‘Er go,’ the Salem witches were seeing rotten visions

I hate horror movies.  My parents were always strictly against my siblings and I watching them growing up.  One of the warnings my dad had before we left the house was: “no scary movies, no Ouija boards and nothing illegal.” I never saw a reason to watch them, so I can’t handle the adrenaline and anxiety they induce.

I learned about this last year, when my friends threw Thursday night movies and we kicked off with the “Evil Dead” remake.  Despite its ridiculous scenes, like the archetype ditzy girlfriend sawing her arm off and saying she felt better, I couldn’t sleep the following night.

Earlier this semester, a group of my friends decided it would be a great idea to watch “The Conjuring.”  Knowing my own low tolerance, I spent most of the movie hiding my face in my friend’s shirt.  This was one of the worst supernatural films I’ve sat through because it was based on a true story.

About halfway through the movie, we learn that the family’s property was connected to the Salem witch trials and a witch named Bathsheba cursed the land.  Who in their right mind would name their daughter after one of the Bible’s most infamous temptresses in Puritan Salem? I suffered through “The Scarlet Letter” in high school, and that detail didn’t add up.

More recently, as I was taking notes in my microbiology lecture, Dr. Sara Fruehling mentioned ergot, a mold that poisons rye.  She said there’s speculation that there was an outbreak of ergot during the Salem witch trials, which would explain some of the hysteria.

This didn’t resolve Bathsheba’s name or story, but it consoled me a little bit.  Ergot contains some of the compounds used to make LSD, and has hallucinogenic effects when consumed.  While there is no way of fact-checking this explanation and there’s no consensus among historians, it’s one rational explanation.

The records taken on the behavior of witches match the symptoms of ergot poisoning, and it’s transmittable. So, while the colonists believed a demon was being passed around or spells were being cast, the “magic” could have very well been moldy grain.  I think there’s so much liberty taken in re-telling the trials as purely supernatural because it was a pretty dark time in American history.

Arthur Miller’s play “The Crucible” was probably an interpretation closer to the truth.  He implies that the girls who catalyzed the trials were practicing something simpler than witchcraft.  Abigail was an adulteress and a liar, both sins that would be shamed in Puritan society.  Some accounts blame “sexual restraint” on the hysteria surrounding the trials.  I’d say ergot seems more reasonable for visions and fits than condemning sex.

The town in Massachusetts went ahead and hanged 19 people for the same “crime” because they would not plead guilty. It was most likely preventable.  That doesn’t make “The Conjuring” any less horrific, though.

I will, however grudgingly, agree there are things that cannot be explained away with sophisticated examples like the study of fungal toxins in microbiology.  There are illnesses that cannot be cured with earthly medicine and places that shake the faith of the most zealous.  I just don’t want to go looking for them.



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