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

Published November 12, 2017
Updated October 15, 2019
Published November 12, 2017
Updated October 15, 2019

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 settlement of Salem, Massachusetts came under intense duress almost overnight. The cause? Accusations of witchcraft flying back and forth between the citizens of this quiet Puritan settlement. Known as the Salem Witch Trials, the causes for this notorious episode of moral panic in the early colonial era is hotly debated.

Within the span of a year, 20 people had been executed and 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 the supernatural.

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 towards a garrison house and in 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.

King Philip’s War was raging in the colonies at the time, and the front lines were only about 70 miles away from Salem. Most people in region had been impacted in one way or another, and many in the Salem were refugees from parts of the region being torn apart by the war.

What’s more, raids from the native tribes in the area left many citizens of Massechusetts in a near constant state of fear over future attacks, creating an atmosphere of intense anxiety in which a violent death could come at any time and entirely without warning.

Several of the “afflicted” girls whose “bewitchment” kicked off the Salem Witch Trials had witnessed these 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 the subsequent mass hysteria.

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 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.

When examining who exactly was accused of witchcraft, there are a number of demographic discrepancies which point to the possibility of that timeless, social antagonism: teenage angst, overbearing parents being insufferable killjoys, and historical patriarchy.

In his book Entertaining Satan: Witchcraft and the culture of Early New England, John Putnam theorizes that the witch trials were essentially a teenage rebellion against the authority of their elderly parents, as most the accusers were teenagers and most of the accused adults.

Feminist historians have interpreted the trials as just another means of the patriarchy to persecute women who acted in ways contrary to the accepted social norms of the time. In the Salem Witch trials, as was historically the case with many similar prosecutions in Europe, women were the primary targets of accusation – 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 underlying social forces of sexual oppression, individual repression, and Patriarchal reinforcement were a factor 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 there exists a strong correlation between outbreaks of witch persecution and periods of cold weather in Europe between the 13th and 17th century.

“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.”

The year 1692 falls right in the middle of a nearly 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.

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.”

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

Many scholars believe that mass hysteria was a primary cause of the Salem Witch Trial

The stress of living in such a rigid and religious society on the dangerous wilderness frontier 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 Satan and 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.

However, a modern theory suggests that the girls began 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 a slave named Tituba introduced them to. As one of their only outlets for activity they naturally became drawn to these superstitions.

It is believed that their involvement with these forbidden supernatural activities and a combination of the guilt and fear they felt from participating in them, as well as a frightening omen they saw, 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 which 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 which in the right conditions can grow on grains. The fungus (which LSD is a derivative of) has been known to cause convulsions, hallucinations, and pinching sensations.

These are the very afflictions suffered by the girls as described by first-hand accounts and interestingly enough the weather conditions in Salem Village in the winter of 1691 were just right for ergot to grow.

Other studies on Ergot poisoning have also found that, like most drugs, children and females 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 plausible explanations.


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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