Human psychology is extremely complex. Having said that, we cannot deny that even animals have complex psychology but, humans are unique because they are the ones that have been, through history and time, vulnerable to mass hysteria. Well, let us begin by defining mass hysteria.
So, what is mass hysteria?
It is a condition or rather, better put, a situation where masses of people suddenly show weird psychological and physical symptoms. Interestingly, the condition begins with a few and then spreads rapidly to capture a large mass of people, often engulfing entire cities and sometimes whole country!
Some of the psychological and physical symptoms of mass hysteria include muscle weakness, dizziness, fits, fainting and uncontrolled laughter. These are just a few. There may be other symptoms as well.
Interesting, mass hysteria is not demographically restricted. Such situations have been reported globally and yes, throughout history.
So, what are the possible explanations of mass hysteria?
Several explanations have been attempted throughout history. Ancient scientists to modern day experts have all been trying hard to explain the root cause of mass hysteria. Let us take a look at each of these plausible explanations.
Ancient Greeks and Egyptians on mass hysteria:
‘Hystera’ – a Greek word for ‘uterus’ is the source for the word hysteria. The term was coined by Hippocrates – a famous physician from ancient Greece. However, the Greeks were not the first ones to associate mass hysteria with uterus. The crown for this goes to the ancient Egyptians in times as far back as 1900 BCE. In Kahun Papyrus, it is stated that the uterus in female body keeps moving from one place to another inside the body, causing the situation. Today we reject this proposal but it was once very widely accepted.
Middle Ages on mass hysteria:
Actually, uterus was clearly rejected during the Middle Ages itself. Instead, many started blaming witchcraft. Some blamed the situation on insanity while some others said, it was all about demonic possession.
Modern scientists on mass hysteria:
Modern men and women discard the idea of demons and witches or even wandering wombs being the cause of mass hysteria but unfortunately, even modern science has failed to provide immunity against this situation. The most recent case of mass hysteria on records dates back to 2012. The episode happened in Sri Lanka where 1900 children from 15 different schools in the nation suddenly succumbed to coughing, vertigo and skin rashes. Weirdly enough, they didn’t show any physical symptoms that could lead to such a condition. Scientists today blame mass hysteria on multiple factors like extreme stress, action reinforcement by authorities, religious beliefs, fear, cultural pressure, extraordinary excitement, rumor, social anxiety etc. Everyone agrees that political, religious and social conditions change over the course of history but what barely changes is human psychology that, even under new set of conditions, react nearly the same way our forefathers did. So, mass hysteria has no stopping. Over years to follow, we will encounter many more cases of mass hysteria.
So, what are some of the most famous cases of mass hysteria?
We know you have been waiting for this part and so, we will not make you wait. Let us take a quick look at some of the most famous mass hysteria cases that have been cached in history. Please note than these cases of mass hysteria are not penned down in any particular order.
1. The Dancing Plague mass hysteria
This really weird and unique mass hysteria took place between 13th century and 17th century. The affected area was mainland Europe. A number of names have been attributed to this unique event. Some call it the Dancing Plague. Some named it as Dance Mania. Some refer to it as Dance of St. Vitus and some others call it as St. John’s Dance. The specific event of 24 June, 1374 in Aachen, Germany remains the most popular case of this mass hysteria. Another famous instance was of 1518 in the month of July and this time in Strasbourg, France.
During the mass hysteria, a few people would suddenly start dancing on the streets out of no reason. Soon, others jumped in and started dancing. Unfortunately, the dancing didn’t stop within a few minutes or hours. It continued for hours, days, weeks and even months at one stretch. The end result was most of the dancers collapsed, completely exhausted. Many died because of stroke and/or heart attack. Literally hundreds and often thousands of people would dance together on streets, only to have a really unwanted end.
Many countries were affected. Switzerland, Holland, Germany, France, Italy and Luxemburg were the most hit areas.
2. Tanganyika Laughter Epidemic mass hysteria of 1962
We already mentioned the year. It was the unfortunate day of 30 January, 1962 when it all started. This time the country was Tanzania in a place called Kashasha. The incident took place in a girls’ boarding school that was run by a missionary institution. Three girls in the school started laughing. The laughter went viral and soon the whole class was in its grip. It didn’t end there. In no time, the whole school was in the clutches of this uncontrolled laughter. People thought it might end soon but no, they were wrong! The laughter continued for hours and then days and then week and then months until the authorities were forced to close the school on 18 March, 1962. Guess what? The closure of the school was not sufficient. The girls of the school continued laughing and the mass hysteria was soon picked up by other schools too! Then, the epidemic went on to rampaging villages after villages. In total thousands of girls were affected and eventually, 14 schools were shut down. The hysteria continued for 18 long months and then disappeared in thin air.
3. The Meowing Nuns mass hysteria of France
Yet another unique one, this mass hysteria started in France in 15th century. Some say that it continued till 19th century (though not in one stretch but as isolated events). What happened is that in a convent, one of the nuns started meowing like cats. Well, it may sound funny because at times we do this ourselves while playing with our cats but this particular case was different. It all started with one nun but soon became uncontrollable with the meowing being picked up by all nuns in the convent.
This continued for days with all nuns participating in meowing ritual together during specific times of the day and sometimes, each session would continue for hours. Eventually, military aid was called for. Soldiers came in and they beat up the nuns until they agreed not to meow any more.
Yet another similar but far more disturbing case was that of a German nunnery in 15th century. The nuns started biting each other. The problem then spread to several other nunneries as well, including those in Brandenburg and Saxony. Eventually this spread to Rome and Holland.
4. The Salem Witch Trials mass hysteria of United States
This mass hysteria started in 1692 and continued for 1 year to eventually end in 1693. This time it was Massachusetts, Salem. Many young girls suddenly started screaming and displayed twitching – both at uncontrolled levels. The worried citizens started blaming witchcraft. This triggered a series of trials and prosecutions which ended with the death of 25 young girls both in Salem as well as in nearby cities.
5. The Tourette syndrome mass hysteria of New York
Again it was USA but this time in New York. The event happened between 2011 and 2012. Late in 2011, dozens of LeRoy High School students started exhibiting the Tourette syndrome, which is a neuropsychiatric disorder in which, a person suffers from at least 1 vocal twitching and multiple motor twitching. The incident sparked a series of investigations to pin down any environmental contamination but eventually, nothing was found. Finally conversion disorder was blamed by Dr. Laszlo Mechtler.
There are several other cases of mass hysteria that have surfaced time and again in different countries and different cultures. For example, the mass hysteria of penis becoming smaller to eventually disappear is pretty common in Asia and Africa and in 1967, this mass hysteria went so wild that government and medical institutions had to go around from place to place educating people that penis retraction is not possible anatomically. Another interesting mass hysteria case is that of Delhi’s Monkey Man that happened in 2001 in India. In this event, people reported of a monkey-like man about 120 centimeters tall with red glowing eyes and metal claws attacking people. Some called it as Indian Big Foot, some called it an avatar and some even went to the extent of calling it a cyborg that can be put down by throwing water on the motherboard hidden behind its furry coat on chest.
Mass hysteria is pretty common. Some are really funny and some are really scary. No one knows when the next one is going to hit and where. We just need to wait and watch. May be we will become the next victims.