Menzies-Lyth shed light on the Salem witch trials. Before embarking on
an analysis of the trials, however, we provide a brief overview of the
Puritans’ worldview and the situation in Salem at the time of the
Overview of Key Beliefs of the
By the end of the seventeenth century, belief in the reality of
witchcraft was virtually universal in western society (Boyer, 1976).
hundreds of thousands of people had been killed as witches. Despite
important advances in modern science such as Newton's law of
gravitation, few people criticized existing theological beliefs in
light of the new discoveries. It was common even among intellectuals to
interpret the Bible in a literal fashion.
The Puritans of Salem were a people who had suffered religious
persecution in the Old World. They came to America for the sole purpose
of establishing their religion. Having endured persecution in England
and elsewhere, the Puritans in turn came to persecute others who held
dissimilar beliefs in America. They believed Puritanism to be the one
The Puritans lived in a theocratic society. Ministers were
usually the main officers and administrators of the government. One who
was not in good standing with the church could not vote or hold office.
Such an individual could be punished through excommunication (a formal
termination of church membership). This resulted in the loss of all
While belief in the devil and witchcraft was not isolated to any branch
of Christianity, certain tenets made the Puritans of New England
particularly susceptible to belief in the Devil and witches. The
Puritan's belief system stressed that an active evil force was
operating with the goal of obliterating God's kingdom on earth. The
Puritans personified this force as the Devil. They believed, moreover,
that the Devil was particularly interested in launching an assault on
them, since they were the new chosen people.
The Puritan obsession with evil was linked with their relentless desire
to affirm their superiority. Their domination of external
realities reflected the domination of their inner lives, carried out
for the sake of purity. Their Doctrine
of the Elect highlights their emphasis on superiority. This
doctrine stated that at birth or later an individual might be chosen by
God to become one of the Elect (would receive God's grace and eternal
salvation). Puritans lived righteous lives to prepare to be an Elected
member if the day came. It was widely assumed that those who were never
Elected would not be saved.
If God could elect certain people to be saved, the Devil could select
others to be bewitched. The Puritans were vigilant about identifying
witches (those who had joined the Devil's ranks). Once people entered
into a covenant with the Devil, they would attack the innocent. It was
widely believed that witches could enter into people's bodies without
them knowing it. Witches could assume the shape of innocent people and
then torment others. The tormented ones would then accuse innocent
individuals of being witches. The falsely accused would be brutally and
unjustly admonished by the community. The Devil in this way would
disrupt Puritan society.
The Puritans' literal interpretation of the Bible, according to Levin
(1960), condoned their harsh treatment of
witches: Exodus 22:18 "Thou
shalt not suffer a witch to live". Yet most Puritans believed that once
people confessed to being witches, they were free. The first step in
the process of being saved was an open confession of one's sins.
Another faction of the church, however, believed that confessing to
being a witch would eternally damn a person. Many innocent people
accused of witchcraft who might otherwise have falsely confessed in
order to save their lives, therefore, refused to do so because they
believed that even a false confession would result in eternal damnation.
Historians have noted, moreover, that the Puritans' concept of the
Devil grew out of their acceptance of the Doctrine of Original Sin, which
informed them that they were "worms, dogs, potential colleagues of the
Devil until the grace of God ... poured into them" (Levin, 1960, p.
xii). They believed that they were tainted by evil at birth. This was
supported by ministers whose sermons depicted them as being on the
verge of damnation. They were seen as highly prone to becoming witches.
Puritans believed that they needed to vigilantly purify themselves and
their community of this inherent evil so they could accept God's grace
and become one of the Elect. Purifying themselves and their community
meant living austere lives characterized by hard work, prayer,
confession, and penance.
The Situation in Salem
The Puritans' unique historical situation created tremendous anxiety
for them. This historical situation included: their cultivation of
moral superiority as a strategy for challenging the powerful British
aristocracy; their resultant persecution and exile; the grandiose and
paranoid traits linked with their ideology of being the chosen people;
their struggle for survival in the ominous American wilderness; the
growing disparity between their fanatical ideology and the reality of
liberty both for the Puritans in England and for the population of the
American colonies; and various local social and political disputes
which were acute at the time of the Salem outbreak. When the
Puritans could no longer suppress this anxiety, it began to emerge in
the form of increasing attacks upon what they saw as the devil.
