13 O’Clock Episode 105 – The Salem Witch Trials, Wandering Wombs, and Clever Corvids

Tom and Jenny return to the American history well on this week’s installment, covering one of the darkest chapters of the colonial era: the Salem witch trials. During a brief, fifteen-month period in the 1690s, numerous people were accused and twenty were executed for witchcraft in and around Salem, Massachusetts. Why did it happen? Was it simply a case of mass hysteria, fueled by jealousy and religious hatred? Or was there some medical cause for the bizarre paroxysm? Listen in as we break down the event, as well as spend entirely too much time yapping about wandering wombs and really smart birds. Heat up the cauldron and ready the eye of newt, because episode 105 is about to cast its spell.

Watch the YouTube version here or download the audio version here.

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Clip at the beginning taken from the 1996 film The Crucible.
Song at the end: “Witch Hunt” by MDFMK.

THANK YOU TO ALL OUR SUPPORTERS! The show is made possible by: Scarlett, Nathalie, Jake, Jen, Victoria, Lana, Duncan, Thomm, Matthew, John, Joseph, Dan, Eric, Brandon, Valtrina, Tara, Sandra, Paul, Weaponsandstuff93, Michael, Ben, Anthony, Ima Shrew, James, Matt, Mary Ellen, Jamin, Joanie, Arif, Natalia, Samantha, Ashley, Kieron, Sophie, Tara, Jana & Scott, Christopher, Elizabeth, Tina, Lars, Veronica, Corinthian, Daniel, Dean, Greg, Lindsey, Richard & Sheena.

13 O’Clock is hosted by Jenny Ashford & Tom Ross. Channel art and audio & video editing by Jenny Ashford. Music & sound effects courtesy of freesound.org users jamespotterboy, corsica-s, enjoypa, capturedlv, luffy, kiddpark, and justkiddink. Video clips courtesy of Videezy & Videvo.

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13 O’Clock Podcast Episode Two: Satanic Panic!

In the 1980s, the moral scolds of America were suddenly whipped into a frenzy, convinced that everything from Dungeons and Dragons to heavy metal music to Saturday morning cartoons were irrefutable proof that an organized cabal of Satanists was roaming the land, kidnapping and molesting children, sacrificing puppies, and eating juicy babies with a side of devilled eggs. On the second episode of the 13 O’Clock Podcast, Tom and Jenny break down (and make fun of) the tragicomic period of recent history known as the Satanic Panic.

Download the audio file from iProject Radio here, or watch the YouTube version here. Also, don’t forget to follow the 13 O’Clock Podcast blog, subscribe to our YouTube channel, like us on Facebook, and follow us on Twitter.

Hulu Horror Double Feature: The Inhabitants and Wax

It’s another lazy Saturday afternoon, my horror honchos, and that means it’s time for another random double feature to while away the weekend hours. Today’s mix was a pretty strange juxtaposition, I gotta say, but it ended up a generally better viewing experience than last time, so let’s jump right in. Oh, and I know I usually forget to say this, but there will probably be some spoilers ahead, though I’ll try not to ruin anything completely.

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First up, The Inhabitants from 2015, directed by Michael and Shawn Rasmussen. Hot damn, this was a good one. It had pretty much everything I like: a spooky old house in New England, an atmosphere of increasing dread that never showed too much or went too far over the top, and best of all, Salem witches, you guys! Yay, I love witches!

The setup of the story is simple in the extreme. Jessica (Elise Couture) and Dan (Michael Reed) are a young married couple who decide to purchase the March Carriage Bed and Breakfast when the elderly folks who previously owned it died (in the husband’s case) or got sent to a nursing home (in the wife’s case). One thing I should point out that gave this movie an added bonus of historical eerieness is that the house where it was filmed actually once belonged to the Reverend Samuel Parris, whose daughter and niece kicked off that whole Salem Witch Trial thing with their crazy accusations. Nice job, girls. 😦

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So, pretty standard creepy shit starts to go down once the couple get moved in; floorboards creak like someone’s walking around, some kinda menacing teenagers hang out in the woods like they’re watching the place, and so on. Jessica begins to research the history of the house so she’ll be able to tell their potential guests some interesting anecdotes, and it turns out that the house was once the home of a 17th-century midwife who was accused of and eventually hanged for witchcraft. The couple find a “gently used” birthing chair in the basement, to boot. Eeeewwwwwww.

The festivities don’t really begin in earnest until Dan is conveniently called away for a few days on a business trip, leaving Jessica in the house alone. I won’t spoil too much, but when he returns, he finds that Jessica has…changed, and not necessarily for the better.

