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.