In February 1692, Elizabeth Parris, the eleven-year-old daughter of
Samuel Paris, the minister at Salem Village, and her twelve year old
cousin Abigail Williams began to unexpectedly have violent fits. The
girls were described as falling to the ground "in strange agonies and
grievous torments" (Levin, 1960, p.93).
The authorities noted that
these fits were similar to those of children who had been bewitched.
These authorities confirmed the girls' bewitchment when the girls
acknowledged that they were taking palmistry lessons with the
minister's West Indian slave, Tituba. The Puritans considered occult
activity to be directly tied to the Devil. Initially, the family tried
to address the situation quietly at home through fasting and prayer.
But the minister's low key strategy failed when one of his parishioners
advised Tituba's husband that a witch cake-made with the urine of the
afflicted would cure the girls. This cake Parris believed unforgivable,
"for the good Puritan was forbidden to use the Devil's means, even in
fighting against him" (Levin, 1960, p.
Following the witch cake episode, word spread throughout the community
that the girls were bewitched and that the Devil was in Salem (Boyer,
1976). Within days, the two afflicted girls and other young women
had witnessed them engage in palmistry with Tituba began to accuse
various members of the Salem community of being witches. The girls and
those who had witnessed the palmistry lessons continued to have fits.
This afflicted group of young women convinced the authorities that they
had not joined the ranks of the Devil, but that he continued to torment
them with the goal of forcing them to become witches. The Devil would
induce fits in them when actively trying to coerce them to join his
ranks. Once a fit was induced, the Devil would promise the young women
that they would feel relief from their pain if they became witches by
signing or touching his book. Next he would show them a list of
names of others who had signed his book. At times, the afflicted girls
would have fits in response to the presence of witches who they said
would appear to them as specters and then torture them in an attempt to
coerce them into becoming witches. Throughout the trials, these girls
enjoyed notoriety as they continued to accuse more and more people of
being witches. When anyone questioned the validity of these
accusations, the authorities would point out the penitent witches who
had confessed as confirmation of the girls' charges.
On June 2nd, the chief justice William Stoughton sentenced the first
witch to hang. The conviction rested largely on the testimony of the
bewitched girls and on spectral evidence -- "testimony that a specter
the shape of the accused had tormented the accuser or demanded that he
sign the Devil's book" (Levin, 1960, p.
xv). The trials moved forward,
and more and more people were convicted and eventually hanged.
Gradually, various members of the community began to suspect that the
witch trials had gone too far. Leaders became concerned that
accusations were being made within their own ranks. Common people,
witnesses, judges, and jurors began to question the officials' conduct.
Dissension broke out in the community. These events led Governor Phips
to change his position on the trials. His actions helped put an end to
Application of Bion
The Puritans’ work group focused on meeting basic survival needs. They
sought food, water, and physical protection. They strived for unity to
fend off ideological or material enemies. The theocratic nature of
Puritan society can be viewed as a specialized work group. Prior to the
witch trials, the theocracy appears to have coped with basic assumption
phenomena in a manner that enabled the work group to function. The
theocracy responded to a build-up of primitive anxiety within the group
by allowing for shifts between the three basic assumptions. The
doctrines established by the specialized work group express basic
assumption phenomena. These beliefs helped the community maintain a
sense of unity. Pairing is evident in the Puritans' belief in the Doctrine of the Elect and their
belief that the Kingdom of God would arrive at the millennium.
Dependency is shown in the literal interpretation of the Bible and the
belief in one God who is relied on for salvation. Lastly, fight-flight
appears to have been manifested in the flight from the Old World in
response to persecution. It is also evident in Puritans' complete
acceptance of the Doctrine of
Original Sin, which required them to fight against evil in order
to purify themselves and their community. And it is evident in the
intolerance of anyone whose beliefs differed from those of the Puritans.
Bion's framework can be extended to take into account the historical
component of the Puritans' anxiety. The historical situation of the
Puritans, which involved them in a variety of disputes, threats, and
challenges to their ideology, engendered great anxiety. Yet the Puritan
character structure was rooted in the denial of impulses through their
projection onto external phenomena. Hostilities and desires needed to
be tracked down and expunged from their consciousness. Expressions of
liberty such as the freedom to practice other religions were a
terrifying threat. When they could no longer suppress it, therefore,
the Puritans' massive anxiety burst forth in a group psychosis. As
suggested by Hazell (2005) low-status
persons frequently become
repositories for what is seen as dirty, unseemly, ignorant, foolish,
etc. They act as containers for what is thought to be shameful,
uncomfortable and undesirable. In Salem, those of the lowest
classes and thus the most vulnerable -- women, a Haitian slave, poor
people -- became targets for the projection of anxiety and hostility in
the guise of being 'witches'. The Puritans could finally release the
intense psychic impulses which had been pent up for so long. In
destroying these 'witches', the higher status Puritans tried to
obliterate the anxiety within themselves.
