Mass hysteria is a phenomenon that can transmit rapidly throughout a population. Whether it’s real or imaginary, there are always people who fall for it. History has shown several cases of mass hysteria as a result of collective delusion. Even though some of them were harmless, some left scars on others – literally. It’s an epidemic that surfaces every now and then between groups of people, sometimes affecting cities or an entire country. During the outbreak, victims may show several uncontrollable symptoms such as laughter, fainting and so on. Here, we have collected 12 such cases of hysteria that are similar to natural disasters. They have been happening for centuries and have been leaving behind a disturbing mark.
1. The 19th Century, French Meowing Nuns.
Though mass hysteria is known to hit schools, detention centers and closely-knit communities, a baffling case occurred at a European convent. According to a book from 1844 known as ‘Epidemics of the Middle Ages’ by J. F. C. Hecker, it all began when a nun started meowing like a cat. Soon enough, the trend spread like a disease within the convent and all of the nuns started meowing. The convent was plagued by meowing nuns who meowed at specific times of the day and for several hours. The surrounding neighborhood of the convent were apparently not pleased with this and found it to be utterly irritating. To contain the situation, soldiers equipped with rods were sent to the convent. The nuns were beaten until they promised to stop the trend. During the 19th century, people believed in being possessed and cats were thought to be a companion of the devil.
Another incident that resembles the meowing nuns occurred in Germany. A nun from a convent started biting her companions, which others picked up as a habit. The epidemic reached as far as Rome and was attributed to mass hysteria.
2. The Deadly Medieval Dance Mania.
Between the 13th and 17th centuries, a major plague hit Europe that claimed the lives of many innocent people. Also known as Dancing Plague or St. John’s Dance, this outbreak mainly affected Aachen, Germany. The outbreak started on June 24, 1374 and the individuals who were affected started dancing with uncontrolled extreme emotion. They would dance hysterically through the streets for hours, days and sometimes weeks. Thousands of people danced until they collapsed and even died from heart-attacks. Strasbourg, Alsace, France, also underwent the same plague in July 1518. It all began with one woman who started dancing hysterically through the streets. Within a week, 34 others joined her and within a month, the number increased to 400. Most of them died of exhaustion or suffered heart-attacks. To this day, the reason behind this mysterious mass hysteria is unknown.
Italy, Luxembourg, Holland, and Switzerland were also affected by the dancing plague throughout history. It is a common belief that the afflicted ones were cursed by St. John the Baptist or St. Vitus. The sufferers often prayed to the saint to relieve them of the curse.
3. Witch Hunting, Trials and Executions.
One of the most famous cases of mass hysteria occurred during the Early Modern period in Salem, Massachusetts. Between February 1692 and May 1693, Salem was flooded with witchcraft accusations after young girls started showing uncontrollable emotions. They often screamed and performed contortions that resulted in many accusing them of being witches or performing witchcraft. As a result, almost 25 people were put on trial and executed. The Court of Oyer and Terminer conducted the trials and hearings in the town of Salem. The incident is popularly known as the Salem Witch Trials, which became a highly influential event in the history of the United States. Prior to this, twelve other women were executed during the 17th century in Massachusetts and Connecticut. This extreme case of mass hysteria is included as a part of political rhetoric and popular literature to highlight the dangers of isolationism, religious extremism, false accusations and failure in the system.
From 1480 to 1700, Europe faced a similar hysteria which resulted in legally sanctioned witchcraft trials and mob lynchings. The unfortunate people were falsely accused and prosecuted in the process. It is estimated that during this period, a total of 35,000 to 100,000 executions took place and an estimated 200,000 or more accused witches were tortured.
4. The Miracle ‘Sweet’ Seawater In Mumbai.
A miraculous thing happened on August 18, 2006, near the city of Mumbai, India – or that’s what the locals claim it to be. It all began when a group of fishermen noticed a strange occurrence with the water of the Arabian Sea, behind the Mahim Mosque. The water is naturally salty, but that day it tasted sweet. The miracle spread around the country faster than the speed of light. Within hours, thousands flocked to Mahim beach to taste the ‘miracle’ water. Authorities also rushed to collect samples for lab tests. They advised the citizens not to consume the water, since the results were unknown at the time. The water was found to be contaminated with industrial chemicals and human sewage draining from Mahim Creek. Health officials’ jaws dropped when they saw families gathering around and consuming the water, as well as collecting it in bottles. Those who didn’t have bottles, collected the tainted water in plastic bags and whatever they could get their hands on.
Locals believed that the water was a miracle from Makhdoom Ali Mahtmi, a 13th century saint. The divine water was thought to have healing powers. Unfortunately, almost a day later, the saint’s powers started to fade away as the water became salty again. The delusion was just another case of mass hysteria, that resulted in thousands taking part. Lab tests showed that the bay water changed taste as a result of seasonal monsoon cycle, which caused Lake Vehar (Mumbai’s main water source) to overflow. Since freshwater is less denser than salt water, it formed a layer on top of the bay. After several hours the water had mixed with the salt water again, which in turn restored it back to its saline taste. The only miracle that actually took place, was the fact that the people who consumed the water didn’t contract any diseases. This could have been very likely as lab tests showed the presence of e. Coli, an intestinal bacteria found in feces.