Mass hysteria, the spontaneous manifestation of particular behavior by a considerable number of people, is one of the most intriguing phenomena in human psychology. Exactly why it occurs isn’t yet fully understood, but scholars are in general agreement that there are particular factors that are often present in such cases. These include (1) the sufferers previously or concurrently undergoing some sort of physical or mental trauma and (2) one or more people undergoing an experience that affects others so much, they believe they’re undergoing the same even if they really aren’t.
Several cases of mass hysteria have been recorded throughout history. Some of them are rather unremarkable with the afflicted believing that they’re sick with common illnesses such as cough, colds, or flu even if they’re actually physically healthy. However, several of these cases are absolutely outrageous, the mass hysteria sufferers believing in the most ridiculous stories and/or acting in the most unimaginable ways.
Here are ten of the craziest cases of mass hysteria in recorded human history:
10. Mewing and Biting Nuns / 15th to 19th Centuries
Between the 15th to the 19th centuries, several instances of nuns suffering from mass hysteria were reported. It has been theorized that the reason for such cases being common in nunneries at that time was that the girls there were often forced into convents by their families. Thus, they became highly impressionable and vulnerable to mental instability.
One particular incident in France involved a nun who began to meow like a cat, an animal despised at that time because of its connections with the Devil. Strangely, other nuns joined her in the meowing until all the nuns at the convent began meowing together every day at particular times, sometimes for hours. The strange behavior only stopped when soldiers, called upon to intervene by bothered neighbors, threatened the nuns with whipping if they didn’t stop their meowing.
Even worse was the case of a fifteenth century German nunnery, whose nuns suddenly began biting each other. In fact, when news of the strange behavior spread, other nunneries in Saxony and Brandenburg began experiencing the same problem, the biting epidemic even spreading to Holland and Rome.
9. Tanganyika Laughing Epidemic / 1962
On January 30, 1962, three girls in a mission-run boarding school for girls in Kashasha, Tanzania suddenly began laughing uncontrollably. Within minutes, 95 of the 159 students aged between 12 and 18 were likewise “infected” by the laughing sickness, the symptoms lasting between a few hours to sixteen days. The teaching staff, however, were unaffected. Nevertheless, the school was forced to close down on March 18, 1962.
Surprisingly, that wasn’t the end of the bizarre story as after the school’s closing and the students’ dismissal, the epidemic spread to Nshamba, where a few of the girls from Kashasha lived. In April and May, 217 people were reported to have suffered from the attacks of uncontrollable laughter, most of the affected being young adults and school children. Worse, in June, the hysteria spread to nearby schools and towns. Then suddenly, around eighteen months after the laughing sickness began, the cases inexplicably stopped, but only after 14 schools had been shut down and around 1,000 Tanzanians had been affected.
8. New York Tourette Syndrome Outbreak / 2011-2012
Tourette syndrome is one of the strangest neuropsychiatric disorders, its sufferers exhibiting multiple motor tics and at least one vocal tic. Strangely, in late 2011 until early 2012, a dozen students from LeRoy High School, suddenly began exhibiting such symptoms. Parents were understandably concerned that some type of environmental contamination or infection took place at the western New York school, but studies on the air quality and other environmental factors revealed nothing unusual. In the end, Dr. Laszlo Mechtler concluded that the girls suffered from conversion disorder, a condition that results in real symptoms but with no known physical cause.
“The physical symptoms they’re [the students] having are real. The patient isn’t faking it,” Dr. Mechtler explained.
7. The Halifax Slasher / 1938
In November of 1938, Halifax in England became the setting for a series of reports of a mysterious dark figure attacking random people using either a knife, a razor, or a hammer. One of the distinctive features of this attacker was that his shoes had extremely bright buckles, causing several men with shiny shoe buckles to be mistakenly beaten up. All in all, at least ten cases of women being attacked were reported within the span of ten days, but in the end, detectives determined that there was no such thing as a “Halifax Slasher”. In fact, the majority of the women who reported being attacked later confessed that their wounds were self-inflicted.
6. The Muhnochwa: India’s Face-Scratching Alien / 2002
In 2002, villagers from the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh reported a mysterious flying object that was said to scratch or burn people’s faces and limbs as they slept. The U.F.O. was described as a flying sphere “emitting red and blue light”, and it was eventually given the name “muhnochawa”, meaning “face-scratcher”. Seven unexplained deaths were attributed to the alien, and Police Deputy Inspector General K.N.D. Dwivedi even explained that he believed the assailant was a genetically engineered insect introduced by anti-national elements. Expectedly, his words did not help calm people down. In fact, police had to shoot one man dead after a mob stormed a police station to demand protection. Worse, at least three people died after jumping from roofs due to panic. In the end, local doctors dismissed the phenomenon as a case of mass hysteria, most of the injuries having been self-inflicted by frightened villagers.
