From meowing nuns to an imagined monkey-man, mass hysteria is a bizarre and little understood aspect of the human condition.
It can be caused by religious extremism, cultural superstition, isolationism, and even the accidental intake of LSD.
The only cure is the passing of time and, on at least one occasion, a good old whipping.
The Laughing Plague (1962)
In a classroom in the African country of Tanganyika (now Tanzania), on 20 January 1962, three girls began to giggle. By the time the hysteria ended more than a thousand people had been infected by their laughter.
The hysteria spread through the school. One girl would laugh, and then another, and then another, until 95 of the 159 pupils were laughing uncontrollably. The symptoms lasted anywhere between a few hours and 16 days. By 18 March the school was forced to shut down.
The girls were sent home and the madness spread to a local village, Nshamba, where some of the girls lived. 217 people had laughing attacks in the village.
It wasn’t a good laughter either. It was not a laughter of joy or amusement. It was born out of stress. In 1962 Tanganyika won its independence and new ideas were being taught in school that clashed with their beliefs. The girls couldn’t reconcile their beliefs with reality and they just snapped.
The laughter was accompanied by bouts of screaming, flatulence, and crying.
As the hysteria spread 14 schools were shut down. It took between 6 and 18 months for the phenomenon to wear off by which time more than a thousand people had been effected.
The Dancing Plague (1518)
It was summer in eastern France. A place called Strasbourg, then a part of the Holy Roman Empire. Mrs. Troffea wandered out into the street and began to dance. Six days later thirty four others had joined her.
A month later four hundred more had joined in. This was not a festival or a celebration, it was an uncontrollable urge. The dancing crowd was mostly made up of women and many of them died of stokes, heart attacks, and exhaustion. Some reports say around fifteen people died every day during the dancing plague.
Nobles and physicians didn’t know how to treat the hysteria and believed if they could keep the dancers moving maybe they would get it out of their systems. To that end they built a stage and had musicians play for the crowd.
It is now believed a fungi (ergot fungi) that grows on grain in the region caused the event. The fungi contains ergotamine; a psychoactive product that is structurally similar to lysergic acid diethylamide; otherwise known as LSD. The Dancing Plague of 1518 was essentially the first ever rave.
Meowing Nuns (Middle Ages)
Not much is known about the meowing nuns. It happened in the Middle Ages and records from then are hard to come by.
In a secluded convent somewhere in France a nun began to meow like a cat. It spread. Other nuns in the convent began to meow, sometimes for hours. As the hysteria progressed the nuns began to sync up and would meow together for a period of time every day.
The surrounding community were bemused. The meowing only stopped when the nuns were threatened with whips.
Mad Gasser of Mattoon (1944)
The Mad Gasser of Mattoon was a tall thin man. He dressed in black and wore a tight fitting cap. He carried a flit gun; an agricultural tool used for spraying pesticide. He crept up to peoples bedroom windows at night. People claimed to see his ghastly figure at the window. Gas silently spraying out of his flit gun into their rooms.
The papers reported the story. People got sick. The only problem with the whole thing is that The Mad Gasser of Mattoon did not exist.
On 31 August 1944. Mr. Raef was awakened by a strange odour. He felt week and nauseous. His wife, suspecting gas poisoning, got up to check to pilot light on the stove but found that she couldn’t. She was partially paralyzed and unable to move.
The following day a young mother, having heard the sound of her daughter coughing, tried to get up to check on her but found that she too was paralysed.
More reports started coming in. People were complaining of a mysterious sweet smell and then losing feeling in their legs.
A taxi driver coming home reported seeing a tall thin man dressed in black, wearing a cap, hiding close to one of the houses windows. This is where the main description of the Mad Gasser comes from.
Over the course of a week 26 people reported being gassed.
There was never any evidence of a prowler going around gassing people and it is general believed to be an example of mass hysteria encouraged by lively reporting in the newspapers.
The Shrinking Penis Epidemic (1967)
A rumour spread in Singapore that if you eat vaccinated pork your penis will shrink, retract into your body, and you will die.
In July of 1967, 55,000 pigs were vaccinated. The men of Singapore reacted badly.
Despite official announcements and constant assurances that your penis will not shrink and kill you the sale of pork in markets and restaurants dropped to almost zero.
Government hospitals and dispensaries were crowded with over 80 men a day over the course of the outbreak, all convinced their penises were disappearing. Some men tied blocks of wood to their penis to stop them from retracting into the body.
