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Thursday, June 11, 2015

Historical Accounts of Mass Hysteria and Peculiar Syndromes

If you’re an avid film watcher, you’ve probably come across some rather odd urban legends and myths. What’s amazing is that often times real-life occurrences of mass hysteria, spurred on by mass psychogenic illness or collective obsessional behavior are much more bizarre and scary than fictional myths. These anomalous phenomena occur just like other natural phenomena and have long-lasting psychological and often fatal effects on the victims. Unusual as they are, similarly absurd phenomena are observed in animals and plants as well.

200+ Years of Witch Hunts, Trials and Executions

Most common in the Early Modern period (1480 to 1700) in Europe, witch hunts were one of the most popular and widespread forms of mass hysteria, resulting in legally sanctioned witchcraft trials and mob lynchings of many unfortunate people. The practice was so widespread that in later years absurdity of these accusations caused the term to adopt a connotation of malicious false accusations and persecution such as the anti-communist accusations during the McCarthy era.

The Dancing Plague of 1518

In July 1518 in Strasbourg, Alsace, France, a large number of people spontaneously started dancing for days without rest over a period of one month. Most of the people ended up dying due to heart attacks, strokes, or exhaustion. The plague started with one woman, in a matter of a few days that number increased to 34, and within a month to 400. To this day the cause of the mass hysteria is unknown.

The War of the Worlds Martian Invasion

Adapted from H. G. Wells’ famous novel The War of the Worlds, a Halloween radio broadcast on October 30, 1938 directed and narrated by Orson Welles caused thousands of listeners to believe that an actual Martian invasion was taking place (the fact that the environment was already generally hostile, leading up to the war, didn’t help). The hour-long radio broadcast was narrated in a news bulletin format, without any commercial breaks, causing many in the audience to be afraid while many others actually panicked, reporting that they could smell poison gas or see lightening flashes in the distance. According to some historians, approximately 6 million people heard the broadcast, 1.7 million thought it was true, and out of those, 1.2 million were actually frightened.

The Tanganyika Laughter Epidemic

This laughter epidemic started in a Tanzanian village in 1962. Starting with an innocent joke in a boarding school, the resulting laughter is said to have perpetuated itself and spreading to thousands of people. The laughter, some people claim was incapacitating. Other symptoms included respiratory problems, fainting, pain, and weirdly enough, crying attacks. The phenomenon lasted for about 18 months.

The Halifax Slasher Incident

On November 1938, Halifax, England, a week-long scare was started after 2 people falsely claimed to have been attacked by a man with a mallet. In the days that followed, more reports of attacks by this ‘mysterious man’ started popping up. The situation got so serious that the Scotland Yard had to step in to help the police and get to the bottom of these reports. Several people were mistakenly identified as the slasher and consequently beaten up by angry mobs and matters escalated to a point where most businesses in the city were shutdown and people were afraid to leave their homes. On November 29, one of the original alleged victims admitted that he had made the story up, causing many others to also confess and leading to 5 people being charged with public mischief out of which 4 were eventually sent to prison.

Strawberries With Sugar Soap Opera Disease

Morangos com Açúcar is a famous Portuguese youth soap opera in its sixth season right now, and is popular in predominantly among children and teenagers because of its depiction of adventures of Portuguese youth. In May 2006, over 300 students across 14 different schools began reporting symptoms matching those of the characters on the show, including rashes, respiratory difficluties and more, causing many schools to shut down. The ‘disease’ was ultimately dubbed mass hysteria by the Portuguese National Institute for Medical Emergency.

The Misanthropic Monkey-Man of Delhi

The story of this monkey-man is widespread in India though still remains a cryptid. Starting in May 2001, people started reporting that a strange monkey-man was attacking them at night. Descriptions of the monkey-man vary a great deal, with some believing him to be an avatar of a Hindu god, while others believe he is an Indian version of Bigfoot, and some even believing that he is a cyborg that can be deactivated if you throw water on its motherboard. The alleged victims include numerous people attaacked by the monkey-man, including one pregnant women, and a few others who were attacked by an angry mob which believed them to be the monkey-man.

The Revenge of Kuchisake-Onna

Kuchisake-onna, or Slit-Mouth Woman, is a Japanese mythological legend that tells the story of an unfortunate woman whose face was mutilated by a jealous husband, and who returns as an angry spirit hell bent on taking revenge by inflicting similar wounds on others. As with any good urban legend, rumors started circulating in 1979 about Kuchisake-onna sightings, then again in 2004, and again in 2007.

The Hindu Milk Miracle

The Hindu milk miracle was first observed on September 21, 1995. A worshiper in a south-Delhi temple made a routine offering of milk to a statue of a Hindo god, and the liquid disappeared from the bowl, appearenly sucked in by the trunk of the statue. In a matter of few hours, the word spread that a similar phenomenon could be replicated with statues all over North India. Similar ‘miracles’ were also reported on in 2006.

Genital Retraction Syndrome

Genital Retraction Syndrome is a form of mass hysteria where people are overcome with the belief that their genitals (most commonly penises and breasts) are shrinking, or retracting into the body. Sometimes people even believe that they may spontaneously disappear. Such panics have occured in many different places in the world, but most commonly in Africa in Asia. The panics are noticably more common in places with lower standards or provision of eductaion and where the local understanding of science and biology are lacking.

The 2006 Mumbai Sweet Seawater Incident

In 2006, residents of Mumbai claimed and began reporting that the water at one of the most polluted creeks in India, the Mahim Creek, had turned sweet. The claim, as ridiculous as it sounds considering that the creek receives thousands of tonnes of raw sewage and industrial waste every day, caused many to drink the water and save it in plastic bottles for later consumption.

NOTE: I have written about some of these syndromes or phenomena...and there are a lot of people who still believe most of these incidents to be fact. For instance, the Monkey-Man of Delhi encounters most-likely's just a case of identifying what the phenomenon was. There are many more lesser-known oddities that could have been added to this list. Lon

Outbreak! The Encyclopedia of Extraordinary Social Behavior

Hysteria: The disturbing history

Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time

Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft