For centuries, cases of mass hysteria have been reported all over the world, and hundreds of such incidents occur annually in the U.S.
Mass hysteria is a term used to describe the situation in which a particular physical or psychological symptom occurs throughout a community. Below are five of the most bizarre and disturbing cases ever reported.
1. St. John’s Dance, or the Dancing Plague (1374)
On June 24, 1374, a strange phenomenon occurred in the German city of Aachen that resulted in thousands of citizens dancing hysterically through the streets. According to reports, victims chanted and foamed at the mouth, experienced spasmodic ravings and epileptic convulsions and were haunted by strange religious visions. Often victims fell to the ground panting and laboring for breath, collapsed from exhaustion — in many cases, dying from heart attacks or strokes. In a matter of weeks, the strange phenomenon had spread to the Netherlands and the northeast of France. At the time, many people thought the participants were praying to St. John the Baptist and that he was somehow causing the behavior (the plague was considered to be a curse sent by a saint, hence the name St. John’s Dance). While some scientists theorize the hysteria was a result of hallucinations and convulsions caused by rye infected with a fungus called Claviceps purpurea, another popular theory maintains the events were simply rituals carefully organized by religious cults. More recent research suggests mass psychogenic illness, triggered by fear and depression, was responsible for the bizarre outbreaks. Interestingly, the outbreak and other similar ones were preceded by periods of disease, famine and devastating agricultural failures.
2. Tanzania Laughter Epidemic (1962)
In January of 1962 an uncontrollable outbreak of laughter began at a mission-run boarding school for girls in Kashasha, Tanzania. The condition quickly spread to more than 90 students (even reaching neighboring villages) and lasted several months, causing the temporary closure of 14 schools and eventually affecting over 1,000 people. Symptoms included recurring attacks of laughter and crying, restlessness and aimless running (even occasional violence) that lasted from a few hours to up to 16 days. The laughing episodes continued sporadically for approximately one year before mysteriously ceasing. According to an Atlas Obscura article, Christian Hempelmann of Texas A&M University has conducted research on the incident and describes the laughter epidemic as “a case of mass psychogenic or sociogenic illness, a malady that has the capacity to strike in a variety of high-stress settings.” The stress factors, he asserts, may have included “the unfamiliar expectations imposed in the British-run schools and the uncertainties created by Tanganyika’s independence, achieved barely a month before the incident.”
3. Salem Witch Trials (1692-93)
While events of mass hysteria are somewhat common throughout history, one of the most notorious examples occurred in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692 when two young girls (Elizabeth Parris and Abigail Williams) began experiencing convulsions and seizures that could not be explained by contemporary medical science. Pressured by the local magistrates, the girls soon claimed they were possessed by the devil and were being assaulted by supernatural entities conjured by local women who were practicing witchcraft: Tituba, the Parris’ Caribbean slave; Sarah Good, a homeless beggar; and Sarah Osborne, an impoverished elderly woman. When the three women were brought before the local magistrates and interrogated, Osborne and Good claimed innocence while, to the surprise of many, Tituba confessed. In an elaborate testimony, Tituba claimed the devil had approached her and she’d seen red cats, yellow birds, and a Black man who requested that she sign his book. As a result, all three women were jailed. A wave of hysteria soon spread throughout colonial Massachusetts, followed by a series of hearings and prosecutions. Over the next several months, the number of accused quickly rose to 150 men, women and children. Trials followed, and women who did not confess were sentenced to death, while those who falsely confessed were not. In the end the incident, known today as the Salem Witch Trials, resulted in the deaths of 25 citizens of Salem and surrounding villages. While some scientists have suggested stress led to the conditions of the accused, others suspect fungus on bread products was the culprit. Ironically the colony later compensated the families of those convicted, admitting the trials were a mistake.
4. West Bank Fainting Epidemic (1983)
From March 21 to April 3, 1983, a mysterious illness characterized by acute dizziness, abdominal pain, headaches and fainting occurred in residents of communities throughout the West Bank. Over the next few weeks (according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), nearly 1,000 young Arabs were affected, 660 of whom (70%) were schoolgirls between the ages of 12 and 17 years. After a number of girls claimed to have smelled a strange scent in the classroom similar to the odor of rotten eggs, Palestinian leaders quickly accused the Israelis of using chemical warfare. Some even claimed the Israelis had used the gas to sterilize Arab females. While some scientists claimed the illness was of psychogenic origin and induced by stress (the epidemic occurred just before exams), others maintained the outbreak was triggered by low concentrations of hydrogen sulfide gas near the school. Though health officials did determine the initial illness may have been caused by the latter, they theorized the majority of the sufferers became ill as a result of psychological factors, specifically the anxiety that resulted from news reports suggesting a toxic gas was the culprit. Interestingly, after Israeli health authorities claimed no poison was found and mass hysteria was the likely cause, the epidemic ended within weeks.
5. Day Care Ritual Abuse Cases (1983-1992)
In August of 1983, Judy Johnson accused a preschool teacher, Ray Buckey, of sodomizing her son with a thermometer while at McMartin Preschool in Los Angeles. While initially police were skeptical, they distributed letters to parents of other children at the day care center and requested that they question their children. More accusations soon followed, and when social workers began questioning children, the accusations became increasingly bizarre. Aside from being sodomized, some children claimed they’d drunk blood, witnessed the sacrifice of a baby in church and even participated in Satanic rituals. Buckey and other teachers were eventually charged with 208 counts of child molestation, and though the trial lasted several years, none of the defendants were found guilty. Though no one is certain how the situation spiraled out of control, Richard Beck, author of We Believe the Children, suggests the mass hysteria resulted from the culture’s obsession with crime, the fact that allegations of sexual abuse in day care centers were sweeping the nation at the time, and the media’s constant implication that pedophiles were lurking at every school and playground. His assertion seems fairly accurate given that during the time similar allegations were being leveled against numerous day care centers and their employees in more than 46 states.