Why you should care

Because scholars believe that one of history’s most notorious witch hunts was more about psychological — rather than spiritual — unrest.

In February 1692, 9-year-old Betty Parris of Salem, Massachusetts, came down with a mysterious illness. She complained of a fever, barked like a dog, twitched into strange positions and darted under furniture. A local doctor cried witchcraft. Soon after, Betty’s cousin, Abigail, and several other adolescent girls started showing similar symptoms. They named their tormentors, launching more than a year of hearings that left 19 convicted witches swaying from the gallows.

A frontier war with Salem’s “heathen” Native American neighbors, a strong belief that Satan lurked everywhere and crop failures from a particularly harsh winter set the stage for one of history’s most notorious witch-hunts. But while villagers traced the demonic fits to the devil’s work, modern-day researchers cite more earthly causes, from psychological distress to fungus-contaminated grain.

Some have postulated that there were some elements of mass hysteria … that were spread amongst [Salem villagers].

Gary Small, M.D., professor of psychiatry and aging, UCLA School of Medicine

Emerson Baker, a historian at Salem State University who released the book Storm of Witchcraft: The Salem Trials and the American Experience earlier this month, blames a confluence of psychological conditions, including conversion disorder — when people experience psychological distress as convulsions, seizures and other physical symptoms beyond their conscious control. Betty and Abigail, the daughter and niece, respectively, of Puritan village minister Samuel Parris, were “in such a fraught state of mind,” Baker told OZY. Parris’ miserly reputation and fire-and-brimstone sermons had earned him his share of enemies, who cut off his salary and firewood supply. His stress likely rippled out to the two girls. Evidence suggests that other “victims” also experienced psychological distress, sometimes even physical abuse.

Conversion disorder can spread like a contagion, a phenomenon known as mass hysteria. “Some have postulated that there were some elements of mass hysteria … that were spread amongst [Salem villagers],” said Gary Small, a professor of psychiatry and aging at the UCLA School of Medicine. It often afflicts adolescent girls, who tend to be more attuned to their peers’ emotions and express their feelings more readily than boys. Young women also depend more heavily on their social networks. Mass hysteria might have triggered tics and hiccuping among high school girls in Danvers, Massachusetts — what used to be Salem — last year. A similar incident struck female students in Le Roy, New York, in 2011; many had experienced family illness or trauma.

Since several Salem accusers had lost their families and homes in King William’s War among the French, British and Native Americans along Massachusetts’ northern frontier, post-traumatic stress disorder might have also spurred their symptoms, Baker said. Mercy Short, for example, saw her family killed and home burned to the ground before being forced to march to Quebec and convert to Catholicism. Her testimony described Satan gathering his followers — including French Canadians and Native Americans — amid burning flames.

Accused of Witchcraft by Douglas Volk

“Accused of Witchcraft” by Douglas Volk

A few accusers might have also experienced sleep paralysis, when the hormones that relax the muscles during sleep don’t wear off upon awakening, Baker said; the affected person can see and hear but struggles to move. Some experience sleep paralysis as a nightmare, often along with a weight on their chest, a choking sensation and a feeling of impending doom. A handful of testimonies described just that. Take Richard Coman, who alleged that Bridget Bishop entered his home while he was asleep, lay on his chest “and so oppressed him that he could speak nor stir.”

A “Science” study pointed to rye grain infected with a fungus called ergot, shown to cause convulsions, vomiting — and hallucinations.

Meanwhile, a 1976 Science study pointed to rye grain infected with a fungus called ergot, shown to cause convulsions, vomiting — and hallucinations. Ergot thrives in humid conditions similar to those seen in Salem in 1691. Villagers would have eaten that fall’s crop the following winter, when the first “victims” fell ill. But the next summer was drier than most, possibly explaining the drop in demonic fits in September 1692. The study notes that although ergot likely sparked the witch-hunts, mass hysteria and fabrication probably stoked the frenzy. Baker argues that the theory doesn’t explain why only certain villagers claimed bewitchment — when the whole community relied on the same rye grain supply.

Although scholars still debate the cause, the panic underlying the Salem witch trials persists more than 300 years later. “We tend to think today that we would never do this,” Baker said. But he argues the war against terrorist youth has taken a similar turn toward mass hysteria: “You don’t know who these people are, but you’ve got to stop them.” Small notes that Ebola has triggered similar fears; nurse Kaci Hickox said she felt like a criminal during her mandatory quarantine at University Hospital in New Jersey, despite showing no symptoms after returning from Sierra Leone. “We want to try to be watchful for these threats to society but also … not rush to judgment,” Baker said.

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