Mass hysteria

This article is about the psychological phenomenon. For the French heavy metal band, see Mass Hysteria (band).

In sociology and psychology, mass hysteria (also known as collective hysteria, group hysteria, or collective obsessional behavior) is a phenomenon that transmits collective illusions of threats, whether real or imaginary, through a population in society as a result of rumors and fear (memory acknowledgment).[1][2]

In medicine, the term is used to describe the spontaneous manifestation (production in chemicals in the body) of the same or similar hysterical physical symptoms by more than one person.[3][4]

A common type of mass hysteria occurs when a group of people believe they are suffering from a similar disease or ailment,[5] sometimes referred to as mass psychogenic illness or epidemic hysteria.[6]

Notable cases

Cat nuns (France, Middle Ages)

A convent of nuns began to meow like cats and others followed until all would meow together at a certain time for several hours together. This continued until the surrounding village called soldiers to threaten the nuns to stop their singing.[7]

Europe (15th century)

A nun in a German convent began to bite her companions, and the behavior spread through other convents in Germany, into Holland and as far as Italy.[7]

Dancing Plague of 1518

The Dancing Plague of 1518 was a case of dancing mania that occurred in Strasbourg, Alsace (then part of the Holy Roman Empire) in July 1518. Numerous people took to dancing for days without rest, and, over the period of about one month, some of the people died from heart attack, stroke, or exhaustion.[8]

Salem witch trials (1692–93)

Adolescent girls Abigail Williams, Betty Parris, Ann Putnam, Jr., and Elizabeth Hubbard began to have fits that were described by a minister as "beyond the power of Epileptic Fits or natural disease to effect."[9] The events resulted in the Salem witch trials, a series of hearings leading to the executions of 20 citizens and the deaths of five citizens of Salem Village, Massachusetts (present day Danvers, Massachusetts) and nearby towns accused of witchcraft.[10] The episode is one of America's most notorious cases of mass hysteria, and has been used in political rhetoric and popular literature as a vivid cautionary tale about the dangers of isolationism, religious extremism, false accusations and lapses in due process.[11]

Würzburg (1749)

An outbreak of screaming, squirming, and trance in a nunnery led to the execution of a suspected witch.[12]

Basel and Gross-tinz "Writing Tremor Epidemic" (1892,1904)

The right hand of a ten-year-old girl in Gross-tinz began trembling, which developed into full-body seizures that spread to nineteen other students.

That same year, a similar epidemic affected 20 in Basel, Switzerland. Twelve years later, the Basel school experienced another outbreak that affected 27 students. Legend of the first outbreak was said to have played a role.[13]

Montreal (1894)

Sixty students at a ladies' seminary suffered an outbreak of fits and seizures, some for as long as 2 months.[13]

Meissen "Trembling Disease" (1905-6)

An estimated 237 children were afflicted between October 1905 and May 1906.[13]

Halifax Slasher (1938)

The Halifax Slasher was the name given to a supposed attacker of residents, mostly women, of the town of Halifax, England in November 1938. The week-long scare began after two women claimed to have been attacked by a mysterious man with a mallet and "bright buckles" on his shoes.[14] Further reports of attacks by a man wielding a knife or a razor followed. The situation became so serious that Scotland Yard was called in to assist the Halifax police.[15]

On November 29 one of the alleged victims admitted that he had inflicted the damage upon himself for attention. Others soon had similar admissions, and the Yard investigation concluded that none of the attacks had been real. Five local people were subsequently charged with public mischief offenses, and four were sent to prison.[14]

Bellevue, Louisiana (1939)

A girl developed a leg twitch at the annual homecoming high school dance. Attacks worsened and spread to friends over the next several weeks.[13]

Tanganyika laughter epidemic (1962)

The Tanganyika laughter epidemic began on January 30, 1962, at a mission-run boarding school for girls in Kashasha, Tanzania. The laughter started with three girls and spread haphazardly throughout the school, affecting 95 of the 159 pupils, aged 12–18.[16][17] Symptoms lasted from a few hours to 16 days in those affected. The teaching staff were not affected but reported that students were unable to concentrate on their lessons. The school was forced to close down on March 18, 1962.[18]

After the school was closed and the students were sent home, the epidemic spread to Nshamba, a village that was home to several of the girls.[18] In April and May, 217 people had laughing attacks in the village, most of them school children and young adults. The Kashasha school was reopened on May 21, only to be closed again at the end of June. In June, the laughing epidemic spread to Ramashenye girls’ middle school, near Bukoba, affecting 48 girls. Another outbreak occurred in Kanyangereka and two nearby boys schools were closed.[16]

June Bug Epidemic (1962)

A well-known example of hysterical contagion affecting sixty-two employees at a US textile factory.

