6 Logical Explanations For The Hysteria That Caused The Salem Witch Trials

Published November 12, 2017
Updated October 7, 2020

In 1692, "witchcraft" swept through the settlement of Salem, Massachusetts, leading to mass hysteria and several executions. Now, several theories hope to find what really caused the Salem Witch Trials.

Salem Witch Trials

Wikimedia Commons

In 1692, the quiet Puritan settlement of Salem, Massachusetts came under intense duress when its residents suddenly began accusing each other of witchcraft. Today, this notorious episode of moral panic is commonly known as the Salem witch trials. But the causes behind this historical incident remain hotly debated.

Within the span of a year, 20 people had been executed and more hundreds arrested after being accused of witchcraft. But almost as suddenly as the trials began, they stopped. Salem came to its senses — and life carried on.

Since then, the events of the Salem witch trials have fascinated and perplexed scholars like few other episodes in American history.

What caused this quiet Puritan town to descend into total paranoia and persecution? New theories might offer a more rational explanation than a supernatural one.

Salem Witch Trials: Impact Of The Native American Wars

Natives At Garrison House

Getty ImagesProtected by a smoke screen caused by burning dry grasses, this wagon proceeded toward a garrison house. While ramming it, the Native Americans tried to ignite the wooden forts.

A number of new theories have suggested that the Native American Wars — which raged during the 17th century close to Salem — may have contributed to the witch hysteria that took hold in 1692.

One of these brutal battles, known as King Philip’s War, raged in the colonies in the 1670s, and the front lines were not far from Salem. Most people in region had been impacted in one way or another, and this created an atmosphere of intense anxiety. Many were afraid of further attacks and raids from neighboring Native American tribes.

Several of the “afflicted girls” who accused women of “bewitching them” had witnessed earlier raids first hand. It has been suggested that post-traumatic stress from witnessing these terrifying attacks and the culture of fear generated by the continued threat may have played a large role in the generating these accusations — and the mass hysteria that followed.

Historian Mary Beth Norton suggests the Native American Wars may have impacted the trials in another way.

She contends that the accusation and execution of ex-minister George Burroughs, who led a number of small, failed military campaigns against the Native Americans, for witchcraft is indicative of the town officials attempting to shift “blame for their own inadequate defense of the frontier” to supernatural causes.

They wanted to believe that it had to be the devil that was threatening them, in other words, not their own inherent weakness. If safety is just one more witch-hanging away — in the minds of the public at least — it would be a powerful incentive to try to root out the culprit who was bringing this threat of death into their community.

Teen Angst And Patriarchal Oppression

Girl At Salem Witch Trials

Wikimedia CommonsA witch takes the stand during the Salem witch trials.

Some of the first people to accuse others of being witches in Salem were quite young. Many accusers that followed were teenagers or in their early 20s. While it wasn’t just young people who were making these claims, the fact that theirs were so prominent have led some to believe that simple teenage angst may have been a factor that led to the Salem witch trials.

In his book Entertaining Satan: Witchcraft and the culture of Early New England, John Putnam explores the idea that the witch trials were essentially a teenage rebellion against the Puritan authority of the older generation, as most of the accused were adults.

Meanwhile, feminist historians have interpreted the trials as just another means of the patriarchy to persecute women who acted in ways that were different from the accepted social norms of the time. As was historically the case with many similar prosecutions in Europe, women were the primary targets of accusation during the Salem witch trials – particularly women who did not prescribe to the social norms of the time.

While the exact cause of the Salem witch trials remains contested, there were no doubt that the underlying social forces of sexual oppression, individual repression, and patriarchal reinforcement played a role in the ensuing hysteria.

The Cold Weather Theory

Hung Witch

Wikimedia Commons
A witch about to be hanged.

One theory proposed in 2004 by Harvard graduate Emily Oster suggests that there is a more simplistic answer to what caused the Salem witch trials: the weather.

Her theory points out that the most active era of witchcraft trials in Europe coincided with a 400-year period of lower-than-average temperatures.

