What is “mass hysteria,” exactly? You may be surprised to learn that it’s not, in fact, large groups of people just “faking” something for attention. That must happen sometimes, sure, but most famous cases of mass hysteria actually stem from people (usually women or girls, unfortunately) being placed in extraordinarily stressful or oppressive situations in tight-knit, homogeneous groups (think schools, convents, prisons, factories, small towns, etc.). This stress then manifests itself in real, painful symptoms. The Freudian terms hysteria and mass hysteria, while acceptable colloquially, have been replaced in clinical conversations by the terms conversion disorder for individuals and mass psychogenic illness (or MPI) for groups.
The reputation of people involved in cases of mass hysteria in history has been tainted by the sexism inherent in the name. It’s become shorthand for “women acting crazy,” basically. But as this list demonstrates, it’s not always women instigating or participating in the mass hysteria. And when it is women, it’s typically for a good reason, because MPI is one way, according to sociologists, for women to express physically and involuntarily what they can’t just freely say. Read on for some of the most bizarre (and tragic) real cases of mass hysteria.
The Meowing Medieval Nuns
What Happened? A daily “cat concert” performed by nuns at a large convent in France sometime in the Middle Ages. It started, as it always does, with just one nun meowing, but then all the other nuns couldn’t help themselves. It soon became a routine that lasted “several hours” and pissed off the whole neighborhood. Soldiers had to come to the convent and threaten violence to get the nuns to stop.
Why? Sociologists say this case was just one of “dozens of outbreaks of hysterical fits and imitative behaviors” reported among nuns in cloistered convents in the Middle Ages. The combination of celibacy, poverty, hard labor, and the belief that cats “were considered familiar with the Devil” likely triggered the episode. Historian Robert Woolsey calls hysteria “a code used by a patient to communicate a message which, for various reasons, cannot be verbalized.” The meowed “code” in this case was seemingly of the self-flagellating variety, indicating how unworthy the nuns felt. (Or maybe they were just bored?)
The Dancing Plague of 1518
What Happened? About 400 people “danced” until they were sick (or dead!) over several days in Germany in 1518. Historical documents indicate that the victims were indeed dancing against their will, and not just gesticulating wildly. Musicians were brought in at one point to help keep them going because physicians assumed the only “cure” was to let them go as long as necessary.
Why? Theories include mass hysteria and psychoactive mushrooms growing on grain, or perhaps a combination of the two.
The Twitching Teens of Le Roy, NY
What Happened? Around a dozen high school girls (and later one boy) started exhibiting Tourette-like symptoms in Le Roy, NY, in 2011. Experts ruled out environmental factors (such as contaminated soil), vaccines, and drug side effects.
Why? The diagnosis from neurologists was “conversion disorder,” which is defined as “the brain ‘converting’ severe mental stress into actual physical symptoms.” As the New York Times reported, parents (and famous environmental activist Erin Brockovich) were not happy with this diagnosis. Some of the girls later started taking antibiotics, thinking it was related to an immune system disorder. Some got better, but some didn’t.
The outbreak eventually ran its course, leading many experts to believe that conversion disorder was indeed the correct diagnosis. It’s a fascinating case. Most of the victims, as the Times uncovered, came from broken homes, but weren’t (on the surface, at least) suffering from “severe mental stress.” They weren’t “faking it” (although some, of course, might have been) – their physical symptoms were real and painful, they just came from “within” and spread in a “biosocial” way, according to neurologists.
The Tanganyika Laughter Epidemic
What Happened? An entire school and a few villages in Tanganyika (now Tanzania) basically shut down over a “laughing fit” in 1962. At least that’s how it allegedly started. Eventually, everyone was also crying, fainting, and falling ill. It wasn’t very funny in the end (it lasted for at least six months).
Why? Despite the light-hearted nature of the video, researchers say that mass hysteria was to blame, or mass psychogenic illness (MPI), as it’s now known clinically. Here’s how researcher Christian F. Hempelmann explains mass hysteria/MPI (and this is also applicable to just about every case on this list):
It’s psychogenic, meaning it is all in the minds of the people who showed the symptoms. It’s not caused by an element in the environment, like food poisoning or a toxin. There is an underlying shared stress factor in the population. It usually occurs in a group of people who don’t have a lot of power. MPI is a last resort for people of a low status. It’s an easy way for them to express that something is wrong.
The Halifax Slasher
What Happened? Around ten people (mostly women) reported being attacked by a mysterious man in Halifax, England, in November 1938. The so-called “Halifax Slasher” allegedly wielded a mallet and a knife and wore a dirty mackintosh coat and shoes with “bright buckles.” The town all but shut down out of fear and Scotland Yard even came to investigate. After about a month of panic, one of the victims (a man named Percy Waddington) admitted that he attacked himself. This led to similar admissions from other locals. Scotland Yard concluded there were never any attacks in the first place.