Welsh, Louisiana (1962)

With students' sexual activity under close scrutiny by school officials, and following rumors of mandatory pregnancy tests, twenty-one girls and one boy in grades six to eleven were affected by seizures and other symptoms over six months.[13]

Blackburn, England (1965)

In October 1965 at a girls' school in Blackburn, several girls complained of dizziness.[19] Some fainted. Within a couple of hours, 85 girls from the school were rushed by ambulance to a nearby hospital after fainting. Symptoms included swooning, moaning, chattering of teeth, hyperpnea, and tetany.[19]

A medical analysis of the event about one year later found that outbreaks began among the 14-year-olds, but that the heaviest incidence moved to the youngest age groups.[19] There was no evidence of pollution of food or air.[19] The younger girls proved more susceptible, but disturbance was more severe and lasted longer in the older girls.[19] Using the Eysenck Personality Inventory, those affected had higher scores for extroversion and neuroticism.[19] It was considered that the epidemic was hysterical, that a previous polio epidemic had rendered the population emotionally vulnerable, and that a three-hour parade, producing 20 faints on the day before the first outbreak, had been the specific trigger.[19]

London (early 1970s)

Eight girls and a teacher began to have falling and fainting spells. The class was sent home early for spring break, and a pregnancy scare followed years later when one of the victims had been admitted to a psychiatric hospital, claiming to be pregnant. This then became the belief of several other patients, resulting in a domino-effect of pseudocyesis.[13]

Mount Pleasant, Mississippi (1976)

School officials suspected drug use after fifteen students fell to the ground writhing, but no drugs were found and hysteria is assumed to be culprit. At one point, one third of school's 900 students stayed home for fear of being "hexed".[13]

Malaysia (1970s–1980s)

Mass hysteria occurred in Malaysia from the 1970s to the 1980s. It affected school-age girls and young women working in factories. The locals have explained this outbreak as "spirits" having possessed the girls and young women.[20][21][22]

Hollinwell Incident (1980)

Around 300 people, mostly children, but including adults and babies, suddenly suffered fainting attacks, nausea and other symptoms. The Hollinwell incident remains one of the prime examples of mass hysteria.

West Bank fainting epidemic (1983)

The 1983 West Bank fainting epidemic was a series of incidents in March 1983 in which 943 Palestinian teenage girls, mostly schoolgirls, and a small number of IDF women soldiers fainted or complained of feeling nauseous in the West Bank. Israel was accused of using chemical warfare to sterilize West Bank women while IDF sources speculated that a toxic substance had been employed by Palestinian militants to stir up unrest,[23] but investigators concluded that even if some environmental irritant had originally been present, the wave of complaints was ultimately a product of mass hysteria. This conclusion was supported by a Palestinian health official, who said that while 20% of the early cases may have been caused by the inhalation of some kind of gas, the remaining 80% were psychosomatic.[24]

San Diego (1988)

The US Navy evacuated 600 men from barracks; 119 were sent to San Diego hospitals with complaints of breathing difficulty. No evidence of toxins, food poisoning, or any other cause was found.[25]

Kosovo (1990)

Zoran Radovanović, a professor in the Faculty of Medicine in Kuwait argues in an article for the European Journal of Epidemiology that the "Kosovo Student Poisoning" that affected at least four thousand, mostly ethnic Albanians, was a product of mass hysteria.

Monkey-man of Delhi (2001)

The Monkey-man of Delhi is a monster which was reported roaming Delhi in mid-2001.[26]

North Carolina (2002)

Ten girls developed seizures and other symptoms at a rural high school in North Carolina. Symptoms persisted for five months across various grade levels. Incidents tended to happen outside of class, with half of all incidents estimated to have occurred around lunch hour. Half of the affected were cheerleaders or former cheerleaders.[27][28]

"Strawberries With Sugar virus" (2006)

In May 2006, an outbreak of the so-dubbed Morangos com Açúcar Virus (Strawberries With Sugar virus) was reported in Portuguese schools, named after the popular teen girl's show Morangos com Açúcar (Strawberries With Sugar). 300 or more students at 14 schools reported similar symptoms to those experienced by the characters in a then recent episode where a life-threatening virus affected the school depicted in the show.[29][30] Symptoms included rashes, difficulty breathing, and dizziness. The belief that there was a medical outbreak forced some schools to temporarily close. The Portuguese National Institute for Medical Emergency eventually dismissed the illness as mass hysteria.[29][30]

Mexico City (2007)

In 2007 near Chalco, a working-class suburb of Mexico City, mass hysteria resulted in a massive outbreak of unusual symptoms suffered by adolescent female students (600) at Children's Village School, a Catholic boarding-school.[31][32] The afflicted students had difficulty walking and were feverish and nauseated.

