21 October 2014

Psychological stress in 1692 Salem Village

Rev. Samuel Parris, Massachusetts Historical Society.
With a long and difficult winter, political uncertainty, ongoing Indian attacks, religious disagreements, strange illnesses, unexpected deaths, land feuds, and squabbles among neighbors, the people of Salem Village were feeling the pressure of the uncertain world around them in early 1692. 

The beleaguered Reverend Samuel Parris, whose congregants were not providing him with the food and firewood his family needed, preached dark tales of the Devil at the pulpit. Instead of making his listeners do good deeds, like pay his salary, however, his sermons caused them to look suspiciously at each other—and find witches among them. After all, witches would explain away the bad luck that had befallen them.

The parsonage became the epicenter of the witch storm, with Reverend Parris’ daughter Betty and his niece, Abigail Williams, being afflicted or “under an evil hand” first. That center soon shifted to the Thomas Putnam household, more than a mile away, where Ann Putnam Jr. showed the same affliction, and eventually accused more than 60 people of bewitching her. In total, about 70 afflicted accusers displayed symptoms of maleficium (evil magic) or had spectral dreams and visions.

In Witchcraft at Salem (1969), Chadwick Hansen suggested the afflicted showed symptoms of mass hysteria. In her novel Conversion (2014), author Katherine Howe uses a contemporary setting—an all-girls school in modern-day Danvers—to explore the mass hysteria theory, which today would be called conversion disorder, “a condition in which you show psychological stress in physical ways. The condition was so named to describe a health problem that starts as a mental or emotional crisis—a scary or stressful incident of some kind—and converts to a physical problem” (Mayo Clinic).

The people of Salem Village could have different psychological causes, depending on their backgrounds and situations, yet still exhibit physical symptoms that fit under the umbrella term of conversion disorder. According to the Mayo Clinic, symptoms of conversion disorder include:
  • Weakness or paralysis
  • Abnormal movement, such as tremors or difficulty walking
  • Loss of balance
  • Difficulty swallowing or “a lump in the throat”
  • Seizures or convulsions
  • Episodes of unresponsiveness
  • Numbness or loss of the touch sensation
  • Speech problems, such as inability to speak or slurred speech
  • Vision problems, such as double vision or blindness
  • Hearing problems or deafness
Symptoms could be persistent or sporadic, and certain stressful conditions—like being a witness in a court case or waiting for an acceptance letter from Harvard—could make the disease worse. Looking at the list, it appears as if most of the afflicted accusers exhibited one or more symptoms of conversion disorder.

And, while Howe offers up the conversion theory, she also suggests, as the Proctors’ maid Mary Warren put it, the afflicted “did but dissemble.”

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