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 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. 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.
4. A Halloween Radio Broadcast That Resulted In Mass Panic.
On October 30, 1938, Orson Welles directed and narrated a Halloween radio broadcast. The topic was an adaptation of H. G. Wells’ famous novel “The War of the World’s”. According to some historians, approximately 6 million people listened to the broadcast. To make matters worse, the broadcast lasted an hour without any commercial breaks and was read in a bulletin format. Thousands of listeners were convinced that a Martian invasion was taking place, which led to mass panic. 1.7 million people out of the 6 million thought it was true and reported a weird gaseous smell in the air and some even reported seeing flashes in the sky. Popular legends state that listeners must have missed the introduction which stated that the show was a drama and tuned in during the middle of the broadcast.
In the following days, people started expressing outrage in the media and some described the bulletin style broadcast as being deceptive. Even though it caused a mass panic among people, the broadcast was behind Welles’s fame as a dramatist.
5. The Reclusive Monkey-Man of Delhi.
Another form of hysteria sweeps India and it’s citizens. This time, the citizens of New Delhi were claiming to be attacked by a mysterious monkey-like creature at night. More than 50 witnesses had come forward with the claim that they had seen what they believe to be a monkey-man. According to the witnesses, the creature is about 4 feet tall with a hairy body and metal claws. The sightings were reported so often that the authorities ran out of vehicles to investigate the location of the alleged sightings. According to a local newspaper, the monkey-man has claimed two lives and wounded several others. One of the victims was a pregnant woman who was sleeping on a rooftop. She died after she ran down the stairs and slipped. Neighbors and locals believe that the monkey-man was behind the incident. Another victim was a man, who jumped off a rooftop screaming that the monkey-man was coming for him. Since no evidence of the alleged creature has been discovered, authorities believe that the situation is nothing more than mass-hysteria created by the locals themselves.
6. Tulipomania, That Caused Holland’s Markets To Crash.
Tulipomania was a phenomenon that occurred during the Dutch Golden Age, where the cost of newly created tulip bulbs were at its highest peak and then suddenly collapsed. To make it simple, during the peak time, a person was capable of selling a single tulip bulb and buying an entire estate. When the price hit dirt bottom, it was as cheap as an onion. In March 1637, the price of specific tulips were estimated to be 10 times the annual income of a skilled craftsman. The newly created tulips were introduced to the Dutch by Turkey. After their import, the tulips underwent a non-fatal virus known as mosaic, which didn’t kill the flower, but caused it to create color patterns on them. Since the flower was already unique, the color patterns made it extraordinarily unique and thus increased its price.
Soon enough, people were trading their houses, farms, lands and cattles for a piece of the greenery. A domino effect took place as everyone was trying to sell them and no one was buying. The stock market soon collapsed. While many benefited from the trade, not all were successful. The dealers refused to honor their contracts and soon people started to realize the mistake they had made. The government stepped in and offered to honor the contracts at 10% of the face value but it was not a success.
7. The 1899 Kissing Bug Epidemic.
The kissing bugs are great black bugs of the Pampas. They are bloodsuckers that transmit a parasite known as Trypanosoma cruzi, which causes Chagas disease. Any victim of the disease will undergo two phases. The first starts a week after the initial bite where the victim will suffer infection, undergo severe pain, fever and swelling. The second stage only repeats 25 years later and damages their organs through an irreversible process. Though it is rarely heard of, chagas disease claims about 7000 to 12,000 lives per year.
Even though we don’t view them as a threat today, the kissing bugs were the main subject of an epidemic during the summer of 1899. After a reporter tagged the kissing bugs as the culprit behind the increasing number of bug bites, especially on the lips, panic started erupting all around the country. People started coming forward and blaming the bugs for any wounds or bites in their faces. The epidemic was so great that even homeless people started wearing bandages around their lips. As usual, many opportunists took advantage of the situation and called in sick and blamed the bug to get them out of work. Since no bug was ever found to be the reason behind it, authorities concluded that it was nothing more than a mass-hysteria.
8. The Tanganyika Laughter Epidemic.
In 1962, a small Tanzanian village was plagued by a laughter epidemic that lasted for about 18 months. Though it sounds simple and joyful, it is associated with extreme stress, anger, sadness or an uncontrollable mania. This hysteria still exists among individuals today who undergo chronic stress. The incident in 1962 began with a small joke, in a Tanzanian girls school. Soon enough, the epidemic spread around the community and with an estimated 1,000 people affected by uncontrollable laughter. Some of the sufferers laughed and cried for a few hours and even up to 16 days. Christian Hempelmann of Texas A&M University, a leading expert describes this as a mass hysteria or sociogenic illness. It could have been a chain-effect started by the single girl who was suffering from anxiety-induced laughter. Due to this weird outbreak, 14 Tanzanian schools had to be temporarily shut down.
9. The Phantom Pregnancy Panic In London.
During the 1970’s, a psychiatric ward in London had to endure a crazy case of mass-hysteria known as the phantom pregnancy. It all began with a 17-year-old patient named Louise. She started informing other patients about her imaginary pregnancy. Louise was known to have a history of lying to get attention. After she learned of her best friend’s death after childbirth, her condition worsened. Doctors believe that she was experiencing phantom pregnancy as a result of panic or comparing herself with her best friend. Whatever it may have been, she was successful in convincing other female patients about her pregnancy. Soon, all the female patients started screaming that they were pregnant too. Doctors had to reassure the women that it was nothing but mass-hysteria to finally calm them down.
10. The Coca-Cola Scare, 1999.
In June 1999, Coca-Cola suffered a huge backlash in Europe when more than 100 students in Belgium consumed the beverage and fell ill. The incident caused a mass panic that led to the beverage being banned for several days until an investigation was conducted. The company was thought to have lost an estimated $200 million due to the incident. Lab tests performed on the drink showed it to be contaminated with carbon dioxide and phenol but the amount was too small to cause any harm. Prior to the incident, news about mad cow disease and dioxin-tainted animal products were circulating around. Belgian scientists later confirmed that this was nothing more than a case of mass-hysteria. A year later, Belgium’s High Hygiene Council agreed with the scientists findings and finalized that mass-hysteria was behind the illness.