Mass hysteria

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

Mass hysteria — other names include collective hysteria, group hysteria, or collective obsessional behavior — in sociology and psychology refers to collective delusions of threats to society that spread rapidly through rumors and fear.[1] In medicine the term is used to describe the spontaneous manifestation of the same or similar hysterical physical symptoms by more than one person.[2][3]

A common manifestation of mass hysteria occurs when a group of people believe they are suffering from a similar disease or ailment,[4] sometimes referred to as mass psychogenic illness or epidemic hysteria.[5]


Mass hysteria manifesting as collective symptoms of disease is sometimes referred to as mass psychogenic illness or epidemic hysteria. Mass hysteria typically begins when an individual becomes ill or hysterical during a period of stress.[6] After this initial individual shows symptoms, others begin to manifest similar symptoms, typically nausea, muscle weakness, fits or headache.[7]

Notable cases[edit]

Dancing Plague of 1518[edit]

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)[edit]

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, which resulted in the deaths of 25 citizens of Salem and nearby towns.

Halifax Slasher (1938)[edit]

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.[10] 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.[11]

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.[10]

Tanganyika laughter epidemic (1962)[edit]

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.[12][13] 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.[14]

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.[14] In April and May, 217 people had laughing attacks in the village, most of them being 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.[12]

Blackburn, England (1965)[edit]

In October 1965 at a girls' school in Blackburn, several girls complained of dizziness.[15] 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.[15]

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.[15] There was no evidence of pollution of food or air.[15] The younger girls proved more susceptible, but disturbance was more severe and lasted longer in the older girls.[15] Using the Eysenck Personality Inventory, those affected had higher scores for extroversion and neuroticism.[15] 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.[15]

Malaysia (1970s-80s)[edit]

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.[16][17][18]

West Bank fainting epidemic (1983)[edit]

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[19] 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.[20]

"Strawberries With Sugar virus" (2006)[edit]

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.[21][22] 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.[21][22]

Mexico City (2007)[edit]

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.[23][24] The afflicted students had difficulty walking and were feverish and nauseated.

Tanzania (2008)[edit]

In 2008 in Tanzania, about 20 female school pupils began to faint in a schoolroom, collapsing to the floor and losing consciousness, while others after witnessing this sobbed, yelled and ran around the school. A local education officer was quoted in news reports saying that such events are "very common here".[3]

Brunei (2010)[edit]

In April and May 2010, incidents of mass hysteria occurred at two all-girls secondary schools in Brunei.[25] 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)[edit]

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.[26][27]

Sri Lanka (2012)[edit]

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.[28][unreliable source?]

See also[edit]

Historic cases:


  1. ^ Little Green Men, Meowing Nuns and Head-Hunting Panics: A Study of Mass Psychogenic Illness and Social Delusion, Robert E. Bartholomew, 2001, McFarland Publishing
  2. ^ 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. Prior to 1900, reports are dominated by episodes of motor symptoms typified by dissociation, histrionics and psychomotor agitation incubated in an environment of preexisting tension. Nineteenth-century reports feature anxiety symptoms that are triggered by sudden exposure to an anxiety-generating agent, most commonly an innocuous odour or food poisoning rumours. 
  3. ^ a b 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? 
  4. ^ Bartholomew, Robert E.; Erich Goode (May–June 2000). "Mass Delusions and Hysterias: Highlights from the Past Millennium". Committee for Skeptical Inquiry 24 (3). 
  5. ^ Mass, Weir E. “Mass sociogenic illness.” CMAJ 172 (2005): 36. Web. 14 Dec. 2009.
  6. ^ Doubts raised over Melbourne airport scare. 27/04/2005. ABC News Online
  7. ^ ACSH > Health Issues >
  8. ^ Viegas, Jennifer (1 August 2008). "'Dancing Plague' and Other Odd Afflictions Explained". Discovery News. Discovery Communications. Retrieved 8 August 2008. 
  9. ^
  10. ^ a b
  11. ^
  12. ^ a b Provine, Robert R. (January–February 1996). "Laughter". American Scientist 84 (1): 38–47. 
  13. ^ 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. 
  14. ^ a b "Laughter". Radiolab. Retrieved 2011-01-12. 
  15. ^ a b c d e f g 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.
  16. ^ "Mass hysteria hits Malaysian school". Asian Economic News (Kuala Lumpur). Kyodo. July 16, 2001. Retrieved 9 May 2012. [dead link]
  17. ^
  18. ^ 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. 
  19. ^ DAVID K. SHIPLER (April 4, 1983). "MORE SCHOOLGIRLS IN WEST BANK FALL SICK". Jerusalem: The New York Times. Retrieved 6 May 2011. 
  20. ^ "Ailing Schoolgirls". Time. Apr 18, 1983. Retrieved 9 May 2012. 
  21. ^ a b "Teenagers hit by soap opera virus". CNN-IBN. May 19, 2006. Retrieved July 1, 2010. 
  22. ^ a b "Teens suffer soap opera virus". China Daily. May 19, 2006. Retrieved July 1, 2010. 
  23. ^ Malkin, Elisabeth (April 16, 2007). "Mysterious illness strikes teenage girls in Mexico". The New York Times. Retrieved November 7, 2010. 
  24. ^ 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. 
  25. ^ Bandial, Quratul-Ain (May 13, 2010). "Mass hysteria: product of ‘jinn’ or anxiety?". The Brunei Times (BRUNEI-MUARA). Retrieved 9 May 2012. 
  26. ^ "12 girls at NY high school develop involuntary tics". Washington Post. [dead link]
  27. ^ McGowan, Kate (2012-01-29). "LeRoy Woman Discloses 'Conversion Disorder', Talks Exclusively to YNN". YNN. Retrieved 9 May 2012. 
  28. ^ "Sri Lanka Mass Hysteria at Schools". 

External links[edit]