Initially, the specialized work group was relied on in an attempt to
cope with these anxieties ritualistically (through fasting and prayer).
The anxieties could no longer be contained through ritual, however,
when word of the "witch cake" got out. At this point, the work group
function of the main group may have become vitiated by basic assumption
phenomena which could no longer be coped with by the specialized work
group. Once the work group had been disrupted, shifts between the three
basic assumptions most likely occurred, depending on the intensity and
nature of the emotions seeking expression at any given time.
The flight-fight assumption appears to have become more deeply
translated into the reification of the Devil. An intense need emerged
to wage a concrete battle against the Devil and his followers in Salem.
By way of this basic assumption, unmitigated hatred could be expressed
toward the socially sanctioned enemy (the Devil and his followers).
Because the enemy was socially sanctioned, group members could avoid
guilt in response to their open expression of vengeance toward the
accused. Stoughton, who believed in vigorously prosecuting the witches,
may have served as the leader of this basic assumption group. Many of
those attacked by the group may have been targeted because they
possessed characteristics not condoned by the larger group. The first
three individuals prosecuted were likely candidates. According to
(1960): "Tituba was . a West Indian
and a conjurer; Sarah Good
was a destitute, wizened, pipe-smoking hag; Sarah Osborne had been
suspected of immorality..." (p. xiv). Panic is evident in that the work
group was not designed to cope with a direct attack by the Devil. The
fear and rage characteristic of the group's panicked state may have
become split off and placed in the afflicted girls, who in turn acted
out this affect through their panic attacks ("fits"). Processing the
emotions associated with panic through their fits, the afflicted girls
may have unburdened the larger group, allowing it to obliterate the
enemy in a methodical and seemingly emotionless way.
Elizabeth Parris and Abigail Williams, the nucleus of the group of
afflicted individuals responsible for most of the accusations, may have
manifested the pairing basic assumption. The afflicted girls provided
the hope of purifying the group through their unique ability to
Dependency is evident by the group's complete reliance on Stoughton to
protect the community through his actions as Chief justice. Rigidly
orthodox, Stoughton may have represented God on earth. The
community saw him as a powerful source of spiritual nourishment and
The obstruction of work group functioning is indicated by the fact that
as the number of arrests increased, the survival of many residents was
threatened. Families lost their farms, fields lay fallow, and many
community members were left homeless. Upon his return to Salem,
Governor Phips (Levin, 1960) describes the
Lieutenant-Governor Soughton's actions as chief justice in a letter to
. . . his warrant hath caused the
estates, goods and chattels of the
executed to be seized and disposed of . . . proceedings hath dissipated
the black cloud that threatened this
Province with destruction; for whereas this delusion
of the Devil did spread and its dismal effects touched the lives and
estates of many of their Majesties' Subjects . . . and indeed unhappily
clogged and interrupted their
Majesties' affairs . . . (p. 94).
The basic assumption phenomenon opposes group development (Bion, 1954).
Any movement toward development by the group will most likely be met
with a hostile response from the basic assumption level of group
functioning. Such resistance to change was evident in Soughton’s
rageful reaction when Governor Phipps terminated the executions.
Application of Menzies-Lyth.
From Menzies-Lyth's (1960, 1988) perspective, one would assume
many of those accused of witchcraft most likely threatened the
Puritans' social defense structure, and were therefore easy
targets for the projection of impulses. Social defense structures
institutionalize primitive defenses, such as splitting and projective
identification. Puritan defenses were institutionalized in religious
beliefs. Splitting, for example, is evident in the Puritan belief in a
war waged between Satan and God. The external battle between God
(all good) and Satan (all bad) may have manifested an internal
psychic split endured by the Puritans in a desperate attempt to keep
the good object untainted by dangerous impulses. Puritans who did not
completely conform were viewed as bad and rejected by the community.
Conformity required members to attend church regularly, interpret the
bible literally, and demonstrate an extensive knowledge of catechism.
Many who were accused of witch craft failed to conform to these
standards. They may have threatened the social defense structure,
eliciting impulses the Puritans sought to repress. John Proctor,
for example, was convicted partially on the grounds that he did not
attend church regularly. He also expressed skepticism about the whole
idea of witchcraft and was consequently viewed as questioning the
scriptures, a grave crime. Goody Osborne's conviction rested largely on
the fact that she did not know the ten-commandments.
