10 crazy cases of mass hysteria that will make you question everything

10 crazy cases of mass hysteria that will make you question everything

Despite the prevalence of psychology, the inner workings of the human mind are still largely a mystery, especially when it comes to our sense of memory. It’s pretty scary when you think about how easy it is for our brain to play tricks on us. You don’t even need to suffer from mental illness to be delusional.

If someone relies on rumour and hearsay for information, and is already stressed to the point of paranoia, then it can be pretty easy to make them lose any sense of reality with a bit of prodding. Our perceptions are so plastic, so malleable, that we can be made to believe the impossible if we’re so provoked. The term for this condition is Mass Hysteria.

Also known as “collective obsessional behavior”, this is a psychological phenomenon whereby multiple sufferers are induced to share a delusion, and believe in something completely unproven. Whole populations can become convinced beyond all reason that they are suffering from the effects of a viral pathogen, or are being menaced by malevolent forces who are dedicated to their destruction, despite foolproof evidence to the contrary. It may sound like science fiction, but it’s 100 per cent real. These are the most famous cases of mass hysteria in recorded history.

1. The meowing nuns

The first documented case of mass hysteria is probably the most bizarre of all. It occurred in a French convent in the 15th century where a nun one day started meowing like a cat. Others started joining in, and before long all of the female clerics were making cat noises with aplomb, and only stopped when they started spooking visitors in the convent. The nuns stopped when they were allegedly threatened with whipping as a deterrent. Convents in the middle ages were typically miserable places, where a combination of hard labor, lack of sleep and poor nutrition meant that the nuns were already deeply susceptible to mass delusion.

A nun, bent over, petting a tabby cat. Credit: Getty

2. The Salem witch-hunt

The witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts, probably represent the most famous instance of mass panic in the public knowledge; popularised by playwright Arthur Miller in his fictionalised account entitled "The Crucible". In 1692, four young girls, Abigail Williams, Betty Parris, Ann Putnam, Jr., and Elizabeth Hubbard, began exhibiting fainting and epileptic symptoms. The girls accused one another of witchcraft, and before long, a series of feuds spiralled into a supernatural crisis which left several people, most of them women, dead by hanging - after a court found them guilty.

A woodcut showing a trial during the Salem witch hunt. Credit: Getty

 3. The cattle killing crisis

In the Eastern Cape of South Africa, in the year 1856, Nongqawuse, a Xhosa prophet, proclaimed that a vision of her dead ancestors had told her that they would sweep the British settlers into the sea, if she destroyed the Xhosa crops, killed their cattle, and got rid of their collective wealth. The resulting hysteria led to mass famine and death of 400,000 cattle. Because of starvation, the population dropped from 105,000 to fewer than 27,000. Nongqawuse was later arrested by British authorities.

A trio of cows eating feed from a trough. Credit: Getty

4. The Halifax slasher

In the town of Halifax in England, in 1938, two traumatised women claimed that a stranger had attacked them with a mallet. Not long after this, another local, Mary Sutcliffe, claimed that a man had attempted to slice her with a razor. As the days wore on, numerous people claimed that the “slasher” had attempted to kill them. Eventually, police investigators from Scotland Yard were called in to settle the case. Vigilante groups patrolled the streets and attacked anyone who looked suspicious. Eventually, when one man stated that he had fabricated an encounter with the assailant, the others admitted that they too had invented the attacker.


5. The Tanganyika laughter outbreak

A girls' boarding school in Tanzania was struck by an inexplicable plague of laughter back in 1962. It began when three girls between the age of 11 to 14 were struck with a fit of the giggles which lasted a week. Before long, other girls were also laughing just as much, and soon 95 of the 159 affected pupils were laughing too hard to concentrate on their studies. The school was forced to close in March, but by then the phantom laughter had already spread to a number of nearby villages. It would be another three months before the laughter died down completely.

