7 Mysterious Mass Illnesses That Defied Explanation

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.

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