Delirium, en masse: the fascinating and spectral phenomenon of mass hysteria 

Witches, clowns and uncontrollable dancing: Halloween or mass hysteria? Defining the latter is difficult, given that each manifestation falling within the phenomenon’s sphere of interest brings about changes in the way it develops and that the lines between it and moral panic or social movements are often blurred.What seems to cause the hysteric reaction varies, as do the symptoms, which is perhaps what makes mass hysteria such aninteresting phenomenon. However, what connects all cases is that it always happens to a group of people rather than a separate individual and that, though the hysteric behaviour seems like adisease and those affected exhibit similar physical symptoms, its explanation is not to be found in physiological diagnosis. Another unifying aspect is that hysteria spreads in places where people are closely packed together, such as convents, schools and communities in towns.


Cases of mass hysteria have been documented throughout history and have been characterised by different patterns of behaviour: a particularly fascinating example is that of the so-called dance manias, which took place between the 14th and the 17th centuries and consisted in the spread of uncontrollable and obsessive dancing. Its most notorious instance is 1518’s dancing plagueepidemic, which gripped the town of Strasbourg in Alsace, France, lasting for a month and leading to numerous deaths from exhaustion and heart attacks. What is possibly the bestknown example of mass hysteria, an event that inspired a lot of modern popular culture, took place nearly two centuries later: as you might have guessed, such event corresponds to the Salem witch trials, beginning in Massachusetts at the end of the 17th century when a group of young girls, namely Abigail Williams, Petty Parris, Ann Putnam Jr. and Elizabeth Hubbard, experienced mass hysteria. In superstitious fervour, their symptomatology was linked to witchcraft; this resulted in the execution of more than twenty citizens. The Salem witch trials are an example of a superstitious interpretation of mass hysteria and of what can happen when it is interpreted as an act of witchcraft or exorcism. Though it has now been multiple centuries since these eventsoccurred, their memory still lives on in various cultural depictions, a local example being the recent production of The Crucible by the Scottish Ballet.


Carol Morley, an English filmmaker, did extensive research onmass hysteria for her film Falling (2014). Choosing to base her film in a 1960s setting, Morley addresses a conception of the phenomenon that saw it as a result of what is referred to as sexual guilt. The sexual liberation movement took place between the 1960s and the 1980s, and it altered norms and traditions linked to relationships and sexuality. As a revisionist response to the sprouting of sexual liberation, cases of mass hysteria involving women were branded as consequences of excessive sexual exploration. Morley’s film centres around a teenage student called Lydia (Maisie Williams), whose fainting fits spark a case of mass hysteria in a British girls’ school and pairs the overall plot with Lydia’s exploration of her own sexuality. Linguistically speaking, the Greek word for hysteria, hystera, is also the term for uterus, thereby linking the cases of hysteria to women. Most of the historical accounts of mass hysteria did indeed occur among women, while still not being exclusively limited to those who identify as such. One of the most bizarre cases of mass hysteria, the appositely named “penis panic”, took place in Singapore in 1967. Also referred to as koro or the “genital retraction syndrome”, this case showcases how mass hysteria can be caused by the sudden fear of environmental contamination: rumours that eating pork vaccinated against the swine fever would cause korosoon spread across the city state and evolved into mass hysteria. Medical authorities rushed to educate the masses about the harmlessness of the meat, but the iconic memory of the “penis panic” lives on among other cases of mass hysteria.


The relationship between mass media and mass hysteria should not be overlooked, given that media are sometimes responsible for triggering cases of it. In 2006, several schools were closed in Portugal when students reported about feeling dizzy and having rashes on their bodies. What these students had in common was their love for a Portuguese soap opera called Strawberries with Sugar: as it happens, the characters in the show had been exposed to an epidemic with similar symptoms just before the Portuguese mass hysteria occurred. A more recent example of the amplification of mass hysteria by the media are the clown sightings of 2016. Heavily reliant on coulrophobia, the fear of clowns, hysteria quickly spread across the United States and crossed the Atlantic Ocean to Europe, where clown sightings were reported in Sweden and the UK. In his book The Martians Have Landed!: A History of Media-Driven Panics and Hoaxes, the American sociologist Robert Bartholomew identifies the sociocultural climate as key in understanding the reasons behind the clown-related hysteria: he points out that the sightings took place at a time of moral panic, which is a sociological term used to describe a social reaction to a perceived threat posed by the “outsiders”. The concurrent presidential campaign of Donald Trump relied heavily on social divisions between Americans and foreigners, scapegoating America’s issues on the said “others”. Yet it is questionable whether the case of clown sightings should be classified as mass hysteria, as it does not check all the boxes – while it began contained within a smaller area, the hysteria expanded with the help of global media and those affected were ultimately not physically near one another.

Mass hysteria takes many forms, and its wide array of cases can be entertaining to the extent of inspiring fictionalised accounts or fresh artistic interpretations. This is much due to the sense of mystery in many of the stories – over time, the definition of mass hysteria has expanded and, while having been researched by psychiatrists and sociologists alike, it still remains largely unexplained. However, some significant contributors to such fits have been identified: the emerging of triggers from prevalent sociocultural contexts and the panic experienced by groups of people at the same time. With the growing influence of media,mass hysteria can even go from being a contained phenomenon to crossing seas and reaching pandemic dimensions: this opens up to the possibility of cases of unprecedented scale and nature and, maybe, to a redefinition of the phenomenon. 


[Kristiina Kangasluoma – she/her – @overthefrogwall]

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