The Dangers of Hysteria
In order to fully understand the events leading up to the Salem Witch Trials, one must understand the fear that pervaded its town's inhabitants. The Puritans of Salem, and other Puritan communities, built what they considered "a city on the hill"; that is, they sought to establish a community that would shine as a beacon of God's greatness to the world. They believed it was their duty to fend off the evil forces which surrounded them. What they failed to realize, unfortunately, is that "God's city on a hill" can only be destroyed from within.
The Puritans believed that the woods and the woodland inhabitants (Indians or Native Americans) belonged to the devil. The small town of Salem was surrounded by woods; therefore, the city of Salem existed as a holy place in the midst of the devil's territory, and those surrounded by the enemy were always on the defense, always on guard against evil forces, real or imaginary.
It is under these circumstances that something as absurd as a witch hunt can occur (think media sensationalism in modern society and how it feeds fears). Girls are dancing in the devil's forest (the modern equivalent of going to a rave or hanging out in a crack house or imagine if your house were surrounded by crack houses). They get sick. Someone screams witchcraft (drug addiction to continue the analogy) and the chief of stamping out witchcraft, Reverend Hale, shows up.
Next step hysteria. People are no longer thinking logically. Those entrusted to keep order (think Joe Biden's swine flu comments) make it worse. The next thing you know prominent citizens are being hanged for witchcraft.