What is “mass hysteria,” exactly? You may be surprised to learn that it’s not, in fact, large groups of people just “faking” something for attention. That must happen sometimes, sure, but most famous cases of mass hysteria actually stem from people (usually women or girls, unfortunately) being placed in extraordinarily stressful or oppressive situations in tight-knit, homogeneous groups (think schools, convents, prisons, factories, small towns, etc.). This stress then manifests itself in real, painful symptoms. The Freudian terms hysteria and mass hysteria, while acceptable colloquially, have been replaced in clinical conversations by the terms conversion disorder for individuals and mass psychogenic illness (or MPI) for groups.
The reputation of people involved in cases of mass hysteria in history has been tainted by the sexism inherent in the name. It’s become shorthand for "women acting crazy," basically. But as this list demonstrates, it’s not always women instigating or participating in the mass hysteria. And when it is women, it’s typically for a good reason, because MPI is one way, according to sociologists, for women to express physically and involuntarily what they can’t just freely say. Read on for some of the most bizarre (and tragic) real cases of mass hysteria.
The Meowing Medieval Nuns
What Happened? A daily “cat concert” performed by nuns at a large convent in France sometime in the Middle Ages. It started, as it always does, with just one nun meowing, but then all the other nuns couldn’t help themselves. It soon became a routine that lasted “several hours” and pissed off the whole neighborhood. Soldiers had to come to the convent and threaten violence to get the nuns to stop.
Why? Sociologists say this case was just one of “dozens of outbreaks of hysterical fits and imitative behaviors” reported among nuns in cloistered convents in the Middle Ages. The combination of celibacy, poverty, hard labor, and the belief that cats “were considered familiar with the Devil” likely triggered the episode. Historian Robert Woolsey calls hysteria “a code used by a patient to communicate a message which, for various reasons, cannot be verbalized.” The meowed "code" in this case was seemingly of the self-flagellating variety, indicating how unworthy the nuns felt. (Or maybe they were just bored?)
The Dancing Plague of 1518
What Happened? About 400 people “danced” until they were sick (or dead!) over several days in Germany in 1518. Historical documents indicate that the victims were indeed dancing against their will, and not just gesticulating wildly. Musicians were brought in at one point to help keep them going because physicians assumed the only “cure” was to let them go as long as necessary.
Why? Theories include mass hysteria and psychoactive mushrooms growing on grain, or perhaps a combination of the two.
The Twitching Teens of Le Roy, NY
What Happened? Around a dozen high school girls (and later one boy) started exhibiting Tourette-like symptoms in Le Roy, NY, in 2011. Experts ruled out environmental factors (such as contaminated soil), vaccines, and drug side effects.
Why? The diagnosis from neurologists was "conversion disorder," which is defined as “the brain ‘converting’ severe mental stress into actual physical symptoms." As the New York Times reported, parents (and famous environmental activist Erin Brockovich) were not happy with this diagnosis. Some of the girls later started taking antibiotics, thinking it was related to an immune system disorder. Some got better, but some didn’t.
The outbreak eventually ran its course, leading many experts to believe that conversion disorder was indeed the correct diagnosis. It’s a fascinating case. Most of the victims, as the Times uncovered, came from broken homes, but weren’t (on the surface, at least) suffering from “severe mental stress.” They weren’t “faking it” (although some, of course, might have been) – their physical symptoms were real and painful, they just came from “within” and spread in a “biosocial” way, according to neurologists.
The Tanganyika Laughter Epidemic
What Happened? An entire school and a few villages in Tanganyika (now Tanzania) basically shut down over a “laughing fit” in 1962. At least that’s how it allegedly started. Eventually, everyone was also crying, fainting, and falling ill. It wasn’t very funny in the end (it lasted for at least six months).
Why? Despite the light-hearted nature of the video, researchers say that mass hysteria was to blame, or mass psychogenic illness (MPI), as it’s now known clinically. Here’s how researcher Christian F. Hempelmann explains mass hysteria/MPI (and this is also applicable to just about every case on this list):
It's psychogenic, meaning it is all in the minds of the people who showed the symptoms. It's not caused by an element in the environment, like food poisoning or a toxin. There is an underlying shared stress factor in the population. It usually occurs in a group of people who don't have a lot of power. MPI is a last resort for people of a low status. It's an easy way for them to express that something is wrong.