15 Times People Were Consumed By Mass Hysteria — This Is Insane
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- 1. Meowing nuns
- 2. The Dancing Plague of 1518
- 3. Salem witch trials
- 4. Writing tremor epidemic
- 5. The Halifax Slasher
- 6. The Mad Gasser of Mattoon
- 7. Tanganyika laughter epidemic of 1962
- 8. The June bug epidemic
- 9. The Blackburn faintings
- 10. Mount Pleasant “hexing”
- 11. West Bank fainting epidemic
- 12. Kosovo student poisoning
- 13. Pokémon panic
- 14. “Strawberries With Sugar” virus
- 15. Charlie Charlie challenge
- Here’s How To Make Your Favorite Ice Cream Truck Treats Before The Summer’s Over: Click “Next Page” below!
- 20 Facts about Massively Strange Cases Of Mass Hysteria
- Mass Hysteria Facts
- 19. Hexellcent
- 18. Meows Hysteria
- 17. Patterns
- 16. Too Much TV
- 15. Bands Black Out
- 14. Invisible Enemies
- 13. Sharp Dresser
- 12. Insectophobia
- 11. The Best Medicine
- 10. Odd Outburst
- 9. On the Edge
- 8. Dance the Pain Away
- 7. Monkeying Around
- 6. Satanic Panic
- 5. Clowning Around
- 4. Get the Chopper
- 3. Modern Day Vampire Killers
- 2. Sonic Alarm
- 1. The Toxic Lady
- What causes mass delusions and mass hysteria
- Humans are masters of self deception
- The everyday mass hysteria
- Mass Hysteria in America
- Why are Females Prone to Mass Hysteria?
- Mass hysteria: An epidemic of the mind?
- Are women most affected?
- Recent instances of mass hysteria
15 Times People Were Consumed By Mass Hysteria — This Is Insane
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Mass hysteria is basically when a large group of people gets so collectively upset by a threatening delusion, whether real or imaginary, that it essentially takes over. It’s like a horrible game of telephone…but with fear. The result is basically Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds”…without any actual birds. Here are some of the strangest cases of mass hysteria, which show how quickly society can become consumed.
1. Meowing nuns
In France during the Middle Ages, a nun began inexplicably meowing like a cat. Other nuns soon joined her in the meowing until the entire convent was making kitty noises for several hours. It got so out of hand that the village had to call soldiers, who threatened to whip them if they didn’t stop. Back then, it was commonly thought that some animals, especially cats, had the power to possess people.
2. The Dancing Plague of 1518
A woman named Mrs. Troffea living in Strasbourg, Alsace (in what is now France), began dancing in the streets. She danced for multiple days by herself, but by the seventh day, 34 others had joined. By the end of the month? Four hundred people were dancing with Mrs. Troffea. They never rested, and as many as 15 died per day due to heart attack, stroke, or exhaustion.
3. Salem witch trials
This is perhaps the most famous case of mass hysteria. In 1692, four young girls, Abigail Williams, Betty Parris, Ann Putnam, Jr., and Elizabeth Hubbard all claimed to be having strange fits, which the clergy assumed was a sign they had been fraternizing with the devil. And so the witch trials began. In total, 25 Salem citizens were executed for suspected witchcraft.
4. Writing tremor epidemic
The first breakout of this hysteria happened in Gross-Tinz when a 10-year-old school girl’s hand started trembling in class. The tremor spread to her whole body and eventually transferred to other students in her class — 15 to be exact. That same year, 20 kids in Basel, Switzerland, suffered from the same shaking. Twelve years after that? Twenty-seven MORE kids suffered from tremors in Basel, most likely due to hearing stories of the first outbreak.
5. The Halifax Slasher
In 1938, two women in Halifax, England, claimed they were attacked by a strange man with a mallet and “bright buckles” on his shoes. Soon, more people came forward saying they were attacked by a similar man, only this time he had a knife. It didn’t take long before there were enough reports that Scotland Yard had to get involved. Eventually, many of these “victims” came forward to admit they had made up their stories. Some of them were even sent to prison for “public mischief.”
6. The Mad Gasser of Mattoon
He was alternatively known as “Anesthetic Prowler,” “Friz,” or the “Phantom Anesthetist,” but most knew him as the Mad Gasser. In 1944 in Mattoon, Illinois, a woman named Aline Kearney claimed she smelled something terrible outside her window, which caused her throat to burn and her legs to go numb. She said she caught a glimpse of a shadowy figure as well. Soon the entire town was freaking out over this biochemical attacker, but no actual evidence of his existence was ever found.
7. Tanganyika laughter epidemic of 1962
In what was once Tanganyika, but is now Tanzania, three girls began laughing at their boarding school and the joy was so infectious. Soon, 95 of the 159 pupils joined in. Some only laughed for a few hours, others as long as 16 days. The school had to be closed, but that didn’t stop the laughter from spreading to the next village over. Months later, another laughing outbreak occurred, this time effecting 217 people.
8. The June bug epidemic
Around 62 workers in the dressmaking department at a U.S. textile factory in 1962 were suddenly affected by a mysterious disease. It caused numbness, nausea, headaches, and vomiting. The employees believed the illness had come from being bitten by June bugs, but in reality, it was likely just a case of mass hysteria spurred by stress.
9. The Blackburn faintings
In 1965, several girls from a school in Blackburn, England, began complaining of dizziness, and many fainted. Within hours, 85 girls had to be rushed to the hospital after fainting. A year later, it was determined that a recent polio outbreak had caused mass hysteria amongst the girls of Blackburn.
10. Mount Pleasant “hexing”
Flickr / Linus Bohman
In 1976, 15 students at a school in Mount Pleasant, Mississippi, fell to the ground and began writhing in pain. School officials and police suspected it might have had something to do with drugs, but there was no evidence to suggest this. The students believed it to be some sort of curse and one-third of the school’s students stayed home one day so as not to be “hexed.”
11. West Bank fainting epidemic
A whopping 943 Palestinian girls and women randomly fainted in the West Bank in 1983. Of course, Israel was accused of using chemical warfare on the girls. Israel, in turn, blamed the Palestinians for poisoning their own people in order to frame them. In reality, only around 20% may have breathed in something toxic, the remaining 80% we consumed by hysteria.
12. Kosovo student poisoning
In 1990, thousands of young people in Kosovo were believed to have been made sick by toxic gases. Doctors never could quite figure out what exactly was poisoning them, so the theory that this was just one massive case of hysteria may be the closest thing we have to the truth.
13. Pokémon panic
Flickr / Lydia
In Pokémon’s first season, there is one episode that never aired in the U.S. due to an outbreak of nausea and seizures that affected 12,000 Japanese children after they watched it in 1997. The episode, “Dennō Senshi Porygon” (aka “Cyber Soldier Porygon”) featured bright flashing lights that some believe caused the seizures. Others believe this was a simple case of mass hysteria.
14. “Strawberries With Sugar” virus
In 2006, a Portuguese teen soap opera called “Morangos com Açúcar” aired an episode where the characters were afflicted with a terrible disease. Sure enough, more than 300 children who watched the episode began to think they themselves were suffering from this illness. Several schools had to be closed in order to quell the perceived outbreak.
15. Charlie Charlie challenge
Though a version of the game had been popular in South America for generations, it really took off recently with the hashtag #CharlieCharlieChallenge. The game involves asking questions of some kind of supernatural being named Charlie. Charlie is supposed to answer by directing the movement of two pencils stacked on top of each other. In 2015, four young people in Tunja, Colombia, were sent to the hospital after believing they had been possessed by Charlie. A similar thing happened to teens in the Dominican Republic.
As much as we’d probably all like to think that we’re too smart for something like this to happen to us, keep in mind, many times this sort of hysteria causes your body to actually feel the perceived effects of the mystery illness or spirit possession. The brain figures, “Everyone around you is freaking out, why shouldn’t you be doing the same?”
Here’s How To Make Your Favorite Ice Cream Truck Treats Before The Summer’s Over: Click “Next Page” below!
We as a species seem to be prone to feeding off of those around us and exhibiting shared behaviors that apparently have the potential to spread through our ranks to infect us like some insidious disease. In numerous cases throughout history there have been times when it looks as if phantom illnesses, mass hallucinations, and unusual behaviors have manifested amongst a large number of people at the same time, simultaneously showing us how little we know of the human mind and illustrating that there are some mysteries of our consciousness that we are nowhere near being able to explain. In cases such as these strange phenomena have spread out and affected entire communities and populations, and it has come to fall under the umbrella term “mass hysteria.” Variously blamed over the ages on demons, ghosts, witchcraft, possession, and insanity, mass hysteria is a phenomenon that is still little understood, and here are some of the more bizarre cases of it.
