Possession or Hysteria?

Looking back at the Salem Witch Trials today, most people would not jump to the conclusion that the afflicted women in these cases were actually bewitched or possessed at the time. While there are lots of theories as to what happened, most scholars believe that the women were experiencing symptoms of Hysteria, which can be brought on by severe stress and anxiety.

Hysteria actually has two definitions, and both meanings are used when describing the witch trial events. Dictionary.com defines the term as:

  1. an uncontrollable outburst of emotion or fear, often characterized by irrationality, laughter, weeping, etc. (The town of Salem was described as being in a state of mass hysteria during the witch hunt.)

2. Psychoanalysis. a psychoneurotic disorder characterized by violent emotional outbreaks, disturbances of sensory and motor functions, and various abnormal effects due to autosuggestion. (The mental illness that scholars believed the young girls had that caused them to have uncontrollable “fits”.)

It’s also historically known to be a women’s disease because it was believed to originate from the uterus or womb in women’s bodies. For more information on the long history of Hysteria, please click on the medical journal article linked in the citation below.

Tasca, Cecilia, Mariangela Rapetti, Mauro Giovanni Carta, and Bianca Fadda. “Women And Hysteria In The History Of Mental Health.” Clinical Practice and Epidemiology in Mental Health : CP & EMH 8 (October 19, 2012): 110–19. https://doi.org/10.2174/1745017901208010110.