What Can Mass Hysteria Do to a Crowd?

Recently the term Mass Hysteria has been used to describe the sudden mysterious affliction of some thirteen high school girls at Le Roy in upstate New York by more than a few skeptics.  But does this explanation really hold up?  To gain some perspective on the whole idea of mass hysteria here are some of the strangest examples ever recorded.

One of the earliest famous accounts ever recorded that are now widely considered mass hysteria was the dancing plague of 1518.  Sufferers of the mysterious and strange epidemic found themselves dancing uncontrollably.  Soon others joined in and by the end of it, many of the dancers lay dead having exhausted themselves beyond their capacity to go on.  The illness is widely considered one of the most bizarre and tragic such cases.

Much later, however, there was an illness known as the Tanganyika laughter.  This mysterious laughter began very suddenly in Tanzania on January 30, 1962.  The strange ailment caused the school to close its doors and shut down while those outside of it were still looking for answers.  The students would suddenly find themselves laughing hysterically, unable to stop it.  Soon 159 students would be affected.

The school was closed to stem the spread of what was believed to be a possible pathogen.  By that time, however, it was too late.  Soon the bizarre laughter could be heard ringing from many miles away spreading from the students to the villagers.  By the end of this bizarre ailment more schools would close in nearby Kanyangereka.  Nothing was ever identified to cause the mysterious illness and it was declared to be a case of mass hysteria.

In Singapore in the 1970’s a mass demonic possession was said to take place where those affected would become very violent and claim to be possessed by a jinn, or spirit.  Upon finding the victims, occasionally tranquilizers were employed to calm and sedate them.  According to those in the factories at the time, however, none of these seemed to have any effect.  Instead, only exorcisms seemed to work – and even these often only made the issue worse.  By the end, hundreds were affected either directly or indirectly by the mysterious possession.

If there’s one thing we can say for sure about mass hysteria it’s that it is far more powerful than we generally understand.  Conversion syndrome, a working explanation for what’s going on at Le Roy, is one of the many syndromes described under the umbrella terminology of mass hysteria. 

In the early days of observing the illness, Sigmund Freud theorized that those suffering from conversion syndrome were manifesting unacceptable emotions and feelings in a way that was acceptable.  Of course since then, psychology has attempted to explore the syndrome much more, but there has been no single answer for why it manifests the way it does and why it affects women more often than men.  Rather than focusing on the general populations suffering, many psychologists emphasize understanding of the individuals involved to better provide therapy.