A very weird case of mass hysteria originates from the year 1844, when a J. F. C. Hecker gave in his book Epidemics of the Middle Ages an account of a strange series of events that gripped a secluded convent of nuns in France in the 15th century. According to the story, one day one of the nuns began to suddenly and inexplicably meow like a cat rather than speaking. This was a bit ominous, because in this particular region at the time cats were thought to be servants of the Devil, but things grew odder still when other nuns at the convent began to restlessly meow as well, until there were around a dozen of them doing this in unison at certain hours of the day, sometimes for several continuous hours without stopping. It got so bad that soldiers were apparently called in to stop the strange phenomenon with force, of which was written:
The whole surrounding Christian neighborhood heard, with equal chagrin and astonishment, this daily cat-concert, which did not cease until all the nuns were informed that a company of soldiers were placed by the police before the entrance of the convent, and that they were provided with rods, and would continue whipping them until they promised not to meow any more.
At the time this outbreak of meowing was blamed on sinister demonic possession, but it is unclear what really caused it. Medieval convents seem to have actually been quite prone to such phenomena, as there was another very unusual case from 15th century Germany, in which nuns in one convent started to gain the unsettling habit of lashing out to bite those around them. Apparently other convents began to experience the same outlandish incidents, with nuns savagely biting or even clawing at each other for no discernible reason whatsoever, and it was a perplexing and not a bit spooky mystery that was also at the time blamed on demons. The case of the biting nuns was written of by the psychologist John Waller for The British Psychological Society, and no clear reason for this weird behavior has ever been discovered.
Animalistic behavior was also recorded in 1676, when orphans living at a school in Hoorn, Holland spontaneously started behaving like feral dogs. Kids around the orphanage suddenly and without warning reportedly began to go into a trance, after which they would emerge to lope about on all fours, bark, growl, snarl, and bite. One theologian named Balthasar Bekker claimed to have seen this phenomenon first hand, and wrote of it thus:
They tugged and tore themselves, striking at the ground with their legs and arms end even with their heads, crying yelling and barking like dogs so that it was a terrifying thing to see.
As with the cases of the mysterious convents, this was all blamed on the work of the Devil, and the whole town prayed for the children and exorcisms were carried out until the anomalous affliction finally subsided. As with the meowing and biting nuns, the mystery of the dog-like orphans and their disturbing behavior has never been satisfactorily solved, although it is now thought to be a case of mass hysteria of some sort.
It seems to be a trend for cases of mass hysteria to feature startlingly aberrant behavior in some form or another, and one of the more well known cases of mysterious mass hysteria is that of a plague of dancing that overcame far-flung rural areas of Medieval Europe from between the 13th and 17th centuries. The condition, which would variously be called Choreomania, Dancing Mania, the Dancing Plague, St. John’s Dance, or the Dance of St. Vitus, typically involved people, sometimes whole mobs of them, abruptly getting up to jump, jig, jerk, hop, and dance about for no reason as if to music that only they could hear. In most cases it was very clear that the victims were not merely mindlessly and spasmodically convulsing, but are rather actually purposefully carrying out certain dance patterns with their arms, bodies, and legs.
One early account of the phenomenon occurred in July of 1374, in Aachen, Germany, when people from over a dozen separate villages along the Rhine River began to dance about uncontrollably in the streets, and this would spread until thousands of people were allegedly overcome by the throes of dancing mania. These unfortunate people would often continue to flail about and dance about wildly for hours or even days on end before finally dropping from exhaustion or even dying from heart attacks or strokes. In some cases collapsing from exhaustion didn’t even stop people from their unnatural desire to keep dancing, with many still rhythmically convulsing and jerking about even after they had crumpled to the ground.
Another outbreak of the Dancing Plague hit Strasbourg, France in 1518. It all started when a woman called Frau Troffea was overcome with the uncontrollable desire to start wildly dancing, which she would do for several days straight without eating or sleeping. Oddly enough, as she did her hypnotic dance though the streets other people became infected by the urge to dance as well, until hundreds of people were in thrall to the bizarre affliction. As the crowds of mysteriously dancing people grew it was decided that the behavior was a symptom of some strange fever, perhaps even a curse, and that the afflicted had to allow it to run its course. The unaffected townsfolk reportedly even went about helping those who were under the spell, erecting stages for them to dance upon and even bringing in music and other dancers to join them. This did little good, and people continued to drop from exhaustion or even die.
The 1518 plague of dancing was supposedly not brought to an end until the affected were finally deemed to be possessed and forced to pray to Saint John and Saint Vitus, which purportedly freed them from the supposed curse. Other similar outbreaks of Dancing Plague would emerge all over Europe in places such as Italy, Luxembourg, France, Germany, Holland, and Switzerland, until in the 17th century the phenomenon just stopped as suddenly as it had arisen, leaving mystery hanging over the whole thing. Theories as to what caused it include mass poisoning, stress induced hysteria, psychosis, and ergot poisoning, which is caused by a grain fungus and can produce hallucinations and bizarre behavior, but the true reason remains a mystery and the Dancing Plague continues to be a puzzling historical oddity to this day.
Interestingly, there was an odd case that seems very similar to the Dancing Plague that happened in 1939 at a high school in the U.S. state of Louisiana. In this case, a student was suddenly overcome by a fierce twitching of the leg, gradually evolving to the point where she almost seemed to be twitching and convulsing her legs to some unheard music. Other students also began to do this, claiming that they could not control it, as if something were taking over their body. So many students began to demonstrate this twitching that scared parents reportedly were pulling their kids out of school so that they wouldn’t catch it, but the whole incident would suddenly stop a week later, leaving no answer at all as to why these kids had been twitching against their will.
In later years we have a very odd case from Kashasha, in Tanzania, Africa, where in 1962 a boarding school for girls was overcome by an unexplained bout of mass hysteria of some form that has never been explained. Three girls at the school reportedly suddenly began to laugh hysterically and uncontrollably one day for no apparent reason, and this soon spread to other girls until much of the school was in a constant fit of laughter. These young girls would apparently laugh for hours or even days non stop, with no clear way to stop it and no discernible catalyst.
The epidemic of laughter did not stop even with the eventual closure of the school from whence it first originated, as neighboring communities, villages, and schools soon had the same problem on their hands as students for no reason began breaking down into fits of abrasive, hyena-like laughing that would not abate. At one point it was estimated that over 1,000 young people were in the throes of the strange phenomenon, often accompanied by symptoms such as pain, fainting, respiratory problems, rashes, and fits of crying, forcing school closures and emergency measures far and wide. Then, around 18 months after it started the laughing abruptly stopped for no apparent reason. No medical reason for what has become known as the Tanganyika Laughter Epidemic has ever been found.
In addition to bouts of collective odd behavior, there is a sort of subspecies of this mass hysteria phenomenon that involves the populace conjuring up some sort of phantom enemy or spectral, evil presence amongst them. An early example of this comes from all the way back in 1630, when the residents of Milan, Italy became convinced that a shadowy entity was trying to actively poison them. Many of the locals became convinced that a mass poisoning was at hand, possibly from the Devil himself, and there were numerous reports of doors or entryways marked with “a curious daub, or spot,” which was thought to be a sure sign of being targeted for extermination.
Things got so out of hand that authorities were having people executed, with even the slightest suspicious behavior seen as trying to spread the awaited poison apocalypse, such as an elderly man who was set upon by an angry mob for merely wiping down a stool. It got to the point that to be out on the streets at night was a sure sign of guilt. More and more people were arrested and subsequently tortured, during which time some of them confessed to being in league with the Devil and in on a conspiracy to poison everybody. On many occasions these people would name accomplices, who would also be tortured or executed, and things got quite out of hand indeed, even though there was not a shred of evidence that anyone had actually been poisoned. The whole thing finally passed, with no mass poisoning in sight and the only ones dead those who had been executed for their part in a nonexistent conspiracy.
Another well-known example of this is a case from the 1930s, when across the U.S. states of Virginia and Illinois there came reports of a phantom attacker lurking outside of homes and spraying the people within with poison gas. What came to be known as the “Mad Gasser” was accused of knocking mostly young women out with a mysterious gas, and this gas was claimed to cause effects such as nausea, vomiting, and burning sensations in their mouths and throats. However, despite numerous investigations by police there was never any evidence of such a substance or attacker. Was this all mass hysteria or was there more to this?
In 1962 the mysterious enemy conjured up was not a person at all, but an enigmatic insect that was said to roam about a textile factory in the United States. Workers began to complain that they had been bit by the bug, after which they fell down with various flu-like symptoms including numbness, nausea, dizziness, and vomiting. Cases of the mysterious illness spread like wildfire through the factory, with many of these victims hospitalized, but doctors could never find anything actually physically wrong with them and no sign that any bug had bit them as described. Indeed, the symptoms reported were inconsistent with those of any known spider or insect bite in the first place, leaving a bizarre mystery that couldn’t be explained. The US Public Health Service Communicable Disease Center would eventually conclude that it was all the result of a bizarre mass hysteria.
