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Ghosts, Ghouls, and Witches; Environmental Horror Stories

image of a haunted house

Halloween is quickly approaching, and what better time to talk about the things that go “bump” in the night. Most of us have heard plenty of stories of witches on their brooms, dancing skeletons, and ghosts rattling chains in the attic of a Victorian home. Could these scary stories have explanations beyond the paranormal or the occult? Gather ‘round as I dig into a few scary stories to find out!

Is There a Fungus, Amungus?

Throughout Colonial America and many areas of Europe, various witch-hunts took place, none more famous in the US than the Salem witch trials. Most of us have probably seen depictions of these witch hunts, where a mob of angry townspeople accuses others of witchcraft. Oftentimes these townspeople would declare that the suspected witches had cast a spell on them, causing spasms, a paralyzing trance, or even terrifying visions. The Salem witch trials eventually lead to 25 people to be killed for being “witches”. In 1976, a researcher started looking into what may have caused the hysteria during the 1690’s in Massachusetts. Dr. Linnda Caporael offered the hypothesis1 that a fungus affecting the rye crop used as food in the colony had caused the seemingly occult symptoms affecting townspeople. Rye ergot when ingested can cause severe convulsions, delusions, and hallucinations. The hypothesis goes that the conditions in 1691 were right for ergot to form on the rye crops, which were harvested and used for food in 1692 during the height of the witch-trials. The trails ended right around the time the stores of the affected rye would have been depleted. 

A Furnace That Goes “Bump” in the Night

When you think of the typical haunted house, visions of a very dark, rundown, old home come into mind. This story comes from an unusual source for a ghost story, the American Journal of Ophthalmology. An issue from 1921 describes a story from 1912 in which a “Mrs. H”, who lives in a home without electricity, multiple creaking staircases, and possible ghosts. Mrs. H discussed with her doctor a constant dreadful feeling in the home. She would hear footsteps in the hallway with no one there. Other family members would report a voice calling their name in the night and various other haunting tales. Mrs. H’s brother had come by for a visit and listened to what the family was experiencing, and suggested that the home might not be haunted at all, but they may be getting poisoned by the furnace! It turns out that the brother was right, and the furnace was not operating correctly, and the family was being affected by carbon monoxide. Acute exposure to levels of carbon monoxide can cause a range of visual and audible hallucinations as well as a host of other symptoms. Once the family had the furnace repaired, the ghosts vanished from the home. An interesting thought, most ghosts we hear about are usually people dressed in very old clothes, rarely if ever have you heard of a modern ghost wearing cargo shorts who is singing Backstreet Boys. Could that be because now that homes have moved past the need for gas lights, furnaces operate much more efficiently, and homes have carbon monoxide detectors so new ghost stories are less likely to get started? *Cracking thunder*

As we get into winter, it is important to make sure your furnace and other combustion appliances are working properly. If you have concerns about potential indoor environmental issues in your home, give us a call. If you think your home might be haunted, call the Ghostbusters!

  1. Caporael, Linnda. 1976. “Ergotism: The Satan Loosed in Salem?”. Science. 192, no. 4234:21-26.

Ian Cull

Ian Cull is a nationally recognized expert in the field of indoor air quality. He is the Chief Science Officer of Indoor Science, a company he started in 2004. He speaks around the world on air quality topics and is a training provider of the Indoor Air Quality Association. Mr. Cull is a Licensed Professional Engineer (PE) and Certified Industrial Hygienist (CIH). His degree is in Environmental Engineering from the University of Illinois - Urbana Champaign. Mr. Cull has developed 50 air quality related courses for the IAQA University and is the author of the book, “Fundamentals of Mold Remediation”. In his words… “Besides being passionate about indoor air quality, I enjoy cycling, music, the Chicago Bulls, and having fun with my three kids.”