This week’s entry: Mass hysteria
What it’s about: It was Sir Isaac Newton who proved conclusively that misery loves company. A lesser-known maxim is that insanity also loves company, as evidenced by incidents throughout history where large groups of people just plain went nuts. Sometimes it’s irrational fear that whips people into a frenzy, but sometimes there’s no explanation, other than that people are strange.
Strangest fact: Medieval nuns were crazy! One of the earliest recorded incidents of mass hysteria involved a French convent where some nuns began meowing like cats. Soon all of the sisters joined in, and they were meowing in unison for several hours a day. Eventually the adjacent town had to call soldiers in to force the “cat nuns” to stop their caterwauling.
Meanwhile, in 15th-century Germany, a nun started routinely biting her fellow sisters and somehow started a trend. Nuns biting nuns swept the continent, being reported as far away as Italy. It’s bizarre to the point of being pretty impressive that the nun’s behavior essentially went viral, giving the very limited travel and communication of the era.
Biggest controversy: In 1938, there was a violent criminal on the loose in Halifax, England. Or was there? Two women claimed to have been attacked by a mallet-wielding man with buckles on his shoes. More reports poured in over the next few weeks, of the same man attacking people with a knife, sometimes assaulting multiple victims at once. The local police were helpless to find the Halifax Slasher or prevent additional attacks and called in Scotland Yard. Finally, one of the later victims admitted his wounds were self-inflicted, and he was merely seeking attention. Others came forward with similar stories, and investigators concluded that the Slasher had never existed—everyone had lied. (Four of them ended up going to jail.)
Thing we were happiest to learn: Our mothers are finally vindicated, after telling us that watching so many cartoons was bad for us. A 1997 episode of Pokémon included a repeated flashing red and blue image that caused a strobe effect that induced seizures or other symptoms in roughly 12,000 children who viewed the episode. Only one in 4,000 people is susceptible to these kinds of seizures, so it’s unclear how the cartoon could have affected so many people.
Live-action TV can also be dangerous, as evidenced by a 2006 incident when over 300 teens at schools all over Portugal came down with a mysterious illness exactly like the one they had seen on Morangos Com Açúcar (Strawberries With Sugar) earlier in the week. The fictional disease wasn’t solely in the kids’ heads, as the symptoms contained a rash as well as dizziness and breathing problems.
Thing we were unhappiest to learn: Despite what Men Without Hats would have you believe, dancing isn’t always terribly safe. In 1518, the town of Strasbourg (then part of the Holy Roman Empire) was struck with dance fever. Or more accurately, dancing mania. People started dancing and didn’t stop. Some danced for days on end without rest. By the end of the month-long Dancing Plague, several people had died of exhaustion. Strangely, it was far from an isolated incident, as there were sporadic outbreaks of dancing mania across Europe from the 14th to 17th centuries.
Also noteworthy: Schools seem to be breeding grounds for mass hysteria, with psychosomatic symptoms often spreading quickly among middle school or high school students. One school in Basel, Switzerland, had 20 students suffering unexplained seizures, then a dozen years later, the malady returned with a different group of students, familiar with the legend of the previous generation’s hysteria. In Kashasha, Tanzania, in 1962, three girls at a boarding school started laughing uncontrollably, and 95 of the school’s 159 teenage students joined in, with fits of laughter lasting from a few hours to a few weeks.
Stress was often a factor, as with 21 elementary school girls in Welsh, Louisiana, in 1962, who broke into seizures at a time when the school was closely monitoring older girls’ sexual activity and were rumored to give mandatory pregnancy tests. (Wikipedia gives no clue as to why the younger girls were affected and not the older ones who were actually subject to scrutiny.) Three years later, 85 girls at a school in Blackburn, England, suffered dizziness and other symptoms not long after a polio outbreak left the town emotionally raw, and the day after a three-hour parade exhausted the students.
One of the most widespread outbreaks was the West Bank fainting epidemic, in which 943 teenage Palestinian girls and a few female Israeli soldiers, complained of nausea and fainting spells. Both Israel and Palestine accused the other side of using chemical warfare, but health officials concluded that, while an environmental irritant may have caused early cases, at least 80 percent were caused by mass hysteria.
Even more students were affected by a 2012 incident in Sri Lanka that spread to 15 schools, in which 1,900 students and a few teachers suffered rashes, dizziness, and vomiting; 1,100 of them were hospitalized, and the hysteria started to spread to other parts of the country before dying down.
Further down the wormhole: The most infamous incident of mass hysteria was the Salem witch trials. While the outline of the story is almost universally known—a strictly religious colonial-era town embarked on a series of literal and figurative witch hunts based on paranoia and superstition—the popular imagination is full of misconceptions. Most of the trials didn’t take place in Salem, and no one was burned at the stake. We’ll take our chances with the devil and murderous Puritans next week.