Even more recently, in 2002 there was a case from Uttar Pradesh, in India, where locals became convinced that there was an alien entity going around attacking people by burning them with some sort of laser weapon or flat-out attacking with its claws. What would came to be known as the Muhnochawa, or “Face-Scratcher was blamed for the deaths of at least 7 people, and authorities somehow made the panic even worse by claiming that it was all the result of a genetically engineered insect weapon. This official pronouncement did not make things better at all, inciting riots in the streets, with some even reportedly committing suicide to be spared from the invasion, be it foreign or from another world. Interestingly, throughout all of this there were numerous witnesses who came forward with injuries and burn marks they claim had been inflicted on them by these phantom enemies. The government would later sweep it all under the carpet and write it all off as mass hysteria, with the injuries self-inflicted.
How did these cases of mass, shared delusions come about? Are these phenomena rooted in socio-cultural pressures, stresses, and psychological mysteries? How can we explain these bizarre occurrences in a way that fits in with what we know of the world and the human psyche? As much as we strive for answers to such riddles it seems that the human condition is a complicated one, and there are mazes within mazes that delve down into areas beyond our current understanding. Maybe someday we will know the answers we seek.
20 Facts about Massively Strange Cases Of Mass Hysteria
Mass hysteria is when a group of people all suffer from the same unexplained physical or mental symptoms or share a belief in a threat that is almost certainly imaginary. Cases of mass hysteria are actually pretty common—but they’re still strange. Read on to see what we mean.
Mass Hysteria Facts
This classic example of mass hysteria is also one of the most famous—the Salem witch trials. Unexplained seizures and outbursts in children in the Salem area in the 1690s sparked a witch hunt in which more than 20 people were executed or died from their imprisonment. One of the events that happened around the witch hunts? A witch cake, made of rye and urine of the the afflicted, was fed to a dog in hopes that the witch would feel the bite and reveal herself.
A more recent witch scare took place in Mount Pleasant, Mississippi, when 15 students fell to the ground in writhing convulsions in 1976. The students believed they had been cursed, and some students stayed away from school in the days following. 900 of students to be exact.
18. Meows Hysteria
One day in France during the Middle Ages, one nun in a convent began to meow like a cat. Soon the others joined in, and they would meow in unison for a period of the day. They were only stopped once law enforcement threatened to whip them.
Researchers of mass hysteria note that episodes frequently involve young women and many recorded cases have occurred in convents or schools.
16. Too Much TV
Teenage girls in Portugal in 2006 started reporting symptoms of virus that had recently been a plot point on a popular television show. Symptoms included rashes, dizziness, and shortness of breath, and at its height the epidemic had more than 300 sufferers and caused some schools to close briefly until it was ruled as a mass hysteria. The virus was called the “Strawberries with Sugar” virus after the popular show that incited the outbreak.
15. Bands Black Out
One dramatic case of alleged mass hysteria occurred in 1980, when around 300 people spontaneously fainted or became sick while at an outdoors marching band event in England. Victims included children, adults, and babies, and although many have suggested that the symptoms were linked to pesticide use, the official inquiry reported mass hysteria as the cause. One witness reported that children were “ down like nine pins.”
14. Invisible Enemies
During the unstable political climate at the end of King James II’s reign in 1688, rumors of the Irish marching on London spread quickly across England and parts of Wales, resulting in panic and thousands organizing themselves into militias to wait for the oncoming enemy. No one showed up and everyone went home; the only casualty was a tax man, and no one really minded that much.
13. Sharp Dresser
In 1938 in Halifax, England, several women reported being attacked by a man with a mallet, razor and/or knife. Eventually, the victims admitted to making up their attacks. One of the alleged characteristics of the killer? He wore “bright buckles” on his feet.
June bugs are pretty harmless, but in 1962, they were blamed for a mysterious disease that caused scores of employees at a US textile factory to breakout out in faints, nausea, dizziness, and vomiting. The case is now a classic example of a hysterical contagion, a specific type of mass hysteria.
11. The Best Medicine
In Tanzania, at a boarding school for girls, three girls started laughing on January 30, 1962. Soon, almost 100 students were laughing uncontrollably and by March the school was shut down. When the girls returned to their home villages, the laughing eventually spread to more than 1,000 people and forced 14 more schools to be shut down. The so-called “laughing epidemic” was more than just laughter, however. Other symptoms included flatulence, pain, and attacks of random screaming.
10. Odd Outburst
One of the latest cases of student mass hysteria took place in New York State in 2011-12. 18 people (16 of them teenage girls) developed tics and outbursts similar to Tourette syndrome over the course of a few months. Ultimately the girls were believed to have been experiencing a combination of “conversion disorder” and “mass psychogenic illness.” Before this, Erin Brockovich, of movie fame, even sent a team over to study soil samples for harmful chemicals.
9. On the Edge
Experts in mass hysteria often note that along with women and girls, communities who live in unusually stressful situations are highly represented in the phenomenon. One example is in 1983 in the West Bank, when almost 1,000 Palestinian teenage girls fell ill, reporting symptoms of fainting and nausea that would later be ruled as mass hysteria. All the victims were female.
8. Dance the Pain Away
In 1518, a dancing plague hit in Strasbourg (at that time part of the Holy Roman Empire) and became the most well-known example of dancing mania, or choreomani—an epidemic where large groups of people start dancing without rest until they collapse and even die. However, cases of the “dancing plague” were common during the 14th to 17th centuries. In Italy dance mania was thought to be a reaction to a tarantula bite; dancing was believed to counteract the poison. As a result, dancing mania in Italy was called Tarantism and the popular, upbeat, Southern Italian dance of the Tarantella is supposedly inspired by this phenomenon.
7. Monkeying Around
A unique case of mass hysteria took place in New Delhi in 2001. At this time, several people reported being attacked by a monkey-like man with red eyes, who was wearing a helmet and had three buttons on his chest. Some reports claimed the monkey man leaped from building to building. Police had a sketch drawn up of the creature, but it all came to nothing, and ultimately the whole episode was chalked up to mass hysteria. The Bollywood film Delhi-6 later worked the monkey man into its plot.
6. Satanic Panic
Similar to the witch-hunts of the 17th century, mass hysteria has more recently occurred in the United States in the guise of saving children from satanic ritual abuse. A rash of accusations of child abuse in American day cares that took place in ’80s and ’90s are now seen as a case of moral panic and false accusation. The incident’s biggest victims were Dan and Fran Keller, the owners of a daycare who served 21 years in jail for child abuse before their charges were dismissed. They were freed in 2013.
5. Clowning Around
You might remember all the creepy reports of people walking around in scary clown costumes in 2016? Turns out that wasn’t just promotion for Stephen King’s IT but another case of mass hysteria. After initial reports in the US and Canada in the summer of 2016, by that fall there had been sightings reported in 20 different countries. Most of the reports are unsubstantiated and commentators claim that the internet and an innate fear of clowns had more to do with whipping up hysteria than actual evil clowns.
4. Get the Chopper
Another case of possible mass hysteria are rumours of braid chopping incidents in Northern India in 2017. Around 50 reports have surfaced of women having their braided hair chopped off under mysterious circumstance, sometimes while asleep or unconscious. Officials say most of the braid chopping reports are self inflicted, sometimes while the women are in an altered mental state. Nonetheless, on October 20, 2017, a mob attempted to set a man on fire, claiming he was the culprit.
3. Modern Day Vampire Killers
Another case of the deadly combination of mass hysteria and mob mentality took place in Malawi in 2017. The summer reports of vampires attacking locals also incited mob attacks, which often focused on elderly, disabled, or foreign populations. At least nine people have been killed due to vigilante mobs in response to the rumours of vampires. However, the “vampires” aren’t like the ones you might be thinking of. They are called anamapopa, they aren’t undead, and they use modern medical implements rather than fangs to draw blood (though they can use magic).
2. Sonic Alarm
One recent example of possible mass hysteria is having significant political ramifications. Reports of headaches, tinnitus, and hearing loss among American diplomats working in the embassy in Havana, Cuba led to fears of a mysterious sonic attack. The latest expert analysis proposes mass hysteria as the more likely culprit, but the incident has already caused the US to pull out the majority its diplomats from the US embassy in Havana and to send home Cuban officials in the US.
