For most of us, Halloween is a single night of trick-or-treating. But in Salem, Massachusetts, it's a monthlong celebration that draws half a million visitors, culminating this evening with a fireworks display over Salem Harbor.
The witch trials that took place there in 1692 and 1693 have inspired cauldrons of scary stories. And for more than three centuries, sociologists, theologians, playwrights and political scientists have struggled to understand how residents of a colonial American community could allow an ever-widening circle of their neighbors to be convicted of an imaginary crime.
The rash of witch trials that led to 19 people being put to death and scores more being imprisoned may have been driven by a combination of fear, envy and greed. But medical researchers suggest a more banal cause may have sparked the mass hysteria: fungus poisoning.
The spiraling accusations began when several local girls began exhibiting symptoms their elders interpreted as signs of “demonic possession.” The suffering girls named names of supposed witches, and the madness was underway.
In the Journal of the American Medical Association Dermatology's May 2016 newsletter, three researchers from the University of Miami's Department of Dermatology and Cutaneous Surgery speculated that the strange symptoms, which included temporary deafness and blindness, skin disorders, and hallucinations, were actually caused by ergotism – a reaction to a fungus that may be present in rye and other grains.
“Outbreaks of ergotism are more likely to occur in the spring after a cold and wet winter in rural regions where rye is a common source of nutrients,” wrote researchers Leela S. Mundra, Eric L. Maranda and Jacqueline Cortizo. “The weather conditions preceding the epidemic in Salem, where cultivation of rye was commonplace, were ideal for just such an outbreak.”
One type of ergotism, they wrote, may cause discoloration and swelling that resemble the “witch's marks” some Salem victims described; another type can cause pain and uncontrolled muscle spasms that sound a lot like the writhing contortions described in the courtroom outbursts of Salem's young accusers. “Victims of ergotism describe feeling delirious, lethargic and manic, and even report hallucinations and changes in vision, the researchers reported, noting that witch-trial court records included descriptions of “visions like a 'ball of fire' or 'multitudes in white glittering robes.' ”
Of course, there's no way to prove spoiled bread was behind the grotesque saga of Salem, just as there's no way to know for sure whether the vampire legends were inspired by porphyrias, a group of blood conditions that may cause sensitivity to sunlight and disfigurement.
Science can explain a lot. But it still leaves room for a scary story or two this evening.