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The thing I loved most about this movie was its consistently tense, claustrophobic atmosphere. The house itself is so eerie and so effectively filmed that the whole movie just drips spookiness during its entire running time. I also liked the measured pacing of the film; steady, not in any hurry to get anywhere, but subtly ratcheting up the dread as it went along. Another thing I really liked was that everything was done through suggestion; there was no splashy gore, not many jump scares, and a lot of plot aspects were left ambiguous for the viewer to puzzle over. For instance, who installed those video cameras in all the rooms? What were those teenagers doing out in the woods, and exactly what were they planning to do when they broke in? What ultimately happened to Dan and Jessica’s dog Wylie? Where did the “children” originally come from, and why did they need to be “fed?” These questions are not answered outright, but it doesn’t matter; it all just adds to the overall ambience. I would recommend this film unreservedly to anyone who enjoys slow-burn haunted house flicks as much as I do; I thought it was really fantastic and effective.

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Next up was a film that was a whole different kettle of fish, and while I didn’t dislike it, it gave me a lot more mixed feelings than The Inhabitants did. Part found-footage, part torture porn, part self-referential homage, the 2014 Spanish movie Wax was directed by Victor Matellano and featured a bunch of genre-specific cameos, including Geraldine Chaplin (daughter of Charlie), Jack Taylor (who starred in some of Jess Franco’s films), and the voice of Paul Naschy. It was a fairly enjoyable movie on the whole, but I feel like it was a little unfocused and too long and drawn out to really ring my bell, if you know what I’m saying.

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The conceit is this: Muppet-haired smart-ass and horror geek Mike (Jimmy Shaw) is hired by a TV producer (Geraldine Chaplin) to be locked into a supposedly haunted Barcelona wax museum overnight, and film a documentary-cum-reality-show while he’s in there. Interwoven with this narrative is the story of the subject of the museum’s newest exhibit—a notorious and cannibalistic serial killer named Dr. Knox, who had a thing for gadding about dressed like Vincent Price’s character in House of Wax and eating his victims’ internal organs while they were still alive.

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So Mike is wandering around the dimmed museum, filming his reality show, and every now and then there’s an intercut of footage of Dr. Knox addressing the camera and describing whatever indignities he is visiting upon his current unfortunate victim. These interstitials are described in-film as being videos that were found in one of Dr. Knox’s hideouts after his arrest, and the museum has them playing on a loop near his wax figure. Fun for the whole family! These bits of the movie are actually fairly gruesome, but nothing to really put you off your lunch or anything, unless you’re super squeamish.

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At about the halfway point of the movie, some paranormal-type stuff starts happening around the museum, like figures seemingly moving, props falling over, mysterious lights, and a red ball that is significant to the plot turning up in the darnedest places. Then, during one of Mike’s scheduled phone calls with the TV producer, it comes to light that Dr. Knox has escaped from prison, and wouldn’t you know it, Mike soon starts seeing him lurking around the museum and understandably begins to freak the fuck out.

One thing I will say about the found footage aspects of the film, is that I thought the trope was pretty effectively utilized here, especially near the end, when Mike is being pursued around the museum by Dr. Knox and only has that creepy green night-vision mode to see by. The museum itself, which I’m guessing is probably a real one, also looks terrific and suitably unsettling, especially in Mike’s POV shots, because you can really get the palpable sense that you’re walking through this spooky-ass place in the dark yourself.

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But overall, I felt like the movie just didn’t hang together all that well, like it was trying to be too many things at once. And I was also left pretty confused by what was actually going on at the end of the thing. AHOY! SPOILERS AHEAD! Okay, so at the end, we’re led to believe that the TV producers had actually set the whole thing up, that Dr. Knox was not actually in the museum, and that they were deliberately trying to drive Mike crazy (or crazier) to make a good TV show. Were they actually planning for him to die of fright, or was that just a lucky side effect? Also, Mike’s wife and kid were killed by Dr. Knox? And he didn’t know it? I mean, he must not have known, because he didn’t seem any more squicked out by the Dr. Knox murder footage than a normal person would be. It wasn’t really made clear whether he even knew his wife and kid were dead, honestly. I mean, there was that one scene where he was kinda getting weirdly friendly with a wax figure of a prostitute and saying how much he missed his wife, but I thought that was because she had left him, like she said she was going to in that one flashback he had. If that’s not what happened, then what was the point of that brief flashback where she said she was gonna leave him? And when he showed the picture of his son Rob to the museum curator at the beginning, he referred to the kid in the present tense and didn’t act all sad or like the kid was dead or anything. So like, in light of the ending, were we supposed to interpret that as a symptom of his mental illness, or what? I just feel like that whole situation wasn’t conveyed effectively, and neither was the line between what was really in the museum, what was set up by the producers, and what was only in Mike’s imagination. It didn’t really ruin the movie or anything, but it was sort of frustrating nonetheless.