1. The Toxic Lady
A particularly eerie case of alleged mass hysteria occurred when Gloria Ramirez, aka the Toxic Lady, was brought into the emergency room in 1994. Ramirez was in the late stages of cervical cancer and was experiencing acute cardiac problems. The medical staff began treating her as normal when they noticed a strange fruity scent coming from her body and odd particles in her blood. Soon after the staff started to fall ill: 23 in total with five people hospitalized. An investigation into the incident declared the episode to be mass hysteria, although there are other theories about possible pain therapies Ramirez may have been using and their role in the strange incident. The incident has been fictionalized in shows from The X-Files to Grey’s Anatomy.
Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23
What causes mass delusions and mass hysteria
Humans are masters of self deception
The fact that the human perception can easily change according to many different factors , including emotions, makes it very likely for a human to think and act without any rationality.
In a previous article with the title Why do most people live a twisted reality i explained how our perception can let us see the world in a totally wrong and even delusional way.
This doesn’t stop here. Humans don’t just see the world incorrectly then develop false beliefs but they sometimes defend those false beliefs eagerly and refuse to accept any evidence that goes against those beliefs. In my article Why do people stick to their incorrect opinions i explained how people stick to their irrational beliefs just because they provide them with some psychological stability.
In other words a person might prefer to live with a wrong belief just because it makes them feel better compared to how they will feel after facing the bitter truth.
So why did i start with such an introduction?
The information in this short introduction is very important in understanding how a large number of people can get delusional at the same.
There are many reported cases of mass hysteria where people believed they got infected with a certain disease , and even displayed symptoms of infection, where as they were perfectly fine. While we don’t see this kind of mass hysteria everyday we still see different forms of it in our daily lives.
How many times you found a very large number of people defending a totally irrational belief?
And how many times those people kept swearing to you that they saw some kind of evidence that supports that weird event?
The simplest example would be the people who claim that they saw aliens and interacted with them. See Why do some people believe they got abducted by aliens.
Here are some reasons why mass hysteria or mass delusions could happen:
- 1) Uncertainty and fear of the unknown: Humans are creatures that fear the unknown and that do their best to make everything predictable. When humans fail to understand something they might get really scared. This kind of fear can motivate them to jump to irrational conclusions just to calm themselves down. Studies have shown that at the times of great uncertainty mass hysteria is more likely to happen
- 2) Excessive stress: When a person gets subjected to excessive stress he is more likely to make irrational conclusions about things or to get delusional. Humans are smart but the problem is that their emotions can sometimes prevent them from using their minds properly
- 3) Reception to suggestions: In the Ultimate guide to developing Super powers i said that the human brain is extremely receptive to suggestions. In one case of mass hysteria children in a school developed the symptoms of a non-existent disease right after a popular kid in school developed those symptoms. In such a case the powerful suggestions were absorbed by the minds of those kids and as a result they believed they got infected by that disease
- 4) Panic leads to irrational thinking: When humans experience panic they tend to think irrationally. Under the effect of panic a suggestion can easily skip to the subconscious mind and turn into a belief
- 5) Attention seeking: According to one suggestion , that seems logical to me, sometimes people would experience mass hysteria to draw attention to the bad conditions they are living in. In such a case if a large number of students were treated badly inside a certain school they might develop mass hysteria to draw attention to such poor conditions
The everyday mass hysteria
Just as i said earlier mass hysteria doesn’t have to appear in the form of a non-existent epidemic but it can appear in the form of an irrational belief adopted by a large group of people who defend it fiercely.
This is why i said earlier that sometimes it’s impossible to negotiate with a certain person or some people simply because the wrong beliefs they have help them maintain their psychological stability.
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A case of Mass hysteria or toxic fumes ?: Considerations for University Administrators
Ruth C. Engs, Professor, Applied Health Science
HPER rm. 116 Indiana University Bloomington, IN 47405
Email: [email protected]
Richard N. McKaig, Dean of Students Indiana University
Bruce Jacobs, Director, Residence Life and Assistant Dean of Students Indiana University
Background information concerning mass collective behavior and psychogenic illness is presented, followed by a case study and implications for staff training.
Psychogenic phenomena are rarely discussed at student affairs, residential life, campus police or health center personnel training. They also may not be recognized by first response teams or university staff when a large group of students suddenly become ill. Lack of recognition of such a phenomena can lead to overextension of medical personnel, costly investigations, increased campus stress and even potential litigation. The purpose of this article is to describe general information and symptomology concerning mass hysteria and psychogenic illness, discuss a case study which occurred in the dining facilities of a women’s residential unit at a large mid- western university, and present implications for training of student affairs administrators and staff.
Information Concerning Mass Collective Behavior and Psychogenic Illness
Kerckhoff and Back (1968) suggest that there are collective human behaviors which produce different kinds of activities and phenomena. These include crowd or mob behaviors, panics, movements, crazes and fads. These types of behaviors often occur under stress or when the ordered reality of a culture or group is disrupted (Conner, 1989). Some examples of these behaviors include mob actions such as lynching a prisoner or beating bystanders during a riot. Other forms include longer term crazes, panics or movements such as Nazism and the Mcarthy era’s hunt for “communists” (Lemkau 1973), the cyclical anti-alcohol and “clean living” movements (Engs 1990), or current investigation of supposed “satanic cults” practicing “ritual child abuse”(Victor 1992). Fads include such behaviors as clothing styles and youth culture activities.
Another type of collective behavior according to Kerckhoff and Back(1968) is a “hysterical contagion”. It consists of the quick dissemination within a collection of people of a symptom, or a set of symptoms, for which no physical explanation can be found. Typical cases today include illness caused by alleged food poisoning, insects bites, toxic fumes, or environmental pollutants for which no pathogenic agent can be found. In this type of collective behavior something happens to affected individuals and they view themselves as victims. This type of behavior is typically referred to as ” mass hysteria” or “mass psychogenic illness”. Mass hysteria is defined as the occurrence in a group of people of a constellation of physical symptoms suggesting an organic illness but resulting from psychological cause (Small and Borus 1983:632). Likewise “mass psychogenic illness” or “contagious psychogenic illness” is defined as the collective occurrence of a set of physical symptoms and related beliefs among several individuals without an identifiable pathogen (Colligan and Murphy 1982:33).
Mass hysteria illnesses have been found throughout history (Sirois 1982; Colligan, Pennebaker and Murphy 1982). Hippocrates, circa 400 BC introduced the term “hysteria” meaning illness caused by a wondering womb. Symptoms included convulsions, twitching, muscle spasms, abdominal cramps nausea,and headaches in unmarried Greek women. Symptoms typically spread quickly to other women in the vicinity of the victim(Sirois 1982; Colligan, Pennebaker and Murphy 1982).
During the Middle Ages, outbreaks of mass psychogenic episodes called the St. Vitus Dance were common. The twitching accompanying this illness was considered a curse due to sinfulness. Later in early colonial America illness among young girls in Salem, MA were attributed to witches curses(Sirois 1982; Colligan, Pennebaker and Murphy 1982). Twentieth century examples of this phenomena have been generally found in factories, the workplace, and in schools. However, about 60 percent of cases reported in English language literature in the past three decades have occurred in schools (Small and Borus, 1983). Today they are most often blamed on “toxic fumes, gasses or chemicals” or “environmental pollutants”. There are numerous examples of this behavior in contemporary society.
Kerckhoff and Back (1968) give a detailed case history in their text, The June Bug. In this classic example, a garment manufacturing plant was shut down because of a mysterious sickness caused by a “bug bite” which affected mostly female workers. The epidemic ran its course in five days. After extensive investigation it was concluded that the illness was psychogenic in nature. In Colligan, Pennebaker and Murphy’s edited volume Mass Psychogenic Illness (1982), many examples of these behaviors, particularly among female factory workers are described. In most cases the victims thought they smelled a “toxic gas or fumes”. Upon investigation, no evidence of toxic gasses was found. During the beginning of the Gulf War, 17 young adolescents and four teachers became sick from “toxic fumes” in their classrooms. However, no toxic gas or pathogen was found (Rockney and Lemke,1992). This lack of a pathogen, upon investigation of the illness, is a primary characteristic of all of mass hysteria episodes.
Symptomology and Characteristics of Mass Psychogenic Illnesses
There is a remarkable similarity between the symptomology of the mass psychogenic illnesses no matter what the triggering event. Some of the major characteristics common to psychogenic illness include:
1. Sudden onset with dramatic symptoms, rapid spread and rapid recovery. All studies reporting psychogenic illness discuss the rapidity of the onset of the illness. Most of these epidemics are gone in a few hours or days. The most effective way to curb the spread of the symptoms is to separate the victim from the group. The attack rate is generally about “8 to 10% in large groups and from 30 to 50% in small groups”(Sirois 1982:225; Sirois 1974).
