Mass sociogenic illness – also known as mass hysteria, epidemic hysteria or hysterical contagion – occurs when symptoms without a clear medical cause spread among members of a community. “Think of it as the placebo effect in reverse,” says Dr Robert Bartholomew, Honorary Lecturer, Department of Psychological Medicine, University of Auckland.
For centuries, human societies have sought to identify the cause of mass hysteria. The Salem Witch Trials accused women of witchcraft. At the height of World War II anxiety, residents of Mattoon, Illinois feared a rogue agent wielding poison gas. “Mass hysteria and social panics are barometers of the times and reflect our collective fears,” says Bartholomew. The imaginary causes behind these real symptoms reveal the anxieties of each era. Here are seven such cases throughout history.
1. The Dancing Plague of 1518
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It all started one summer day in Strasbourg when Frau Troffea started dancing in the streets and didn’t stop for almost a week. In the space of a month, 400 citizens of the city in eastern France were afflicted with the urge to dance until they dropped. And that’s what they did – strokes, heart attacks and exhaustion.
Authorities blamed the trance state on “hot blood” and demanded that the afflicted dance day and night to exorcise their demons, even building a stage and hiring dancers and musicians. This led to an even greater frenzy. Versions of the dancing plague spread through Germany, Holland and Switzerland.
Some historians have proposed that the dancers accidentally ingested ergot, a toxic mold linked to spasms, but that would not explain the incredible endurance of their seizures. Others point to the stress of disease and famine sweeping the region and an impressionable population who believed in the “dancing curse” of St. Vitus.
2. The Salem Witch Trials, 1692-1693
In January 1692, nine-year-old Elizabeth Parris and her cousin, 11-year-old Abigail Williams, began having convulsions in the village of Salem: “These children have been bitten and pinched by unseen agents…Sometimes, they were taken dumb, their mouths stopped, their throats choked, their limbs torn and tormented,” wrote a local clergyman.
A doctor called to the scene proclaimed the cousins bewitched; soon, the girls in the village of Salem had seizures. Searching for a scapegoat, the Salem witch trials pitted neighbor against neighbor: “The village of Salem has suffered from extreme factionalism that has centered around its controversial minister, Samuel Parris, and fears of waning religious fervor,” says Emerson Baker, author of a storm of witchcraft: the Salem trials and the American experience. “People worried whether or not the new government would be able to defend the colony from the devastating border war that Massachusetts had lost to the French and their Native American allies. This happened just as a deadly smallpox was ending. Hunger and inflation were rampant thanks to the extreme temperatures of the “Little Ice Age” which decimated crops.
Blame was focused on the town’s unpopular women (and six men), beginning with Tituba, a female slave of House Parris, and extending to residents perceived as “other” or threatening the fragile status quo. Salem’s last “witch” has been pardoned 329 years after her conviction.
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3. The handwriting tremor epidemic of 1892
In 1892, the hands of schoolgirls in Groß Tinz, Germany began to shake uncontrollably when they tried to write. Some suffered from amnesia and altered consciousness. The following year, students in Basel, Switzerland began to shake.
“The writing tremor of late 19th century Europe was the direct result of a new method of teaching that viewed the mind as a muscle that needed exercise,” says Dr Bartholomew. The tedious and repetitive exercises took a heavy physical toll on the students. “It was a subconscious way out of dreaded writing lessons,” Bartholomew says.
4. The Mad Gasser of Mattoon 1944
At the height of World War II paranoia, the town of Mattoon, Illinois was filled with reports of a mysterious man spraying gas at unsuspecting victims. The first was Aline Kearney, who described “a foul, sweet smell in the bedroom” which led to “paralysis of the legs and lower body”. When Kearney’s husband came home from work that evening, he saw a stranger outside their house. The Kearneys’ story ran on the front page of the local newspaper, which proclaimed there was an “‘Anesthetic Prowler’ on Loose.” Soon, the whole city was filled with reports of similar sightings and symptoms. The only thing that traveled faster was news of the prowler, which made world headlines and incited panic. The mysterious assailant was never found.
5. The bug epidemic of June 1962
In June 1962, 60 workers at an American textile factory began to suffer from bizarre symptoms: rashes, nausea and numbness. The media quickly latched onto the story, calling it a “June bug plague” for insects that workers said were making them sick. Yet entomologists called to the scene found no trace of June bugs.
Psychologists who interviewed the sick workers found that more than 90% of the victims worked the same shift, most worked overtime and 50 of them only started reporting their symptoms after seeing media coverage of the outbreak. Stress, coupled with the power of suggestion, were the likely culprits.
6. The Tanganyika Laughter Epidemic, 1962
Following sweeping changes after a hard-won fight for independence from Britain in 1961, the East African territory now known as Tanzania closed its schools for weeks as dozens schoolgirls found themselves unable to stop laughing. By the end of the epidemic, more than 1,000 people had been wiped out and four schools were forced to close temporarily. It was no laughing matter; the stressed students also had skin rashes, fainting spells and breathing problems. The official diagnosis was mass hysteria.
7. Ape men in India, 2001
Power outages rocked Delhi during a heat wave in May 2001. Residents seeking relief from the heat by sleeping on their roofs began reporting attacks by a mysterious creature that appeared to be both a monkey and a man. The victims, mostly men of low socioeconomic status, came to doctors with puzzling wounds like bite marks. Two people died falling from fear, one from a roof, the other down a staircase. A police-commissioned medical report revealed the injuries were self-inflicted and hysteria was inflamed by media images and out-of-control gossip scaring residents.
Demonic possession, crazed gassers, and ape-men may seem easy to ridicule, but the fears and pain caused by these panics were real. “Mass sociogenic disease diagnosis by public health officials often elicits public controversy and outcry because there is a stigma … that victims are mentally disturbed, “crazy,” or faked. That’s not true,” says Barthélemy. “Mass sociogenic disease is driven by belief. We all have beliefs, so we are all potential victims.
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