The Biggest Salem Witch Trial Theories: What Really Happened?

The Salem witch trials are one of the defining events in United States history. The accusations, corruption, insane court antics, and brutal ending have fascinated people for generations. According to Smithsonian Magazine, more than 200 people in and around Salem, Massachusetts were accused of witchcraft; 20 were executed for their "crimes." While this is a pretty well documented historical event, there are still many questions that are unanswered. Perhaps the biggest of these questions? What ultimately caused this horrible tragedy to happen?

As time has passed, many different theories have arisen to try and explain what was the cause of the events of 1692 and 1693. One of the more unusual theories is that essentially, everyone was high. According to Vox, ergot poisoning could be a potential culprit. Ergot is a fungus that can grow on certain grasses, but specifically on rye. The symptoms of ergotism range from hallucinations and choking, to convulsions and, in some cases, gangrene. Many have drawn parallels between the symptoms of ergot poisoning and the "signs of witchcraft" exhibited by many of the accused witches. There isn't any physical proof that could prove that this was the cause of the tragedies that happened, but it could be a possibility.

Fungus, cold weather, or mass delusion are all possibilities

Another possibility is the "Cold Weather Theory." According to All That's Interesting, apparently changes in temperature and weather patterns can make people go a bit nuts. The theory involves the idea that crop failures and other food shortages related to cold weather make people cranky. What do cranky people do? They look for others to blame their problems on. In this case, it would be the "witches." Sounds a bit far-fetched, but there was a connection discovered between cold periods of time and witch trials across Europe. Did these cold snaps influence the people of Salem to turn on one another?

The most common theory is relatively simple and straightforward: mass hysteria. Mass hysteria (a.k.a. mass conversion disorder) is explained by Medical News Today as a collective obsessional behavior that starts in the mind. but often manifests physically as well. Some believe that many of the "symptoms" exhibited by some of the accusers in court were faked. The girls were not actually having fits or convulsions or seeing visions. Yet it was their "bewitchment" that possibly triggered a collective delusion in the strict religious community, resulting in an irrational fear running rampant through Salem.

Some believe that the trials were politically and religiously motivated, and used as a tactic to keep control on an already rigid Puritan society. Whatever the cause may be, we will probably never know. The hope is the tragic events of those years never repeat themselves.