2. Predominantly young female populations. From 60 to 90% of victims of psychogenic illnesses have “historically been young females” (Colligan and Murphy,1982:41). Groups of females working, living or eating together are most at risk for this behavior. Even if males are present females comprise most of the victims as is illustrated in some of the most recent examples from the literature (Small, Propper, Randolph, Spencer, 1991; Rockney and Lemke, 1992)
3. Victims often know each other or are in the same friendship circles. Observing a friend become sick is the best predictor of the development of symptoms (Small,et al 1991; Colligan, Pennebaker, Murphy 1982;Stahl and Lebedun, 1974)
4. A triggering stimulant. An auditory or visual triggering stimulus is generally found. Victims interpret this stimulus as a toxic fume or gas, tainted food, bug bites or toxic pollutant. Upon investigation, when an odor can even be detected, cleaning solvent, painting, machinery or repair liquids, unfamiliar construction or fumigation odors have sometimes been found (Rockney and Lemke, 1992; Colligan, Pennebaker, Murphy 1982).
5. Apparent transmission by sight, sound or both. Seeing a victim collapse is a predictor of others getting the symptoms (Colligan, Pennebaker, Murphy 1982; Rockney and Lemke 1992; Small and Borus 1983).
6. Negative laboratory or physical findings confirming a specific organic cause or pathogen. The illnesses are “real,” however, there is an absence of any chemical toxin or biological pathogen. The diagnosis of psychogenic illness is generally made after all possible factors have been ruled out. However, it must be kept in mind that victims are often reluctant to accept a diagnosis of mass hysteria or “mass hyperventilation” and sometimes accuse the institution of a “coverup.” In some cases there may be unexpected laboratory results which cause confusion and promote controversy about suspected etiologies (Rockney and Lemke, 1992).
7. Underlying psychological or physical stress. Individual stress from an unfamiliar environment or performance anxiety; social stress including war, rapid technological change, or epidemic diseases; and school and work related stress including the beginning of the school year are common (Sirois 1982;Rockney and Lemke 1992; Colligan, Pennebaker, Murphy, 1992).
8. Boredom, or perceived boredom. Worker boredom with routine tasks has been found in many cases of illness (Kerckhoff and Back 1968).
9. A felt lack of emotional or social support. This is more likely to occur among new members in a collection of people (Kerckhoff and Back, 1968).
10. Unrelated symptoms among a group of individuals affected: hyperventilation or fainting the most common. Other symptoms discussed in the literature include: dizziness, nausea and vomiting, headaches, chest pains, chills, eye or mouth stinging, flushing, hives, convulsions, stinging or paralysis in extremities, swollen and bloody lips, skin disorders, asthma attacks, and disorientation in time/space.
11. Relapse of illness. Relapse of the illnesses among victims in the same setting have sometimes been found to occur (Colligan and Murphy, 1982).
Mass psychogenic illnesses can be a great concern for student affairs administrators and others working with students. The reason is the potential for long term effects resulting from this type of event. If no physical or chemical etiology for the illness can be found and if episodes reoccur, the illness remains a mystery. This unsolved mystery can lead to anxiety, fear, spread of rumor and even possible litigation (Brodsky 1988). Therefore, it is important that individuals working a university environment understand the potential consequences of this psychogenic phenomena. Following is a case study and discussion of case management and staff training issues.
Facility and Staff Responsibilities
The residence center in which the incident occurred is located on a large state-supported midwestern university. The building houses 880 female residents; 70% first year, 15% sophomores, and 15% juniors/seniors. This living unit is comprised of three buildings: two ten story highrises which contain student living space and a center building which houses two dining rooms, a snack bar, a library, a small convenience store, classrooms, meeting rooms, administrative offices and a service desk. The building is 30 years old and has been well maintained. One of the dining rooms had been closed for nine months for renovations.
The center has residence life, housing, and food service staffs. The residence life staff consists of one full-time professional, four graduate assistants, 20 resident assistants, and six diversity advocates. The housing staff is made up of two professionals and seven custodial staff. The food service staff has one manager, one production coordinator, one service coordinator, 15 full-time employees, and 12 hourly workers.
The residence life staff has primary responsibility for intervening in crisis situations. To support the staff’s work in this area, the department offers a comprehensive training program. The program consists of a two-credit hour course and an intensive workshop just prior to the opening of school. Topics covered in the class and the workshop cover a range of issues related to crisis intervention. Among the topics the staff in residence life discusses are: fire safety; tornado evacuation; psychological emergencies; working with assault victims; and intervention by the University Police Department. In all of these instances, the staff members are to support the students involved, assist them as necessary, and seek support of their supervisors as soon as possible.
Description of the Event
The event occurred around 6:00 p.m. during the first week of school(7) when students begin to form support networks(9). (Note: the number(s) that appear in parenthesis in this description of the event are references to the symptomatology and characteristics of mass psychogenic illness detailed in the first section). Students were waiting in the snack bar serving line. The weather during the week had been extremely hot and very humid and most of this all-female (2) residence facility does not have air conditioning. The event began when one individual in the serving area reported to another that she had seen some dusty substance in the air (4,5). Then one of the individuals reported feeling very ill and reported this information to the food manager. Almost immediately other individuals reported similar symptoms (1) and smelling a stench (4). The reported symptoms were: shortness of breath, feeling sick, and eye and skin irritation (10). As students reported feeling sick, they were asked to leave the snack bar area as well as the adjoining dining hall area by food staff members. In order to speed up an evacuation, the students were asked to leave their belongings (i.e. backpacks and books) and to return immediately to their rooms.
A number of the residence life staff were in the immediate area and became involved in the evacuation procedure. They guided students back to their rooms, calmed people and dispensed information. As soon as practical, members of the residence life and dining hall staffs informed their supervisors of the incident. Emergency medical personnel, police, emergency repair crews, and various university administrative staff reported to the scene. The first people to arrive found a large number of students and workers reporting symptoms (the final total was 69 people – approximately 8% (1) of the population).
Although the two residence towers are not connected to the central dining area, the decision was made to evacuate the residence areas. This was accomplished by activating the fire alarm. The entire building was cleared by 6:20 pm. Students who reported being ill were taken by ambulance or bus to the hospital. The other students were directed to the lounge areas of the two nearby residence centers. By 7:30 pm, the emergency crews had investigated all possible sources of toxic leaks and determined that there were no leaks nor were any toxic materials found. Based on this information, and the fact that each residence living space had its own air circulation system, a decision was made that students be allowed to return to their rooms. Before allowing students to return to their rooms, however, a meeting was held at 8:00 p.m. with the Residence Life staff at which the police, university administrators, hospital personnel and emergency personnel updated information and answered questions. The resident assistants were instructed to hold floor meetings, to assess the mood and emotional status of their residents and report their findings at a 10:00 pm meeting. Personnel present at the 8:00 p.m. meeting were also present at this 10:00 p.m.meeting. The residence assistants reported the status of student residents, the staff was given updated information, and questions were addressed.
The dining hall area remained closed the next day to enable a full and thorough investigation. The university risk management staff met with all the students who were hospitalized. This office handles liability exposures and investigates any potential claims that might be filed against the university. They paid the medical expenses for these students. Of the students hospitalized, all but three were treated for hyperventilation (10). An exact cause of their aliments was not determined and two were kept for observation overnight. The full investigation of the physical facility did not identify a toxic substance leak (6). Some construction material and cleaning solutions were found, but were not considered to be toxic. The construction material may have produced a dusty substance in the air and the cleaning solutions may have produced a stench (4). The smell also may have come from cooking equipment.
The local newspaper reported this event on the front page the next day. There were several other reports all mentioning that the university was investigating the source of this problem and that there was no evidence of any toxic chemicals or substances in this unit.
When confronted with this type of illness, calm responsive leadership from staff is essential for monitoring the situation. Protocols for contacting emergency personnel need to be implemented immediately, and as soon as possible those stricken should be separated from those showing no symptoms of the illness. A precautionary evacuation of the area and relocation of members of the group to comfortable areas can help avoid panic reactions. It is important that staff be available, both on site where the illness occurred and in the area where the group is relocated so that communication can be maintained and rumors can be held to a minimum. As the number of those stricken increases, facilities for transporting those who are feeling ill will be severely stretched. If possible, those only moderately affected should be transported to the health care facility using buses or other forms of public conveyance which are quickly available. Those experiencing the most acute symptoms will require the attention of emergency medical personnel for transport.
As soon as all victims have been removed from the area, staff should seal off the facility and cooperate with emergency personnel as they conduct their initial investigation to determine the cause of the illness. It is also useful to have staff available to manage the many on-lookers that are likely to come to the scene as emergency vehicles collect around the facility. The manner in which the on-lookers are dealt with can assist in setting a tone of calm and control, as well as limit the number of unsubstantiated rumors that spread regarding the incident. Staff should also be assigned to go to the hospital or health care facility treating those stricken to ensure communication back to the campus and to assist students at the hospital with non-medical concerns including transportation back to campus, contact with concerned friends, and responding to questions regarding when students will be allowed to return to their residence hall rooms.
