April 30, 2020

Mass Hysteria

We’re living in some interesting times, and I’ve been wondering how psychology plays into the current doomsday phenomenon. It’s fun to study history about previous events related to mass panic and hysteria.

Some gems from the Wikipedia article listing mass hysteria events:

The dancing plague of 1518 was a case of dancing mania that occurred in Strasbourg, Alsace (then part of the Holy Roman Empire) in July 1518. Numerous people took to dancing for days.

The Great Fear was a general panic that took place between 17 July and 3 August 1789, at the start of the French Revolution.

Halifax Slasher (1938) - The Halifax Slasher was the name given to a supposed attacker of residents, mostly women, of the town of Halifax, England in November 1938. The week-long scare began after two women claimed to have been attacked by a mysterious man with a mallet and “bright buckles” on his shoes. Further reports of attacks by a man wielding a knife or a razor followed. The situation became so serious that Scotland Yard was called in to assist the Halifax police. On November 29 one of the alleged victims admitted that he had inflicted the damage upon himself for attention. Others soon had similar admissions, and the Yard investigation concluded that none of the attacks had been real. Five local people were subsequently charged with public mischief offenses, and four were sent to prison.

June bug epidemic (1962) - The June bug epidemic serves as a classic example of hysterical contagion. In 1962 a mysterious disease broke out in a dressmaking department of a US textile factory. The symptoms included numbness, nausea, dizziness, and vomiting. Word of a bug in the factory that would bite its victims and cause them to develop the above symptoms quickly spread. Soon 62 employees developed this mysterious illness, some of whom were hospitalized. The news media reported on the case. After research by company physicians and experts from the US Public Health Service Communicable Disease Center, it was concluded that the case was one of mass hysteria. While the researchers believed some workers were bitten by the bug, anxiety was probably the cause of the symptoms. No evidence was ever found for a bug which could cause the above flu-like symptoms, nor did all workers demonstrate bites.

2016 clown sightings - Sightings of people in evil clown costumes in the United States, Canada, and 18 other countries were dismissed as a case of mass hysteria, stating that a fear of clowns (which is common in children and adults) may be an underlying cause. The website Vox likewise claimed that “The Great Clown Panic of 2016 has been perpetuated by pretty much everyone except actual clowns.”


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