Few phenomena in psychology today are more mysterious or more ill understood than the theory of mass hysteria. Unfortunately, it is also a diagnosis that lends itself to anything strange or unusual being termed mass hysteria if no other adequate explanation can be found. Needless to say, there are several manifestations of mass hysteria that have proven to be strange even by the standards of this already incredible and sudden ailment.
The disease can manifest in a number of forms from the mundane to the incredible. One of the more “mundane,” albeit still extreme accounts of mass hysteria occurred in 2009 in Fort Worth Texas, when 34 people had to be hospitalized. The hospitalization came from a fear over carbon monoxide poisoning that turned out to have no source. But there are others that are a bit stranger and more extreme.
In a Tanzanian village in 1962 an illness began sweeping the countryside after it was mysteriously first recorded in a school. Dubbed the Tanganyika laughter by historians, the mysterious laughter soon spread throughout the countryside and affected thousands. The symptoms were so profound that many who were affected soon found themselves screaming with laughter and crying at the same time, unable to control themselves. It is unknown currently just how much suffering this mysterious Tanganyika laughter caused, but reports do tell of harrowing victims unable to stop the laughter much to the anguish and apprehension of nearby witnesses. The source, traced back to an innocent prank played in the nearby school had no idea at the time what they were unleashing – only that it had all started as a joke.
And in 2006, thousands of locals living near the heavily polluted Mahim creek started saying the water had turned crystalline pure and sweet. Despite having thousands of tons of raw sewage mingling with the water, thousands drank from it and collected it in bottles. The full effects of the devastatingly unsanitary conditions were never fully discovered, but health officials still cringe when thinking back on the incident. Strangely enough, despite the fact that the water was clearly polluted, many found they were unable to change their own perceptions or those around them even when told otherwise.
Of course knowledge of this disease alongside the principles that go along with us have to make us question how much of our society is genuinely a representation of what we see before us and how much of it is simply one form of mass hysteria or another. It seems the hysterical accounts have no real backing in reality and are quite powerful – capable of even causing people to exert themselves dangerously near death or even to it. And with several more bizarre accounts leading all the way back through time immemorial, it seems in the search for the real truth of what’s going on in the world we can trust no one. But there is hope. Despite this natural human condition, people have managed to piece together a broad understanding of the world around us and even capture – if not for a moment – that spark of truth in it all.