These behaviors were unsettling because they questioned the dangerous,
repressive mentality on which the Puritan society was based.
Those accused of being witches elicited feelings linked with
freedom, diversity, sexuality and hostility, feelings the Puritans were
at great pains to suppress. Puritan ideology dominates and silences the
self. The denied feelings are then projected onto others, where they
are attacked. Referring to the Nazis' similar use of projection, Miller
The cruelty inflicted on them, the
psychic murder of the child they
once were, had to be passed on in the same way: each time they sent
another Jewish child to the gas ovens, they were in essence murdering
the child within themselves . . . (p. 87) . . . The enemy within can at
last be hunted down outside . . . (p.91).This purging through assault
then enabled the Aryans to ensure their own moral purity . . . (p.80).
The Puritan Elite (like the Aryans) could feel pure, strong and morally
right if everything they had feared in themselves since childhood could
be attributed to the witches.
The Doctrine of the Elect and
the Doctrine of Original Sin
institutionalize projective identification. The Doctrine of the Elect enables
members to split off in fantasy good parts of the group and place them
in the Elect members of the community for safe keeping (the Elect
receive God's grace). Once the good parts of the group were inside
these members, they felt protected forever because the Elect could do
no wrong and were guaranteed eternal salvation.
The Elect were not subject to accusations of witchcraft. Based on the Doctrine of Original Sin, group
members who were not Elect were tainted by original sin and could
therefore be viewed as containers for bad parts of the group. Non-
Elect members had to submit to the ritualistic cycle of publicly
confessing their sins, repenting, and finally performing an act of
penance to have any hope of being saved. Once non- Elect members were
charged with being witches, the accused were treated in such a way as
to obtain verification of the fact (e.g., by obtaining a confession
through torture). If those accused conformed to the ritualistic cycle
and confessed to being a witch, repented, and did penance, they would
be saved. Those who refused to confess, however, threatened the social
defense structure. They could therefore be used as scapegoats without
Application of Jaques
Prior to the Salem witch trials, based on the ideas of Jaques (1954),
the Puritan community can be seen as using a ritualized religious
system to reinforce defenses typical of the depressive position
(obsessive tendencies, mania, and denial). This
reflects the theoretical position of Jaques
(1954). The accusations of
witchcraft appear to suggest a shift to an emphasis on the
paranoid-schizoid position. This includes the use of more primitive
defenses such as splitting and projective identification. Following the
trials, there seems to have been a reintegration of group processes and
therefore a lessened reliance on paranoid/schizoid defenses.
Before the trials, for example, non-Elect members of the community who
were believed to be tainted by original sin focused on an obsessive
struggle to repair the damaged object through prayer, hard work, and
meticulous conformity to the mandates of their faith. Minister Parris
encouraged group members to confess, repent, and perform ritualized
acts of penance. The Puritans were caught up in a constant battle to
repair the object through obsessive repetition of the confession,
repentance, and penance cycle. Additionally, mania and denial were
evident in the notion that there were Elect members of the community.
The Elect members represented idealized objects who had been magically
repaired through an influx of God's grace. The group denied the
mortality of these members (they were saved forever). And denial of the
fallibility of the Elect is suggested by the idea that once they
received God's grace, they could do no wrong. The depressive line
of defense appears to dominate group functioning up until the series of
disturbing events (discussed earlier) which led to a build- up of
annihilation/persecutory anxiety. This build-up triggered a shift to a
paranoid-schizoid way of processing information. Primitive anxieties
became dealt with through projective identification. The group
projected bad internal objects and impulses onto members of the
community who would then absorb these parts and contain them.
Once objectified in the accused, these bad parts could more easily be
controlled by the group through the elicitation of confessions.
The bad objects and impulses could then be given back to the group in a
partially metabolized and thus more tolerable form. And if the accused
refused to confess to witchcraft, the group could symbolically rid
itself of the bad objects and impulses by executing the witch.
Projective identification may be evident in the "fits" that the
afflicted girls presented with. These fits were described as being
violent and out-of -control. At times, the girls would cry out in
terror and make strange sounds. It may be that the girls served as
containers for the rage and terror experienced by the larger group. A
fit served as verification to the group that the girls did indeed hold
the split off bad parts. The girls would then deflect these bad
impulses by placing them in those whom they accused of witchcraft. The
accused person could absorb the impulses, or deflect them. An example
of an accused witch deflecting is evident in the testimony of Tituba.