This one…eh, I could have taken it or left it. I wouldn’t really recommend it unless you think it’s the kind of thing you’d be into, but keep in mind that it’s kinda meandering and goes on way longer than it needs to. Not bad, but not great.

Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends. Goddess out.

Ergotism and the Salem Witch Trials

Some scholars assert that the mass hysteria in Massachusetts in the 17th century could have been triggered by a common fungus.

Witchcraft_at_Salem_Village

The events are familiar to most Americans and have been dramatized dozens of times on stage, page and film. The tragic episode was set into motion in 1692 by the strange behavior of two young girls, and snowballed into a panic of almost unbelievable proportions. The Salem Witch Trials, as they came to be known, lacked the staggering body count of many of the European witch hunts; nonetheless the series of events was sufficiently dire to cause many people then and now to question how such a thing could have happened.

An Overview of the Salem Witch Panic

It was February 1692. Nine-year-old Betty Parris and her eleven-year-old cousin Abigail Williams suddenly began displaying bizarre behavior akin to epileptic fits. They screamed and raved, twisted their bodies into strange positions, and complained that an unseen assailant was pinching and pricking them. Doctors were called to examine the girls, but no physical cause could be found for their distress, and what was worse, when word of the girls’ mysterious ailment spread through Salem village, other girls began behaving in a similar fashion.

At this point, authorities had raised suspicions of witchcraft, and Betty and Abigail obligingly pointed accusing fingers at a slave girl named Tituba, who they claimed had taught them spells for seeing into the future. Other accusations followed, and more “victims” came forward, accusing still others. When all was said and done, the hysteria had spread across three counties and resulted in the arrest of more than 150 people, twenty of whom were eventually executed for witchcraft. What possible reason could there have been for such a terrible tragedy to unfold? Many theories have been put forth, but Professor Linda Caporael, in 1976, suggested we need look no further than the Salem villagers’ breadboxes.

Hordeum_vulgare_Claviceps_purpurea_23-7-2009

Ergot a Poisonous Fungus, Catalyst for Accusations

In a 1976 article inScience, Caporael theorized that the initial catalyst for the witch craze — the seemingly “possessed” behavior of Betty, Abigail, and the other girls — could have been caused by a reaction to ergot. There are about fifty known species of the ergot fungus, but the one Caporael implicated in the witch panic was Claviceps pupurea, which grows on rye plants and can cause poisoning when consumed by humans or other mammals. If indeed the girls had eaten bread contaminated with ergot, they could have experienced symptoms that were perceived as possession: Seizures, a sensation of itching or crawling on the skin, muscular contractions, nausea, and even hallucinations, triggered by an alkaloid called ergotamine, which is similar in structure to LSD.

Caporael argued that not only were the symptoms of ergotism consistent with those noted in the victims of the “bewitchment,” but that the area around Salem grew a great deal of rye, and that climatic conditions were favorable to the growth of the ergot fungus. It would not even have been necessary for all of the “victims” to have been afflicted with ergotism; a few cases might have started the ball rolling, and psychological and sociological factors could have accomplished the rest.

Arguments Against the Ergot Theory

Many scholars have disputed the claims that ergotism played a major role in the witch panic. Historians Jack Gottlieb and Nicholas Spanos, for example, contend that had ergotism been responsible for the accusers’ symptoms, we should have expected to see members of entire households afflicted, rather than just a few individuals here and there. They also argue that ergotism has other symptoms that do not correspond with the recorded behavior of the “bewitched” persons. Finally, they and other scholars have pointed out that ergotism had been a recognized malady at least since the Middle Ages; it even had a name, St. Anthony’s Fire. Anthropologist H. Sidley in particular doubted whether authorities in Salem in the 17th century would have mistaken the supposedly familiar symptoms of ergot poisoning with signs of supernatural possession.

Despite the voluminous research on the subject, the exact causes of the Salem witch panic are still murky. It is not controversial to speculate that the episode was probably triggered by an unfortunate cascade of converging factors—social, political, psychological, and perhaps pharmacological.

Additional Source:

Macinnis, Peter (2004). Poisons: A History From Hemlock To Botox. MJF Books. ISBN 1-56731-814-2.