The Halifax Slasher (1938)
A few people show up with little cuts on them and before you know it all the businesses in town have shut down and a vigilante group of locals are hunting down an imaginary killer.
It all started on 16 November 1938, in a town called Halifax in England. Two women, Mary Gledhill, and Gertrude Watts, claimed to be attacked by a mysterious man with a mallet and bright buckles on his shoes.
Less than a week later Mary Sutcliffe reported that she was attacked by a mysterious man with a knife or a razor.
Three women in one week, the papers had a story. They gave him the nickname, “The Halifax Slasher” and a myth was born.
Vigilante groups hit the streets and several people, thought to be the attacker, were mistakenly beaten up. In fact, more people were attacked by the vigilante mobs than the (imaginary) Halifax Slasher had attacked. Things got out of hand and Scotland Yard got involved.
More reports of attacks by the Halifax Slasher came from nearby cities.
A man named Clifford Edwards was accused of being the slasher when he tried to stop a group of vigilantes from beating up another innocent person named Hilda Lodge.
A mob gathered and started chanting for Clifford Edward’s death. Luckily the police were able to escort him home.
On 29 November, Percy Waddington, who had reported one of the attacks admitted that he had injured himself and blamed The Halifax Slasher. Others soon made similar admissions.
Scotland Yard concluded that there had been no “Slasher” attacks and the whole episode was an example of mass hysteria.
Monkey-man of Delhi (2001)
A dangerous monkey-like creature was scaring the crap out of people on the streets of Delhi, India.
Eyewitness accounts describe the creature as being about 4 feet tall, having thin black hair, metal claws, a metal helmet, glowing red eyes and buttons on its chest.
Some people claimed to see something bigger. A huge ape-man, maybe eight feet tall, jumping from roof to roof in India’s capital.
On 13 May 2001, 15 people were attacked by the monkey-man, suffering bruises, bites, and scratches. Three people died trying to escape the strange beast by jumping off roofs and falling down stairwells in an attempt to get away from it.
More sightings in 2002 describe the monkey-man as being a monkey-like machine that sparked with red and blue lights.
Nobody knows what really went on in Delhi in 2001/2002 but the incident has been described as a slightly odd example of mass hysteria.
Strawberries with Sugar Virus (2006)
A popular TV show in Portugal called Morangos com Açúcar (Strawberries with Sugar) aired an episode of the show in which a life-threatening virus affected the fictional school.
The following day 300 or more students across 14 schools reported similar symptoms to those experienced by characters in their favourite TV show.
Their symptoms included rashes, difficulty breathing, and dizziness. Before anyone made the connection between the over dramatic teenage girls and the TV show, many schools were forced to shut down fearing there was a serious medical outbreak.
The illness was eventually dismissed by The Portuguese National Institute for Medical Emergency as mass hysteria, once the connection between the TV show and the epidemic were made.
Irish Fright (1688)
England was reaching the end of “The Glorious Revolution”. King James II of England was about to be overthrown. King James tried to flee to France to live in exile but his plans were thwarted.
Troops of the Jacobite Irish Army were stationed in England to prop up James II’s authority.
The protestant Brits hated them.
In December of 1688 rumours spread that the Irish soldiers were planning to massacre and pillage the English population in revenge for King James II’s overthrow.
False reports began to filter around the country of the Irish burning down towns and massacring the inhabitants. Panic spread.
At least nineteen counties around England formed armed militias to guard their towns. But the Irish never came. The Irish knew nothing of it. There was no massacre. No towns were burned.
After a few days the panic subsided. Nobody ever found out where the rumours originated.
Salem Witch Trials (1692)
Some kind of madness had infected the people of Salem, Massachusetts. In the space of a year, between 1692 and 1693 more than 200 people were accused of practicing witchcraft. 20 were executed.
It all started when Betty Parris, Ann Putman. Jr, Abigail Williams, and Elizabeth Hubbard began having fits. A minister described the fits as being, “beyond the power of epileptic fits or natural disease to effect.” These supernatural seizures is what kicked the whole thing off.
The Salem Witch Trials are a notorious case of mass hysteria. There are few people who haven’t heard of it. It has been blamed on religious extremism, false accusations, and isolationism; there are many theories.
It is interesting to note that the same fungus that was thought to cause the Dancing Plague mentioned earlier in this article was also implicated in the Salem Witch Trials. Maybe the whole thing was just a bad LSD trip.