Penny Dreadful, a show that I only accidentally stumbled across, is a period drama about a group of supernatural investigators who are on the trail of one of the parties’ daughter who has been kidnapped by an unknown supernatural force. The series seamlessly melds several stories from UK based horror stories from the 1800’s. There is Dr Viktor Frankenstein (and his monster – or ‘Creature’), Mena Harker (of Dracula fame), Dorian Gray and Professor Van Helsing in addition to subtle references to any number of other players in that scene.
But what can this have to do with psychology at all? Surely, it is a supernatural story that can’t really be analysed at all? Therefore I give you Claviceps purpurea, the fungus which can lead to ergot poisoning. I’m not taking away from this story at all, and I think that the story telling is great, but I thought that I would offer an alternate view to something truly supernatural occurring. Ergot poisoning is something which was very common at the time, with a wide range of symptoms, some of which were things like hallucinations, feelings of skin crawling, mania, psychosis and delirium. Even on the Wikipedia page for Ergotism there is an exploration that the Salem Witch trials may have been in part caused by ergot poisoning in the community.
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So the wall climbing of Miss Ives, could that have been explained by anything else? Well, sure, the supernatural…but it may also be explained in part by ergot poisoning. But how? Other people witnessed it and saw it happen, right? Well yes, and no (potentially). When an individual has a hallucination, they will often tell others about the event, often because they have a high degree of belief in the hallucination. As mentioned in the post on Stannis Baratheon, there is a phenomenon called Folie a Deux – or the shared psychotic delusion. This is very rare, however can be more prominent in people who are undergoing some sort of stress or trauma or who are involved in relationships which are particularly uneven in terms of social power. If we look at the character of Sir Malcolm Murray he is a character that has a great deal of gravitas, but also is deeply flawed. We see flashes of anger and emotion at times and a flashbacks to poor relationships and choices. As the figurehead of the group he would hold the most sway and the guilt that he has in relation to Vanessa Ives may actually make him more likely to believe her stories about the voices that she hears and the things which she experiences. From here, the concept of mass hysteria or emotional contagion may take over and the rest of the party – Chandler – again not exceptionally well adjusted and obviously in hiding from something, and Frankenstein – distracted by the demands of the Creature, may both fall into belief due to two strong individuals also believing it.
Do I believe that this is the case and what happened in the series? No, not at all, but I think the ergot explanation is a compelling one and can explain some previous phenomena in history, which when told by individuals who experienced them are rather ‘truthy’ but could better be explained by an external agent acting upon them.