While the emergency services personnel are conducting their initial assessment of the area in which the illness occurred, access to the facility will likely be under their control. Depending upon the amount of time that a preliminary investigation takes, several alternative strategies should be considered. University staff working as a team should begin considering alternatives for responding to requests from the media for information on the incident, for providing alternative lodging or dining facilities that may be necessary, for educating support staff on the actual nature of the incident, and for informing student residents of actions that will be taken in response to the incident. It is appropriate that one media spokesperson be designated. This person should be readily available to respond to questions with as much information as possible. This is especially important in cases where physical causes for the illnesses are not identified because there will be a tendency to mistrust statements which seem to minimize the danger because of the “real” symptoms experienced by the victims.
When emergency personnel have completed their assessment of the extent and nature of the problem on site, specific decisions can be made regarding return of residents to the facility. In the case study presented, it was decided to close the dining facility for an additional 24 hours so that a more thorough investigation could be completed, although it appeared unlikely that a physical cause for the incident would be identified. The more extensive assessment, and the precautionary evacuation completed shortly after the incident began suggested a tone of thoroughness and care that helped reduce anxiety.
As plans were made to return students to the facility, it was helpful to use medical personnel, environmental hazard officers, and fire safety officers to brief staff on the results of their preliminary investigation. Staff members were assured that it was safe to return to the facility, and precautionary measures being taken in the next 24 hours were discussed. Information was provided on how to respond to questions about the condition of those stricken and what to do if additional students experienced similar symptoms during the next few hours. It was important that support staff communicated that information to residents in small groups so that individual student’s questions could be answered, and residents could know who to contact if they perceived additional problems. It also proved beneficial to have the students returning to the facility contact their parents because reports of the incident were spread through the state-wide media. As soon as possible, university risk management personnel or the appropriate office for the institution, should provide information as to who will be responsible for the medical costs incurred by individuals stricken. Since medical payments and liability concerns are often handled differently from institution to institution, it is recommended that legal advice be obtained from the institution’s counsel when formulating this portion of a risk management plan. Having an answer that is supported by others in the institution and can be clearly communicated to students and parents will help to diffuse some of the problems after the event.
In the days following the incident, questions will remain as to what caused of the illness, what safeguards are there to prevent a reoccurrence, and what assurances are there that the facility is now safe. Answers to these questions when no physical cause is identified, as is the case in a mass psychogenic illness, must focus on building confidence that adequate care has been taken. Inquiries can be expected from students, parents, and the media. The ease with which individuals with questions can receive a reply from an appropriate university spokesperson can affect the level of trust perceived in the answers given. It is appropriate that at the end of the professional investigation of the incident, a report be issued to all interested parties. Because indeed the symptoms experienced by the victims were real, it is important to acknowledge that. Especially in cases of mass psychogenic illness, a coordinated staff response is essential for minimizing the disruption to the student community.
IMPLICATIONS FOR STAFF TRAINING
Incidents such as that described in the case study reinforce the importance of staff training for coping with emergency situations. Most residence life programs provide training for fire emergencies, weather related emergencies, individual illness and emotional or psychological stress. The use of case studies involving mass psychogenic illness would be a worthwhile addition to those training efforts. It is important, however, that at the onset when the true cause of the symptoms is unknown that staff proceed in a similar manner as would be used with other mass illness situations which are the result of an identifiable physical cause.
Staff training should emphasize the importance of good communication during emergency situations and the importance of controlling rumors with accurate information. Periodic evaluation of the coordination of emergency response services on and off campus should also occur (For one model, see the concept of a trauma response team as discussed by Scott, Fukuyama, Dunkel, & Griffin, 1992). Residence life staff should be involved in that evaluation and review process so that there is a familiarity with response protocols. Familiarity with the phenomena of mass psychogenic illness and recognition of the symptomology and characteristics of this type of event should be discussed in training so that staff can anticipate those occasions when additional vigilance is appropriate. Adequate training and a plan for action in response to mass psychogenic events can help in their overall resolution.
While incidents such as these are relatively rare, the response of staff will set a tone that has an impact on the community well beyond the short term perceived critical nature of the illness.
Brodsky, C.M. (1988) The psychiatric epidemic in the American workplace. Occupational Medicine, 3(4), 653-62.
Connor, J.W. (1989) From ghost dance to death camps: Nazi Germany as a crisis cult. Ethos, 17(3), 259-288.
Engs, R.C. (1991) Resurgence of a New “Clean Living” Movement in the United States, Journal of School Health, 61(4), 155-159.
Kerckhoff, A.C., and Back, R.W. (1968) The June bug: a study of hysterical contagion, New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.
Lemkau, P.V., (1973) On the epidemiology of hysteria. Psychiatric Forum, 3(2), 1-14.
Sirois, F. (1974) Epidemic hysteria. Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica, 252, 44.
Stahl, S.M., Lebedun, M. (1974) Mystery gas: An analysis of mass hysteria. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 15(1), 44-50.
Victor, J.S. (1992) Ritual abuse and the moral crusade against satanism. Special Issue: Satanic ritual abuse: The current stage of knowledge. Journal of Psychology and Theology, 20(3),
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Last week, loud popping sounds triggered a frightening chain of events at J.F.K. Airport. Mass panic spread through two terminals as travelers ran toward exits, sought cover under tables, and broke through secure doors to escape what they believed was a terrorist attack. Given conflicting guidance by security officers and no official directives, many people followed the cues of the mob and ran out onto the tarmac. Eventually, an announcement over the public address system ordered everyone to abandon their bags and evacuate with their hands above their heads. The source of the popping sound, which some attributed to gunfire, was never determined.
Six weeks earlier, on June 26, I was walking toward a security checkpoint at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, preparing to board a flight home. After two announcements requesting that a passenger return to the check-in counter for an unattended bag, an armed guard stepped in front of me, blew a whistle and shouted, “Run that way” as he pointed behind me. Oddly, my first thought was about missing my flight. After a few seconds, I felt afraid and walked swiftly toward the exit with the rest of the crowd. Several minutes later, we heard a loud boom. We were then informed over the loud speaker that the emergency was over. One of the officers told us that the bomb squad had exploded a suspicious, unattended bag. My plane took off on time with me on it.
Why was there panic at J.F.K. and calm in Charles de Gaulle? One difference between the incidents was the immediate response of local authorities. Lapses in communication among law enforcement agencies in New York appeared to fuel the panic, and travelers were left to their own instincts on how to respond. By contrast, in Paris we received rapid, informed direction from police who showed a coordinated response.
The emotional temperature should have been lower in New York than in Paris. It’s been 15 years since the attacks on the World Trade Center, while France has been lashed by more than a dozen brutal terrorist strikes since the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris in January 2015. You might think that the increasing frequency of terrorism in France would make people jumpier and more hysterical when faced with an immediate threat. But the opposite was true. Repeated exposure to any stressful situation will desensitize people and cause them to be less emotionally reactive, which might explain the relative calm during the Paris airport event.
Incidents of mass panic or hysteria depend on the mood of the crowd at the time an episode occurs. Over the past 30 years, I have studied many outbreaks of mass panic and hysteria. In all of them, the common denominator is a backdrop of anxiety and stress. Fear and anxiety can spread from person to person like a contagious disease. When people are predisposed to overreact to any fearful stimulus, mass hysteria can instantaneously take over a crowd.
Social contagion can occur anywhere that groups of people gather, and they aren’t limited to the fear of terrorist attacks. I have investigated incidents where large groups of people became ill because they were convinced that an environmental threat was causing them real physical symptoms — headache, pain, numbness, fainting — even when no actual threat existed. On May 20, 1981, elementary school students in Templeton, Mass., were afflicted with nausea, abdominal pain, and shortness of breath during two school assemblies. Following extensive searches, investigators concluded that the illness resulted from a psychological rather than a physical cause.
Sometimes such illnesses can persist for days. Most of the time, though, once the afflicted crowd disperses, the symptoms disappear, probably because they are only “contagious” when new victims observe others falling ill. Rumors about the causes of these outbreaks are common and spread quickly through neighboring communities via social media.
The J.F.K. episode did not involve social contagion of psychosomatic symptoms, but rather the spread of panic, fear, and false beliefs. These have contributed to mass hysteria outbreaks recorded as far back as the Middle Ages, when nuns in isolated convents would meow together at specific times of day for no reason.