Vinton, Virginia (2007)

An outbreak of twitching, headaches and dizziness affected at least nine girls and one teacher at William Byrd High School. The episode lasted for months amid other local public health scares. [27]

Afghanistan (2009–)

Starting around 2009, a spate of apparent poisonings at girls' schools across Afghanistan began to be reported, symptoms included dizziness, fainting, and vomiting. The United Nations, World Health Organization and NATO’s International Security Assistance Force carried out investigations of the incidents over multiple years, but never found any evidence of toxins or poisoning in the hundreds of blood, urine, and water samples they tested. The conclusion of the investigators was that the girls were suffering from mass psychogenic illness.[33][34] Despite these findings, Afghan officials often blame the incidents on the Taliban, accusing them of contaminating the school's water supply or using poison gas.[34]

Brunei (2010)

In April and May 2010, incidents of mass hysteria occurred at two all-girls secondary schools in Brunei.[35] The most recent notable event happened on the 24th of April 2014 in a public secondary school. The phenomenon caused a wave of panic among many parents, educators, and members of the community. Some of the students affected by the phenomenon claimed to have been possessed by spirits, or jinn, displaying histrionic symptoms such as screaming, shaking, fainting, and crying.

LeRoy, New York (2011–12)

In late 2011, 12 high school girls developed Tourette-like symptoms. Their school was tested for toxins, and all other factors for their symptoms were ruled out. The case, and some of the girls and their parents, gained national media attention. In January 2012, several more students and a 36-year-old adult female came forward with similar symptoms. They were all diagnosed with conversion disorder.[36][37]

Sri Lanka (2012)

From November 15–20, 2012, incidents of mass hysteria occurred at 15 schools in Sri Lanka. More than 1,900 school children of 15 schools in Sri Lanka and five teachers were treated for a range of symptoms that included skin rashes, vomiting, vertigo, and cough due to allergic reactions believed to be mass hysteria. It originated at the Jinaraja Balika Vidyala in Gampola, Central Province on November 15, 2012 when 1,100 students were admitted to hospital with a range of symptoms that included skin rashes, vomiting, vertigo and coughing. Later, authorities had to close down the school for 3 days. After that on November 16, 17, 18, 19 there were more reports of students from other parts of the country showing similar symptoms.[38]

Charlie Charlie Panic (2015)

Four teens in Tunja, Colombia were hospitalized, and several in the Dominican Republic were considered "possessed by Satan" after playing the Charlie Charlie Challenge viral game.[39]

See also

Historic cases:


  1. Wolf, M. (1976). Witchcraft and Mass Hysteria in Terms of Current Psychological Theories, (are caused by used of medical/experimental delusions). Journal of Practical Nursing and Mental Health Services 14: 23–28.
  2. Bartholomew, Robert E. (2001). Little Green Men, Meowing Nuns and Head-Hunting Panics: A Study of Mass Psychogenic Illness and Social Delusion. McFarland & Company.
  3. Bartholomew, Robert E.; Wessely, Simon (2002). "Protean nature of mass sociogenic illness: From possessed nuns to chemical and biological terrorism fears". British Journal of Psychiatry. Royal College of Psychiatrists. 180 (4): 300–306. doi:10.1192/bjp.170.4.300. PMID 11925351. Mass sociogenic illness mirrors prominent social concerns, changing in relation to context and circumstance (including hysteria from the topic at hands). Prior to the 1900, reports are dominated by episodes of motor symptom's typified by de-sociation, hormonics and psychologist agitated and incubated in an environment of preexisting tension. Nineteenth-century reports feature anxiety symptoms that are triggered by sudden exposure to an anxiety-generating agent (chemicals), most commonly an variety of food poisoning rumours.
  4. Waller, John (18 September 2008). "Falling down". The Guardian. London. The recent outbreak of fainting in a school in Tanzania bears all the hallmarks of mass hysteria, says John Waller. But what causes it and why is it still happening around the world today?
  5. Bartholomew, Robert E.; Erich Goode (May–June 2000). "Mass Delusions and Hysterias: Highlights from the Past Millennium". Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. 24 (3).
  6. Mass, Weir E. “Mass sociogenic- illness.” CMAJ 172 (2005): 36. Web. 14 Dec. 2009.
  7. 1 2 "Mass Delusions and Hysterias: Highlights from the Past Millennium". January 21, 2014. Retrieved July 1, 2015.
  8. Viegas, Jennifer (1 August 2008). "'Dancing Plague' and Other Odd Afflictions Explained". Discovery News. Discovery Communications. Retrieved 8 August 2008.
  9. "Salem Witch Trials".
  10. Trask, Richard B. (2013), The Witchcraft Delusion: A Brief Guide, Danvers Archival Center
  11. Adams, G. (2009), The Specter of Salem: Remembering the Witch Trials in Nineteenth-Century America, University of Chicago Press
  12. "Dancing plagues and mass hysteria". July 31, 2009. Retrieved July 1, 2015.
  13. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 "Mass Hysteria in Schools: A Worldwide History Since 1566". January 21, 2014. Retrieved July 1, 2010.
  14. 1 2 "Life's Like That 3 @ Calderdale-Online".
  15. BBC. "BBC - Radio 4 Making History - Latest programme".
  16. 1 2 Provine, Robert R. (January–February 1996). "Laughter". American Scientist. 84 (1): 38–47.
  17. Rankin, A.M.; Philip, P.J. (May 1963). "An epidemic of laughing in the Bukoba district of Tanganyika". Central African Journal of Medicine. 9: 167–170. PMID 13973013.
  18. 1 2 "Laughter". Radiolab. Retrieved 2011-01-12.
  19. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Moss, P. D. and C. P. McEvedy. “An epidemic of overbreathing among schoolgirls.” British Medical Journal 2(5525) (1966):1295–1300. Web. 17 Dec. 2009.
  20. "Mass hysteria hits Malaysian school". Asian Economic News. Kuala Lumpur. Kyodo. July 16, 2001. Retrieved 9 May 2012.
  22. Ong, Aihwa (Feb 1988). "The Production of Possession: Spirits and the Multinational Corporation in Malaysia". American Ethnologist. Medical Anthropology. University of California, Berkeley: Blackwell Publishing. 15 (1): 28–42. doi:10.1525/ae.1988.15.1.02a00030. JSTOR 645484.
  23. DAVID K. SHIPLER (April 4, 1983). "MORE SCHOOLGIRLS IN WEST BANK FALL SICK". Jerusalem: The New York Times. Retrieved 6 May 2011.
  24. "Ailing Schoolgirls". Time. Apr 18, 1983. Retrieved 9 May 2012.
  25. "117 of Ill Recruits Returned to Base". September 5, 1988. Retrieved July 21, 2015.
  26. Polidoro, Massimo. (2002). "Return of Spring-Heeled Jack". Skeptical Inquirer. Accessed on 4 May 2016.
  27. 1 2 "Mass Hysteria in Schools: A Worldwide History Since 1566". January 21, 2014. Retrieved July 19, 2015.
  28. "Episodic Neurological Dysfunction Due to Mass Hysteria" (PDF). February 24, 2012. Retrieved July 19, 2015.
  29. 1 2 "Teenagers hit by soap opera virus". CNN-IBN. May 19, 2006. Retrieved July 1, 2010.
  30. 1 2 "Teens suffer soap opera virus". China Daily. May 19, 2006. Retrieved July 1, 2010.
  31. Malkin, Elisabeth (April 16, 2007). "Mysterious illness strikes teenage girls in Mexico". The New York Times. Retrieved November 7, 2010.
  32. Zavala, Nashyiela Loa (2010). "The expulsion of evil and its return: An unconscious fantasy associated with a case of mass hysteria in adolescents". International Journal of Psychoanalysis. 91 (5): 1157–1178. doi:10.1111/j.1745-8315.2010.00322.x. PMID 20955250.
  33. "Poisonings' at Afghan girls' schools likely mass hysteria - not Taliban, says report". 4 July 2012. Retrieved 5 January 2016.
  34. 1 2 "Are the Taliban Poisoning Afghan Schoolgirls? The Evidence". 9 July 2012. Retrieved 5 January 2016.
  35. Bandial, Quratul-Ain (May 13, 2010). "Mass hysteria: product of 'jinn' or anxiety?". The Brunei Times. BRUNEI-MUARA. Retrieved 9 May 2012.
  36. "12 girls at NY high school develop involuntary tics". Washington Post.
  37. McGowan, Kate (2012-01-29). "LeRoy Woman Discloses 'Conversion Disorder', Talks Exclusively to YNN". YNN. Retrieved 9 May 2012.
  38. "Sri Lanka Mass Hysteria at Schools".
  39. "'Charlie Charlie' game summoning Mexican demon goes viral, causing damage real and fake".

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