People like to believe they are independent and free-thinking, but the phenomenon of mass hysteria proves otherwise. Described as a condition of anxiety, excitement, illogical beliefs, or symptoms of disease shared by a group of people, mass hysteria can happen at any time and among any group of people. This is because we are all vulnerable to fear, and the mind has a powerful effect on the body. We also have an inherent need to “fit in,” even when a behavior is objectively odd.
We tend to see mass hysteria most often in schools – one kid gets sick, then all the kids get sick, even if it turns out they didn’t actually catch the bug. There are other examples throughout history, however, that are much more dramatic:
Dance till you drop
During late Middle Ages, towns along the River Rhine experienced a strange and disturbing phenomenon. Hundreds of people began to dance, furiously, for days on end. They didn’t sleep or rest. The compulsion spread all over France and the Netherlands, and after several months, things returned to normal. In 1518, however, the dance fever returned. In Strasbourg, 400 people were taken over. Dozens died. The government stepped in, and strangely enough, recommended more dancing to “cure” the illness. It’s considered one of the strangest events in Western history.
For a stretch of 200 years, convents across Europe succumbed to strange behavior. Hundreds of nuns would enter a delirium, complete with foaming at the mouth, screaming, and claiming to have sex with demons or even Jesus. In France, one nun began meowing (like a cat) for no apparent reason, and soon other nuns joined her. The cat is associated with the devil, and so soldiers arrived to whip the nuns until they stopped. Biting was another behavior that spread from Germany to Italy. We have written accounts of these incidents, and at the time, people chalked it up to the supernatural.
ROLF (rolling on the floor laughing)
In 1962, a village in Tanzania experienced a laughing outbreak, with outbursts sometimes lasting as long as hours at a time. It began at school, and spread to parents. The school were it originated got shut down, and the students were sent to others schools, which also “caught” the laugh. It lasted between half a year to 18 months before it died down completely. Those affected reported after-effects such as pain, fainting, trouble breathing, and fits of crying. Because the country had just become independence, experts theorize that stress triggered the erratic laughter.
In England, the Hollinwell Showground prepared for its 1980 charity show that featured student bands. About 500 kids and their families showed up, and at first, everything seemed normal. At 10:30 am, children suddenly began to faint by the hundreds. Parents joined in, and over 250 people were taken to the hospital. The cause is still unknown, though people have considered food poisoning and the nearby use of a pesticide which is now considered dangerous. The official explanation? Mass hysteria.
“Hysteria” was once labeled a real medical condition, and essentially a catch-all term for “women problems.” Read about how ignorance perpetuated the concept of hysteria.