On October 30, 1938, many listeners believed that Martians were invading the United States as they listened to Orson Welles do his “The War of the Worlds” radio dramatization. In 1944, residents of Mattoon, Ill., believed that a “phantom gasser” was spraying poisonous mist into the bedroom windows of teenage girls, causing nausea, vomiting, and burning sensations in their mouths and throats.
In the early 1950s, when people in the state of Washington were on edge about nuclear testing, many believed that cosmic rays or shifts in the Earth’s magnetic field were causing previously unnoticed windshield pits or dings in their cars. Some even blamed it on “supernatural gremlins.” These examples show how a worried group can misinterpret physical phenomena and environmental cues that might otherwise go unnoticed.
In this new era of terrorism, we have a lot to worry about. My guess is that we can expect to observe more of these episodes. Thanks to almost daily reports of terrorist attacks, we’re told to be ever more vigilant of anything suspicious or out of the ordinary. Such attentiveness has saved many lives since 9/11. But at the same time we need more effective ways of stopping the spread of rumors and false beliefs of imminent threats.
When we face uncertainty, our minds crave explanations. Because of the regular and graphic accounts of terrorist explosions and gunfire that can occur almost anywhere — airports, malls, city streets, or concerts — a loud popping sound is no longer interpreted as a burst balloon or an engine backfire but as a signal to flee from impending danger.
In today’s frenzied, digitally connected world, anxiety and panic can spread farther and faster than ever before. We need countermeasures to calm rising fears. Many blame the media for fueling fear and panic, but an important job of the press is to inform the public of events as they emerge. Although sensationalized headlines can sometimes fuel social contagion of panic, the media also have the ability to quell mass fear.
Because we are living in a new era of terrorism, we need new action plans that will help authorities pool resources so they can inform us of real danger and also manage benign events so they aren’t misinterpreted as threats and cause unnecessary mass panic. Policy makers, public health officials, and national and local authorities must become more effective in using social media to inform those at risk about real threats and sensible responses. Just as many know the Heimlich maneuver and CPR to address individual medical emergencies, the public needs a menu of coordinated plans of action to help avert future outbreaks of mass panic.
Truth and knowledge trump anxiety and fear any day.
Gary W. Small, MD, is a professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences and aging at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. He has written about his research on social contagion and mass hysteria in The New England Journal of Medicine and in his book (coauthored with Gigi Vorgan), “The Other Side of the Couch” (Harper Collins, New York, 2010). He consults with several companies involved in marketing, manufacturing, and/or developing drugs to treat Alzheimer’s disease: Activis, Allergan, Axovant, Forum, Janssen, Lilly, Novartis, Ostuka, and Pfizer.
Mass Hysteria in America
In the 1400s, a nun in a French convent started making sounds like a cat. Other nuns began to do the same. Eventually, they started biting one another. As word of the bitings spread, so, too, did the bitings. They swept through other convents all the way to Rome.
In July of 1518, people in Strasbourg, then part of the Holy Roman Empire, began dancing. It started with Frau Troffea. Others began to join in, and soon there were 400 dancers. Some died as a result of the nonstop dancing that went on for a month. They could not stop.
In 1692, colonists in New England began having fits. Demonic possession was a suggestion. The epileptic-like fits led to the Salem witch trials. In 2008 in Tanzania, female students started fainting for no reason. In 2011, students in Le Roy, N.Y., developed Tourette’s-like symptoms that went unexplained.
History is riddled with episodes of mass hysteria. Sometimes those episodes of mass hysteria lead to evil. Sometimes they lead to merely bizarre stories. But society, on occasion, has fits of hysteria and insanity burning like wildfire through it. The wildfire eventually burns out, but it often leaves destruction in its wake.
The United States of America and much of the West are currently in a fit of hysteria. A wildfire is burning through it. Up is down. Down is up. Good is evil. Evil is good. Wrong is right, and right is wrong. Boys can suddenly be girls. Sex and gender are suddenly different things. And Justice Anthony Kennedy believes that because someone may look at the horizon and find loneliness, the Constitution guarantees him the right to marry another man.
Leave aside the fact that any judge who can redefine a multi-thousand-year-old institution on a whim has more power than our Founders would want. Our society is going through a round of hysteria.
For many in the country, they feel compelled to board up the windows, batten down the hatches and wait for this latest round of collective hysteria to run its course. Wildfires always run out of fuel. Nature or God, whichever your preference, sorts these things out.
Along the way, society is forgetting why we are organized as we are. G.K. Chesterton wrote of the “democracy of the dead.” He wrote, “Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father.”
Marriage arrived at what it has been through either divine fiat or trial and error. In the same way, our ancestors structured society to have people rely on themselves, each other, their local churches and their local governments for help. Now, the same madness sweeping through on marriage demands we get right to polyamory and scrap tax breaks for religious nonprofits. It is not a war on marriage, but a war on a way of life itself. If one dares bring fact into the mix, they are shouted down, boycotted and driven from the town square.
There is also a relentless desire to make those who recognize the madness think they are alone. Voices of dissent must be silenced. You must think you are all alone so that you might decide to go along to get along. The media elite are in cahoots with the censors, having picked a side now declared a “fundamental right,” and you are not to know others disagree with elite consensus.
But you are not alone. Wildfires eventually burn out. The question for you is not whether you take a break from it all and step back to protect your family. The question for you is whether, after you do step back, you prepare yourself to step forward into the rubble, smoke and char to help rebuild civilization once the fire burns itself out.
Erick Erickson is the Editor-in-Chief of RedState.com.
Why are Females Prone to Mass Hysteria?
It sounds sexist, and it’s sure to raise the ire of some feminists, but the literature does not lie. Throughout history, groups of people in cohesive social units have suddenly fallen ill or exhibited strange behaviors, from headaches and fainting spells to twitching, shaking and trance states. But whether it’s an outbreak of spirit possession at a shoe factory in Malaysia, a collapsing marching band at a school gala in England or a twitching epidemic in a Louisiana high school, the pattern is invariably the same. Most, and often all of those affected, are females. In fact, of the 2,000+ cases in my files which date back to 1566, this pattern holds true over ninety-nine percent of the time.
Mass Hysteria 101
The scientific name for outbreaks is conversion disorder, a term used by Sigmund Freud to describe the converting of psychological conflict and distress into aches and pains that have no physical basis. While the mechanism is poorly understood, there is no question that it happens. A classic example is the pacifist whose arm freezes when trying to fire a gun in combat, or the witness to an atrocity who experiences temporary blindness, yet the eye structure is in perfect working order. Occasionally, conversion disorder spreads within groups. Think of mass hysteria as the Placebo Effect in reverse. If people can think themselves better, they can make themselves sick. Part of the confusion surrounding the term is that it is often used to describe unrelated behaviors. Social panics. Share market sell-offs. Riots. The Communist ‘Red’ Scare. Rock concert stampedes. Each have been wrongly identified as group hysteria.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that women are the weaker sex or prone to mental problems. Mass hysteria is not a mental disorder – it’s a collective stress response that unfortunately has a stigma attached to it. This is especially true of the name. During the nineteenth century, hysteria was a catch-all term to describe everything from panic attacks to mood disorders and schizophrenia. The diagnosis of hysteria was once used by the male-dominated medical profession to reinforce the notion that females are emotionally unstable. The issue of hysteria is still a sensitive one. Just ask any feminist scholar in the heat of an impassioned debate, to “dial down the hysterics,” and see what happens! But the core question is not if, but why females, are more susceptible to mass hysteria? Explanations fall into two broad camps—nature and nurture.
The Case for Nature
Critics of the nature hypothesis point out that in parts of Africa, Asia and the Middle East where outbreaks are common, females live repressive, submissive lives. They are often told who they can marry, and may require their husband’s permission just to leave the home. Yet Canadian psychiatrist Francois Sirois believes the answer lies not in society’s treatment of females, but their biology. He analyzed 45 school outbreaks from around the world, and found that girls near puberty are most frequently affected. Sirois observes that outbreaks in Western schools, affect girls at about the same rate as those in other parts of the world, despite the social conditions being fairly uniform for both sexes. Many psychogenic conditions are more common in females, including individual cases of conversion disorder, and globus hystericus, a feeling of a lump in the throat that produces a sensation of choking.
The Case for Nurture
As a sociologist, I believe that social and cultural factors can explain the mass hysteria gender gap. While adolescent girls are more frequently affected in schools, workplace outbreaks rarely involve females near puberty. Women are over represented in the types of mind-numbing jobs which produce dissatisfaction. Sociologist Alan Kerckhoff observes that according to industrial folklore, females are better than males at tedious, boring, repetitious tasks. Hence, women are often hired to fill these jobs. The result is a hotbed of tension and frustration.