Why? The majority of the victims admitted their wounds were self-inflicted and several people were charged with “public mischief” and/or sent to jail over the whole ordeal. The local paper reported that “there never was, nor is there likely to be, any real danger to the general public.” A local solicitor explained it by claiming that the fakers “were actuated by sheer willfulness, or a perverted desire to gain cheap publicity, or a form of hysteria induced by some neurotic condition, or by a combination of such mentalities.”
The Seattle Windshield Pitting Epidemic
What Happened? Residents of several communities in Washington state reported in April 1954 that their windshields had been “pitted” or “pocked” by… something. BBs? Cosmic rays? Gremlins? Close to 3,000 reports were filed.
Why? It was “5 percent hoodlum-ism and 95 percent public hysteria,” according to Sergeant Max Allison of the Seattle PD. The media attention made a whole lot of people in the area look closely at their windshields for the first time, basically, and some of them noticed little marks that had likely been there all along.
The Mad Gasser of Mattoon
What Happened? A series of alleged “gas attacks” in Virginia in the early 1930s and Illinois in the mid-1940s. Sometimes, victims claimed to see a man carrying a gas-expelling flit gun (pictured). Most of the time, however, they simply reported smelling gas-like odors or seeing clouds of “gas” and later feeling ill.
Why? The jury is out. Police and public health officials chalked it up to a combination of fear-driven mass hysteria, industrial pollution (including domestic pesticides), and the occasional actual robber or assailant. It’s since become a classic case study in mass hysteria.
The Hollinwell Incident
What Happened? Almost a dozen juvenile marching bands and several coaches, parents, and community members from the town of Kirkby-in-Ashfield, in Nottinghamshire, England, fainted and/or fell ill on July 13, 1980 during a band competition at the Hollinwell Showground. It was pretty serious: 260 people were taken to four different hospitals.
Why? Officially, a domino effect of mass hysteria, motivated, perhaps, by hundreds of exhausted band kids. Other theories include pesticides, contaminated water, and radio waves.
The “Strawberries With Sugar” Virus
What Happened? Around 300 students at 14 schools in Portugal displayed symptoms including rashes, dizziness, and difficulty breathing in May 2006 following a recent airing of a teen soap opera called Morangos com Açúcar (Strawberries With Sugar). It just so happened that characters on the show were recently infected by a life-threatening virus that led to the same symptoms…
Why? The Portuguese National Institute for Medical Emergency dismissed the illness as mass hysteria with this awesome quote: “I know of no disease which is so selective that it only attacks school children.” Watch the clip to see what all the fuss was about… if you dare!
The June Bug Epidemic
What Happened? In what is now considered to be a classic example of mass hysteria, several women and two men working at a textile mill in the 1962 in Ohio all complained of nausea, dizziness, and rashes at the same time. After a few days, 62 out of 900+ workers lodged the same complaints, citing bugs from a fabric shipment from England. The CDC investigated and found that there wasn’t anything close to an infestation. In fact, they only found two biting insects in the whole mill.
Why? Physicians determined that is was mass hysteria, though some researchers are skeptical, saying the CDC likely downplayed a minor infestation. Windows in the factory were frequently open for airflow, and it was June in Ohio. Did they really only find two biting insects in the whole place?
The Naval Recruit Smoke Scare
What Happened? In a rare male-only case, 119 Navy recruits in San Diego complained of breathing difficulties, lightheadedness, and vomiting one day in 1988 while at the Navy Training Center. The incidents occurred following a day of intense physical exercise with brush fires in the area, leading some to think smoke was a factor.
Why? Doctors determined that there was nothing toxic in the air or in the victims’ blood, so they diagnosed it as mass hysteria. A spokesman said that “one or two” people may have had a viral infection, which, combined with high levels of anxiety, may have helped trigger the hysteria.
The Children’s Village School Hysteria
What Happened? Around 600 out of 3,600 girls at a rural, charity-run boarding school called The Children’s Village outside Mexico City complained of fever and nausea at the same time in 2007. (The above video is in Spanish and isn’t subtitled, but it helps set the scene.) The school allowed the girls to go home for a week, which led to a quick recovery in nearly every case.
Why? It’s what appears to be a textbook case of mass hysteria, or mass psychogenic illness (MPI), as it’s known clinically. As one researcher puts it, MPI “usually starts in a school or in a work place, when people are in a stressful situation and they don’t have the power to get out of that situation.” The girls at The Children’s Village were definitely in that kind of situation:
Officials said they had found no evidence of mistreatment, although they acknowledged that the girls were tightly disciplined and very isolated. The girls see their parents at most three times a year: two weeks in July, 10 days at Christmas and on parents’ day, which is usually in May. There are no phone calls and few letters.