5. Morangos com Açúcar (Strawberries With Sugar) Virus / 2006
Morangos com Açúcar (which in English, translates to Strawberries with Sugar) was a popular Portugeuse teen soap opera that premiered in March of 2004. Mostly, the show was a typical teen drama, but a particular storyline had the characters catching a life-threatening virus with symptoms that included dizziness, rashes, and shortness of breath. The disease was entirely fictional, but strangely, several teens began to develop symptoms similar to those that the show’s characters suffered from. In fact, more than 300 high school students from 14 different schools reported having the symptoms, causing some schools to close down because of the outbreak. However, the Portuguese National Institute for Medical Emergency eventually declared that the epidemic was nothing but a case of mass hysteria triggered by the television show.
4. Mumbai Sweet Water Incident / 2006
Mahim Creek, with local name “Bandra ki Khadi”, forms the boundary between the city and the suburbs of Mumbai, India. Signs of industrialization, including the Bandra-Kuya complex, are present on both sides of the creek, causing the dumping of untreated industrial wastes into the Mahim, and consequentially, its waters to develop a foul smell. Disgustingly, in August of 2006, several residents of Mumbai began claiming that the water at the creek had turned sweet, resulting in large throngs of people coming to the creek to drink and bottle the polluted seawater. Understandably, local authorities were concerned that the practice would cause large numbers of citizens to develop water-borne diseases. The situation worsened even further when soon after, people began claiming that the seawater at nearby Teethal beach had likewise turned sweet. Fortunately, in less than two days, people began realizing that the water no longer tasted any different than usual, thus ending the mass hysteria.
3. Louisiana Twitching Epidemic / 1939
Dancing and festivals were an integral part of the lifestyle in Bellevue, Louisiana during 1939. That likely played a major role in setting the background for the twitching epidemic suffered by a progressive high school in the area at that time. It all began with seven girls, 16 to 18 years of age, who were, as their principal described, “among the brighter members of their respective classes.” One of those seven girls, Helen, was a senior who attended the annual Alumni Homecoming Dance strictly as an observer because she had an aversion to dancing. However, after watching others dance for some time, her right leg suddenly began to twitch and jerk uncontrollably. Those symptoms displayed themselves with increasing intensity and duration throughout the next several weeks. Soon, Helen’s six other classmates began to display the same symptoms, causing several parents to pull out their daughters from the school. That seemed to worsen the students’ fear of the outbreak and resulted in even more girls experiencing involuntary twitching. Fortunately, in a week’s time, everything went back to normal, sociologists explaining the twitching outbreak as a case of mass hysteria.
2. The War of the Worlds Panic / 1938
On October 30, 1938, a halloween special called The War of the Worlds aired over the Columbia Broadcasting System radio network. It was directed and narrated by then aspiring filmmaker Orson Welles and was an adaptation of H.G. Wells’s famous 1898 novel of the same name. The first and second thirds of the 62-minute broadcast about Martians attacking Earth were directed as a series of news bulletins, but disclaimers about the fictional nature of the feature began the broadcast and were also interspersed throughout it. However, most listeners tuned in to the program a bit late. As a result, at least a few thousand people in the United States feared the broadcast was real, thus creating a substantial amount of panic. In fact, several listeners even called government offices to frantically report seeing Martians roving the streets.
For the next days, newspapers published thousands of articles on the mass hysteria caused by The War of the Worlds, but soon after that, the incident was dismissed as having been triggered by the nervous atmosphere at the time due to the then ongoing Munich crisis.
1. Salem Witch Trials / 1962-1963
Even before 1692, there were many rumors going around Salem and its neighboring villages that witchcraft was being practiced by several residents. The first recorded case involved the children of John Goodwin, a Mason in Boston. It was said that Goodwin’s eldest child was tempted by the devil into stealing linen from the family’s washerwoman, Mary Glover, who was, as a result, accused of being a witch and casting spells. Worsening the situation, four out of Goodwin’s six children began to display symptoms of “the disease of astonishment”, which included flapping their arms in a bird-like manner and trying to harm others and themselves, among other indications. That first case eventually multiplied in number, being duplicated in other families with children who also complained of being pricked by nonexistent pins and being pinched by phantom hands. Later, that resulted in various people being tried and jailed, some of them executed for being witches. All in all, twenty people, mostly women, were executed as a result of the witch trials, at least five others dying in prison. Today, however, the events are widely accepted to be one of the most notorious cases of mass hysteria.