Western females are also socialized to cope with stress differently than males. British psychiatrist Simon Wessely says that females are more likely to talk to each other about their symptoms, which can spread outbreaks. It is well-known that women are more likely to seek medical attention than men. Similar female character traits are evident in most non-Western countries. Working women may also experience gender role strain and conflict arising from having to balance the demands of their traditional domestic duties.
Insights from Anthropology
In many less developed countries, close-knit groups under great stress, enter trance and possession states where they can do and say things that they ordinarily would not get away with as they are thought to be in the company of gods and spirits. Anthropologists call these possession cults. Most group members are women living in male dominated societies. Sometimes alone, but often in groups, they will exhibit twitching, shaking and anxiety-related ailments that parallel outbreaks of mass hysteria in African and Asian girls’ schools where students dare not criticize authorities. During outbreaks girls may insult school officials and demand change. They have even spat on and slapped their superiors in the face – with no repercussions. The students are able to escape punishment because their actions are blamed on the possessing spirits who are believed to be talking through them. Often local healers are called in to rid the premises of demons who are thought to be causing the symptoms. These shamans often enter trances states and claim to communicate with the ‘other side’ to air their grievances. In reality, they reflect the complaints of the girls. Many anthropologists believe that mass hysteria and spirit possession in Asia and Africa are culturally appropriate ways of indirectly negotiating problems – a form of subconscious collective bargaining.
What’s in a Name?
Perhaps the diagnosis of mass hysteria would be more accepted if we distanced ourselves from its sexist roots and renamed it ‘collective stress response.’ But regardless of the name, and while it may not be politically correct, there is no denying that it is an overwhelmingly female phenomenon.
Mass hysteria: An epidemic of the mind?
Mass hysteria is also described as a “conversion disorder,” in which a person has physiological symptoms affecting the nervous system in the absence of a physical cause of illness, and which may appear in reaction to psychological distress.
Because mass hysteria, or collective obsessional behavior, can take so many different forms, it is very difficult to provide a clear definition for it, or to characterize it with confidence.
In a seminal article he published on this topic, Prof. Simon Wessley — from King’s College London in the United Kingdom — also notes that mass hysteria has been used to describe such ” wide variety of crazes, panics, and abnormal group beliefs” that defining it is particularly tricky.
Still, he suggests that in characterizing a phenomenon as an instance of mass hysteria, we should aim to guide ourselves by five principles:
- that “it is an outbreak of abnormal illness behavior that cannot be explained by physical disease”
- that “it affects people who would not normally behave in this fashion”
- that “it excludes symptoms deliberately provoked in groups gathered for that purpose,” such as when someone intentionally gathers a group of people and convinces them that they are collectively experiencing a psychological or physiological symptom
- that “it excludes collective manifestations used to obtain a state of satisfaction unavailable singly, such as fads, crazes, and riots”
- that “the link between the must not be coincidental,” meaning, for instance, that they are all part of the same close-knit community
Prof. Wessley also believes that mass hysteria should not be confused with “moral panic.” This is a sociological concept that refers to the phenomenon of masses of people becoming distressed about a perceived — usually unreal or exaggerated — threat portrayed in catastrophizing terms by the media.
Different types of mass hysteria?
In his article, Prof. Wessley goes even further, arguing that — based on the instances of mass hysteria documented in specialized literature — this phenomenon actually refers to two “syndromes” with somewhat different characteristics.
He calls these two types of collective obsessional behavior “mass anxiety hysteria” and “mass motor hysteria.”
The first kind, he says, is marked by physiological symptoms consistent with those experienced in the case of anxiety. These can include: abdominal pain, chest tightness, dizziness, fainting, headaches, hyperventilation, nausea, and heart palpitations.
The second kind of mass hysteria, on the other hand, is characterized by seizure-like events (pseudoseizures), apparent partial paralysis (pseudoparesis), or other symptoms that alter a person’s motor function in a specific way.
Are women most affected?
Medical sociologist Robert Bartholomew has reviewed some of the most prominent cases of mass hysteria in his book Little Green Men, Meowing Nuns and Head-Hunting Panics.
Share on PinterestAre women more likely to be affected by collective obsessional behavior?
His research seems to indicate one thing: that instances of mass hysteria are most prominently experienced by groups of women.
But why would that be the case? And does it mean that women are somehow “hardwired” to fall prey to such mass “epidemics?” Some researchers argue that women may be more exposed to collective obsessional behavior because they are typically exposed to more stressful situations.
Physical symptoms of disease could provide a nonconfrontational way out of an overwhelming situation. Bartholomew notes, for example, that in a stressful or even abusive work context, mass hysteria and its accompanying symptoms can provide a means of putting up resistance and forging a way out.
Similarly, Christian Hempelmann — from Texas A&M University-Commerce — who has taken an interest in mass hysteria, suggests that these group manifestations are effective and nonconfrontational.
“The way to get out of is to show symptoms of disease and to be allowed not to have to endure the situation any longer,” he believes.
However, the word “hysteria” itself is fraught with problems and has a “bumpy,” highly controversial history. It is derived from the Greek word “hystera,” meaning “uterus,” thereby attaching the condition specifically to women.
Uses of the word have historically been so imprecise, and the term has gained such negative connotations — used to describe any violent outburst of emotion — that it was “retired” by the American Psychiatric Association in 1952.
“Hysteria” is no longer used to describe any existent psychological condition, and more specific terms are instead employed to refer to a wide range of conditions that fell, in the past, under the large umbrella of this name.
As a consequence of this, any claims that mass hysteria could be a phenomenon that applies most prominently to women becomes questionable, especially considering the heterogeneous nature of such events and how difficult it is to categorize them.
Recent instances of mass hysteria
Though occurrences of mass hysteria have been documented throughout history, they do not seem to have become less common with the passage of time and the advent of technology that supports the rapid flux of information.
A number of intriguing events involving collective experiences of psychological and physiological symptoms have been referred to as instances of mass hysteria over the past 50 years or so. And some of the most recent occurrences have even been tied to the perils of social media.
Laughter epidemics and penis panics
In 1962, in a village in Tanganyika — now Tanzania — a girl at a boarding school suddenly started laughing…and was unable to stop. Her laughing fit quickly produced a “laughing epidemic” among her schoolmates, which became of such magnitude that the school had to be shut down.
Share on PinterestA ‘laughing epidemic’ that started in a school in 1962 ‘eventually spread to the larger population.’
Upon sending all the girls home, the epidemic spread to the wider community, and it only began to fade after 2 years from the start of the outbreak.
Notoriously, in Singapore in 1967, hundreds of men became convinced that eating pork meat taken from a series of vaccinated pigs would lead to penis shrinkage or disappearance, and potentially death.
This “penis panic,” or “koro,” required a concerted effort from the country’s government to educate the male population about their genital organs to convince them that their conviction was not, and could not, be true.
In autumn 2001, children in elementary and middle schools across the United States experienced a strange symptom: their skin would break out in rashes, but only while they were in school. At home, their symptoms would promptly disappear.
In the media, this phenomenon was linked to the impact of the tragic events of September 11, and the children’s symptoms were taken as a mass psychosomatic reaction to the feelings associated with trauma that permeated the U.S. at the time.
More recently, in 2006, teenagers in Portugal started to present to hospital with dizziness, rashes, and breathing difficulties.
Share on PinterestNowadays, social media may contribute to the spread of collective obsessional behavior.
After the doctors could find no physical cause for these symptoms, some investigative work found an intriguing parallel: these were the same symptoms that were experienced by a character in a popular soap opera for young people, Strawberries With Sugar (Morangos com Açúcar, in Portugese).
This is why the phenomenon came to be known as the “strawberries with sugar virus.”
Finally, the most fresh instance of alleged mass hysteria took place as recently as 2012, when teenage girls from the small town of LeRoy, NY, started to exhibit symptoms similar to those seen in Tourette’s syndrome — such as uncontrollable jerks of the limbs and verbal outbreaks — though the doctors were unable to find a clear cause for them.
This epidemic started when a girl posted a video of herself on YouTube, in which she documented an episode of such symptoms. Until recently, this girl had shown no sign of Tourette’s.
The video went viral, and many more teenage girls started to display the same symptoms. A teenage boy and a 36-year-old woman were also “infected.”
When the woman explained that she started having these symptoms after she learned of the girl’s story on Facebook, this led to speculation about social media’s potential role in advancing mass hysteria in the present day.
So, is mass hysteria an epidemic of the mind, leading to symptoms in the body, which is spread via social contact? This question is still under debate, but if it is so, the advent of social media is a likely vehicle for the spread of such “viruses.”
In any case, instances of reported mass hysteria do highlight one consideration: that it is just as important to preserve our inner well-being as it is to look after our physical health.
And the messages we ingest — through what we read, watch, or hear — may affect our well-being in unsuspected ways.