African children laughing and smiling. Credit: Getty

7. The Seattle pitting epidemic

In the city of Seattle in 1954, something really weird started happening to local motorists. Car owners suddenly noticed that their windshields seemed to have a number of dents, chips, grooves and pits that they’d never seen there before. A number of wild and fantastic causes were blamed for the blemishes on the glass, including cosmic rays, a reversal of the earth’s magnetic poles, and sand fleas laying their eggs. After 3,000 people reported pitting, the police department brought in scientific consultants from the University of Washington, who determined that only older models of car had been affected and that the damage was “the result of normal driving conditions in which small objects strike the windshields of cars.” The cars hadn’t been any more pitted than normal. Drivers had just been looking at their windows, instead of through them.

A Volkswagen Beatle's windshield. Credit: Getty

7. McMartin preschool trial

The McMartin Trial was, at one point, the most expensive criminal trial in American history. It occurred after it was alleged that there was a vast conspiracy in a preschool in Manhattan Beach, California. Virginia McMartin, the owner of the preschool, was accused of collusion with her staff in the sexual abuse of children and of conducting secret Satanic rituals. Children at the school apparently stated they had been exploited and forced into prostitution, as well as being made to take part in child pornography. After six years of criminal trials, all charges against McMartin daycare were dropped. Subsequently, a number of the affected children have since retracted their statements.

Black and white photograph of the McMartin Preschool. Credit: Getty

8. The Seizure-inducing Pokémon

When an episode of the Pokémon anime, entitled Dennō Senshi Porigon, was broadcast in 1997, a series of intense visual light effects in one battle sequence led a number of Japanese children to exhibit symptoms similar to a seizure. The bright strobe lights led to many hospitalisations due to “Pokémon shock”. The Japanese Fire Defence Agency reported 685 minors were taken to hospitals by ambulances. Although most victims recovered during the ambulance journey, around 150 were admitted to hospitals. Despite the fact that the sequence was no different from any other in the anime, the episode has never been rebroadcast since. It was later reported that only a small number of children had suffered a seizure and that most had merely experienced nausea. Dr. Jeffrey Cohen, director of the Epilepsy Program at the Clinical Neuro-Physiology Laboratory at New York’s Beth Israel Medical Centre, was sceptical about the way the hospital admissions were reported, stating “I think there were maybe two or three or ten that went to emergency rooms, then the media picked up the story and that in turn produced a wave of anxiety-based reactions.”

TV image of the Pokémon anime. Credit: Getty

9. The Soap Opera Virus

It’s a well-known truism that in Latin countries, soap operas are serious business, and millions of viewers are devoted to long-running storylines. One episode of the Portuguese teen soap opera, Morangos com Açúcar, (Strawberries with Sugar) featured a mysterious illness that infected a number of characters in a fictional high school. Not long after the episode aired, a number of Portuguese teens reported symptoms of a malaise similar to that in the program, including rashes, breathing difficulties, and dizzy spells. Soon these spread to 300 high school students in 14 different schools. An investigation by the National Institute for Medical Emergency soon concluded that the “viral outbreak” was hysterical.

10. The Charlie Charlie challenge  

Juego de la Lapicera, also known as the “Charlie Charlie challenge”, is a playground game which has been played in Spanish schools for generations. In it, players use two pencils to produce answers to questions by balancing them on top of one another to see which way they turn. If they point towards a corresponding answer written on a piece of paper, the answer indicated is said to be the truth. The game spread to the rest of the world over the net in 2015, and before long many started attributing supernatural or demonic influence to the game. Some players claimed that a spirit named Charlie would appear, others believed their children had become possessed. In May of 2015, four Columbian high school students were hospitalised from the game and on YouTube, numerous videos were uploaded featuring people attempting to speak to Charlie. Scientists have universally proclaimed the situation as a case of mass delusion.  

There are some ideas which are nothing less than memetic, and are totally infectious even though they're completely implausible. But not every conspiracy theory is as outlandish as those of Satanism in daycare centres or secret witches. For example; did the Soviet Union cover up the deaths of secret astronauts during the space race?