Mass Hysteria

Moral panic

Mass hysteria, or collective obsessional behavior, is the spontaneous manifestation of the same or similar hysterical physical symptoms by more than one person (hysteria is colloquially defined as unmanageable emotional excesses).

A common manifestation of mass hysteria occurs when a group of people believe they are suffering from a similar disease or ailment. Sometimes referred to as mass psychogenic illness or epidemic hysteria, there is a clear preponderance of female victims. Mass hysteria typically begins when an individual becomes ill or hysterical during a period of stress. After this initial individual shows symptoms, others begin to manifest similar symptoms, typically nausea, muscle weakness, fits or headache. Sightings of modern religious miracles are often attributed to mass hysteria.

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. 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. 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. 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.

In October 1965 at a girls’ school in Blackburn, several girls complained of dizziness. 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, and chattering of teeth. 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. There was no evidence of pollution of food or air. The younger girls proved more susceptible, but disturbance was more severe and lasted longer in the older girls. 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.

Mass hysteria has occurred in Malaysia from the 1970s to the 1980s. It affects school-age girls and young women working in factories. The local explanation has been that these girls and young women are affected by ‘spirits.’

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, 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.

In May 2006, an outbreak of the so-dubbed ‘Morangos com Açúcar Virus’ (‘Strawberries With Sugar virus’) was reported in Portuguese schools, named after a popular teen girl’s show. 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. Symptoms of the ‘virus’ included rashes, difficulty breathing, and dizziness. The perceived outbreak forced some schools to temporarily close. The Portuguese National Institute for Medical Emergency eventually dismissed the illness as mass hysteria.

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.’

In April and May 2010, incidents of mass hysteria occurred at two all-girls secondary schools in Brunei. The phenomena 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, and crying.

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.

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