Tituba admits to being a witch and begs for forgiveness. She then
accuses two other community members of witchcraft.
Puritan witch hunting also indicates splitting. The group ignored any
benevolent acts that an accused individual engaged in prior to being
charged with witchcraft. Once deemed a witch, the individual was viewed
by the group as all evil, the devil incarnate. The group split off any
aspect of the individual's past identity.
Once the threat of execution ended, the group could begin operating
from the depressive position. A more humanistic and interactive group
process enabled members to reflect on what was taking place. The
repressive social outlook underlying the witch hunt began to break
down. A prohibition against the use of spectral evidence and the
testimony of the bewitched may have led the entire community to reflect
more rationally on what had happened. Once the persecutions were
questioned, community members began to perceive those who were accused
as whole objects. This is suggested by several members of the jury who
publicly expressed remorse for potentially convicting innocent people
after the executions were stopped. Confessions by various parties
suggest an attempt to repair the objects that had been so brutally
injured. Community members began to grieve, to process what had
occurred. For over a ten year period following the trials, according to
Boyer (1976), Salem officials and
residents tried obsessively to repair
the damaged objects through numerous public apologies and ultimately by
awarding sums of money to the descendants of accused witches. Because
the group members were more open, more reflective, and able to
emotionally process, basic assumptions could no longer derail the group
The Salem witch hunts dramatize the close relationship between group
phenomena and the psychotic processes in individuals described by
Melanie Klein. Group dynamics related to those that led to witch
hunting in Salem can emerge in any group. When under stress, groups,
like individuals, often regress fundamentally to
paranoid-schizoid/early depressive mechanisms -- those of splitting and
projective identification. This regressive thinking can interfere with
the group's purpose, resulting in blaming, incompetence, scapegoating,
and in more severe cases, disruptions and scandals that can threaten
entire organizations, as well as those designated as enemies. The
recent cases of Enron and Arthur Anderson suggest psychotic-like
systemic processes leading to distorted reality testing and ultimately
the breakdown of these organizations. This pattern of group
interaction has repeated itself numerous times throughout history,
affecting entire societies. A Kleinian approach to psychotic
group phenomena offers a framework for addressing such dangerous group
The regressive defense mechanisms in question cannot be effectively
addressed through intellectual discussion. The problem runs too deep
for that. Addressing these phenomena requires an approach to groups
which responds to the underlying anxiety of the dynamics in question.
An example of addressing the anxiety would be for group leaders to
cultivate over time the creation of a safe environment in which
questioning the group's underlying assumptions is understood as
permissible. In this environment, group anxieties could be
acknowledged, tolerated, experienced, processed, and responded to
rather than dealt with unconsciously by means of primitive defensive
Sadly, most groups in our society are far from being able to handle
such an open processing of anxiety. Group members, especially
leadership, feel too threatened by an open discussion of the anxieties
underlying group activity. Individuals in hierarchical organizations
tend to feel they are too vulnerable, that they have too much to hide
to enter into such discussion. In our society, when people can no
longer tolerate disruptive actions linked with paranoid-schizoid (and
early depressive) defense mechanisms, efforts are then made to put an
end to these disruptive actions. This often results in great damage to
some of the parties involved. Yet the defense mechanisms that helped to
generate these disruptive actions are rarely addressed. This is because
our society implicitly accepts and relies upon these primitive defense
mechanisms, despite their resistance to rational inquiry and the harm
they predictably cause. Until we change this social pattern, our
work groups will continue to be shaped by, as well as to be now and
again disrupted by, the dangerous psychotic-like defenses against
anxiety to which our groups especially revert when under unusual
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Semmelhack, Psy.D. is an Associate
Professor of Clinical Psychology at Midwestern University. She is an advocate for the rights of severely
mentally ill adults through her board memberships with the National
Mental Illness (NAMI), DuPage
and New Beginnings Community
Services. Also, Dr. Semmelhack has a clinical practice focusing on the
group work with severely mentally ill institutionalized adults. She has published several papers suggesting
the efficacy of the group-as-a-whole model (based on the Tavistock
with this population.
Ende has his Ph.D. in literature from SUNY
Buffalo and an MSW from the University of Illinois,
School of Social Work. He is a published
author. His clinical practice focuses on
psychodynamic individual and group work with severely mentally ill
traumatized children. He is an advocate
for the rights of individuals with severe mental illness.