“The most active period of the witchcraft trials (mainly in Europe) coincides with a period of lower-than-average temperature known to climatologists as the ‘little ice age,'” Oster wrote in her Harvard thesis. “The colder temperatures increased the frequency of crop failure, and colder seas prevented cod and other fish from migrating as far north, eliminating this vital food source for some northern areas of Europe.”

And as crops failed, “people would have searched for a scapegoat in the face of deadly changes in weather patterns,” she posited.

The year 1692 falls in the middle of a 50-year-long cold spell that afflicted the world from 1680 to 1730, giving some weight to the theory.

She theorizes that the connection stems from the fact that witches were believed to be able to control the weather and destroy crops. When the people suffered from poor harvests due to poor weather, some concluded that it must be the work of witches who needed to be identified and dealt with.

Mass Hysteria

Witch Lightning

Wikimedia CommonsA witch at trial.

While mass hysteria is usually associated with the time that the trials were actually happening, some have proposed that it may have caused them as well. Mass hysteria is the “rapid spread of conversion disorder, a condition involving the appearance of bodily complaints for which there is no organic basis. In such episodes, psychological distress is converted or channeled into physical symptoms.”

Some have argued that this is exactly what the girls who were first “bewitched” were actually experiencing.

Many believe that mass hysteria was a primary cause of the Salem witch trials.

The stress of living in such a rigid and religious society on the dangerous wilderness frontier may have led these girls to convert this stress into physical symptoms in which no natural explanation could be found.

Similar cases of hysteria have been reported throughout history. The mass hysteria experienced by the girls may then, in turn, have triggered a collective delusion among the villagers that witches were in their midst, thus providing a predicate for the witch hunt.

Mass hysteria was clearly at work, but how much of a feedback-loop these delusions between the accused and the accuser created can probably never be known. Regardless, it’s a compelling theory that can’t easily be discounted as a rational theory as to the cause of the Salem witch trials.

Boredom And Guilt

Witch Exam

Wikimedia CommonsA witch is examined in court.

The story of the witch trials begins in February of 1692 when Betty Parris, age nine, and her cousin Abigail Williams, age eleven, began to exhibit strange behavior.

They began to hide under furniture, scream, and bark like dogs. Samuel Parris, the father of Betty Parris and a well-known minister, called for a physician to look at the girls who subsequently found nothing physically wrong with them. It was then concluded that they had been bewitched.

Some sources suggest that the girls may have actually started to act strangely after they became frightened by a fortune-telling game.

In Salem at the time, children were restricted from almost all forms of play and leisure. They were expected to spend most of their time doing chores and studying the Bible. This lack of stimulation naturally seeded to boredom.

This boredom may help to explain why Betty Parris and Abigail Williams became so interested in the fortune-telling and magical stories, which were allegedly introduced to them by a slave named Tituba. As one of their only outlets for activity, they naturally became drawn to these superstitions.

It is believed that their involvement with these forbidden activities and a combination of the guilt and fear they felt from participating in them may have been the cause of their strange behavior.

What Caused The Salem Witch Trials? Ergot Poisoning

Ergot

University of Hawaii Ergot on rye.

One of the most interesting theories that has emerged about the cause of the Salem witch trials was first introduced in 1976 by Linnda Caporeal. She theorizes that the cause of the bizarre physical afflictions first witnessed in the “bewitched” girls could be the result of ergot poisoning.

Ergot is a parasitic fungus that can grow on grains under the right conditions. The fungus (which LSD can be derived from) has been known to cause convulsions, hallucinations, and pinching sensations.

Many of these symptoms were similar to what was happening to the girls, as described by first-hand accounts. And interestingly enough, the weather conditions in Salem during the winter of 1691 to 1692 were just right for ergot to grow.

Other studies on ergot poisoning have also found that children are the most susceptible. Is it possible that the afflicted were really suffering from ergot poisoning? This question is still debated by scholars today, but the theory is considered one of the more fascinating ones to this day.


After learning about the Salem witch trials, read about the werewolf panic that once swept through Europe. Then read about the worst witch trial in history.

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