Mass hysteria, a strange epidemic

Robert Johnston
Mass hysteria, a strange epidemic

In 1518 a large number of the population of Strasbourg began to dance incessantly for hours, days and months, some of those affected by this strange crisis dying from this unstoppable urge to dance. In 1692 several girls from an American town suffered symptoms that the authorities attributed to a curse. The girls suffered unexplained convulsions and spasms and were burned at the stake for witchcraft. It was the case with the Salem witches. Although it is rarely talked about much, the power of suggestion and social influence can be as nearly as important as physical illness. Today we are talking about a curious phenomenon that appears again and again in different contexts and historical moments, a phenomenon that manages to fill pages of events with mystery and about which little has been studied until now at a scientific level: mass hysteria.


  • The Halifax Killer
  • What is mass hysteria?
  • Symptoms of mass hysteria
  • Types of mass hysteria
  • Treatment of mass hysteria
    • Links of interest

The Halifax Killer

In 1938 a strange event also occurred whose characteristics filled public opinion with concern. In Halifax, England, two people claimed to have been attacked by a man wearing a mallet and shiny buckles on his shoes. A few days later, another citizen reported having suffered an attack from the mysterious man who was nicknamed "The Halifax Slasher." Terror soon broke out and complaints against the mysterious attacker proliferated among the population. Police surveillance teams gathered and the streets were engulfed in fear, so much so that many businesses closed and the people who were suspected were attacked by gangs of vigilantes.

When they blamed a man suspected of being the real Halifax Slasher, the citizens claimed his death sentence and it was then that the complainants began to admit that they had inflicted the damage, being denied the existence of the mysterious attacker. Nine of the twelve people who had reported damage acknowledged that this had not happened. What led these people and the people of Halifax to this irrational behavior?

What is mass hysteria?

What happened in Halifax, as in so many other parts of the world, was an episode of mass hysteria. Mass hysteria is a psychological phenomenon in which there is an unreal threatening perception shared by a group of people who come to feel the same physical symptoms and share the same irrational ideas..

It is an obsessive behavior that occurs collectively. Mass hysteria is not an uncommon occurrence and appears in all types of societies during many historical moments..

Although there is still great ignorance on the part of science, mass hysteria is considered something like a mass anxiety attack, a distorted perception of reality that is experienced in a group context and that causes changes and physical ailments in the affected.

Although the causes are not clear, it seems that oppressive and stressful environments can affect the emotional stability of a group of people who begin to experience the same sensations. It seems that anyone can experience mass hysteria, although there is talk that adolescent women may become more prone to.

Symptoms of mass hysteria

For a case of mass hysteria to be considered as such, the following characteristics must be met:

  • The symptoms that appear in people cannot be explained by physical causes such as illness or poisoning.
  • Affected people did not normally behave in this way before the outbreak.
  • It does not occur in group contexts in which symptoms are deliberately provoked through conviction.
  • The people who experience the episode of hysteria do not have a casual bond, but are part of a community.

Types of mass hysteria

According to Professor Simon Wessley of King's College London there are two types of mass hysteria:

  • Anxious mass hysteria: In this type of hysteria, physical symptoms associated with a state of anxiety are experienced, such as abdominal pain, chest pain, fainting, dizziness, nausea or palpitations.
  • Collective motor hysteria: It is the type of hysteria in which motor symptoms such as seizures or paralysis develop.

A rare case of anxious mass hysteria is that of the Chalco boarding school in Mexico. In 2006, the girls at the Chalco boarding school began to be affected by an unknown disease. Symptoms included fever, difficulty walking or nausea that 600 of the girls at the boarding school suffered from. After meticulously studying the health of the little girls and the conditions in which they were in the boarding school, the doctors ruled out the existence of a physical illness and attributed these symptoms to a massive psychogenic disorder that affected the girls. The oppressive environment of the boarding school in which the girls were isolated with few interactions with their relatives and under great stress, made the mass hysteria camp at ease.

Treatment of mass hysteria

Although mass hysteria is not a phenomenon widely studied by the scientific community, the symptoms it generates are real and people often need psychiatric or psychological treatment. This treatment is based on getting patients to control stress and anxiety. In addition, the people who experience the symptoms are usually separated and away from the situations that generate them, being investigated in addition what have been the stressful stimuli that have been able to generate this overwhelming situation. Despite these basic measures, much remains to be studied about this phenomenon that highlights the importance of social context, thought and suggestion in our own physical health.

Links of interest

What is collective hysteria? Jacob Silverman.

Mass hysteria: An epidemic of the mind ?. Jasmin Collier.

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