During the 19th century in rural New England, dozens of corpses were exhumed, examined for certain signs—fresh blood, or lack of expected decay—then sometimes beheaded, eviscerated, or otherwise desecrated. This was occasionally done privately by family members of the deceased, while other times it was a public event, with organs removed and ritually burned on a pyre to great acclaim and relief. Sometimes the body was simply turned over and re-buried. The exhumations, it was thought, were saving the living.
The reason for this grim fixation? Tuberculosis. The leading cause of death in the 1800s, TB was responsible for ¼ of all deaths and was a mystery for most of the century, with both cause and treatment unknown. Towns and villages were stalked by a disease that was clearly transmissible and decidedly lethal, but with no way to know why it was happening or how to stop it. From their perspective, someone would get sick and die, then later other family members would also fall ill. In this context, it’s perhaps understandable that terrified people in rural areas, already watching their towns die out from migration to cities and now watching their town physically die, would reach for a superstitious belief: that the dead were vampires, drawing life force from the living and making them ill. The exhumations and desecrations were meant to sever this connection between living and dead, to stop the spread of disease.
At least 80 such cases are known, primarily in “backwoods” areas of New England in the early-to-mid 19th century. This almost surely undercounts the actual number, given the scant records that survive. What records do survive are a bizarre mix of grisly and nonchalant: “Timothy Mead officiated at the altar in the sacrifice to the Demon Vampire who it was believed was still sucking the blood of the then living wife of Captain Burton … It was the month of February and good sleighing.”
Folklorist/anthropologist Michael Bell is primarily responsible for unearthing and studying the “vampire panic.” He notes that in most cases, people engaged in the practice did not use the term “vampire,” which was often employed by city folk to exoticise “unchurched” backcountry bumpkins (indeed, one newspaper suggested the panic owed to deficiencies caused by inbreeding). City newspapers called it a “Horrible Superstition” and Thoreau lamented the savagery of the practice in his journals; even in its own time, the panic was viewed by outsiders as “a baffling anachronism.” Bell, for his part, is most intrigued by what would drive people to these ends—to literally dig up and defile the bodies of loved ones. His conclusion is admirably straightforward: “People find themselves in dire situations, where there’s no recourse through regular channels … the folk system offers an alternative…” In that sense, the events themselves are not a panic, but are the product of panic.
Fast forward two centuries to Greenville, SC, where a 9-year-old claimed two clowns had attempted to lure him into the woods in September 2016. Within a month, nearly every state in the US and at least eighteen other countries had reported creepy looming clown sightings. Within another month, the clown sightings had slowed to a trickle.
Mass Hysteria and Collective Delusion
Mass hysteria has two distinct meanings. In sociological/psychological contexts, it refers to the spread of illusory or exaggerated threats through rumors and fear. It’s sometimes—and perhaps more accurately—called mass suggestion (a phrase that has the side benefit of discarding the historically-loaded term “hysteria” while also focusing on the internal beliefs rather than the outward behaviors of those afflicted). In clinical contexts, it refers to a spontaneous onset of symptoms in a group of people with no specific cause or transmission vector, and is now more accurately called mass psychogenic illness (MPI). So one definition is about beliefs, and the other is about physical symptoms, although that distinction isn’t always perfect—seeing other people develop inexplicable medical symptoms has a way of inducing fear.
Why do episodes of mass hysteria occur? For an answer, get thee to a nunnery. Such events are most likely to occur to groups of people living under repressive, high-stress conditions. For example, medieval nuns, forced into convents and to take vows of poverty, chastity, self-mortification, and to live under dictatorial rule. During the Middle Ages, across a span of multiple centuries “..in nunneries everywhere from Rome to Paris, hundreds were plunged into states of frantic delirium during which they foamed, screamed and convulsed, sexually propositioned exorcists and priests, and confessed to having carnal relations with devils or Christ.” And if not nuns, children in strict, authoritarian schools. Indeed, historically, convents and schools are prime locations for MPI. Once convent-centered episodes slowed down in the 1700s, they were replaced by incidents in schools—dozens of events, with symptoms ranging from seizure-like fits, to catatonia, to trembling and leg twitches, to an outbreak of uncontrollable laughter (Tanzania, 1962). Such events do not occur, but would not be “unexpectable,” in The Handmaid’s Tale.
For many of these cases, it seems the oppressive atmosphere is an essential precondition for a mass hysteria, which is often triggered by some new stressor. For example, a “reformist” head mother entered a nunnery in 1658 bringing new, even harsher rules. Almost immediately, the sisters began engaging in dissociative behavior, acting as though possessed. The symptoms eased once the head mother was removed. Likewise, instances of MPI in schools can be traced to specific triggers (e.g., a rumor of mandatory pregnancy tests).
What’s fascinating about mass delusion and MPI are the forms it takes, and how, sometimes directly, those forms are products of context and culture. That 14th-century cloistered French nuns began to meow and act like cats is indeed strange, but also happened at a time when it was generally believed that humans could be possessed by animals and that cats were familiars of the devil. Milan was gripped by fears of a secret poisoner while in the midst of a plague pandemic in 1630, and the New England “vampire panic” was tied to tuberculosis outbreaks. Other panics, like the “Irish Fright” of 1688, in which Protestant Englanders panicked over rumors of Irish soldiers pillaging towns and villages, are nakedly xenophobic. And more generally, in religious cultures MPI is commonly understood as “demonic possession,” whereas in more secular/technocratic cultures, the same symptoms might be understood as consequences of chemical/environmental contamination. In other words, mass psychogenic illness in the current American zeitgeist is unlikely to involve cat possession, but if it did it would definitely involve people in fugue states repeatedly asking to “haz cheezburger.”
Alternatively, a modern mass hysteria might feature a historically common theme: penis panic. For while the modern American zeitgeist does not generally include animal possession, it does include all those Mike Ditka throwing a football through a tire swing in an oblique metaphor for sex commercials and the omnipresent fragility of the male sexual ego. Though not technically a “panic,” the idea of penis theft or disappearance dates at least to the blood-soaked, Inquisition-critical Malleus Maleficarum, which in its several hundred pages arguing for the extermination of witches, relates the tale of genital thievery: “Witches … collect male organs in great numbers, as many as 20 or 30 members together, and put them in a bird’s nest, or shut them in a box.” The most well-known penis panic was Singapore, 1967, when nearly 500 men visited hospitals in the belief their penis was shrinking into nothingness. A similar event occurred in China in 1984 (notable for also affecting women). Multiple events have occurred in Africa, where the belief usually entails stealing of genitalia, rather than shrinkage.
Barry Glassner, who studies mass panics, holds that such events are “metaphoric illnesses,” and are really a sort of society-wide Freudian projection of deeper fears. The 1980s manias of “stranger danger” and ritual satanic child abuse cults, he says, were really outlets for anxiety from a new generation of parents who worked more and outsourced more of their child care duties. “Gulf War Syndrome,” which may or may not actually exist, was an outlet for anxieties about chemical weapons. Vampire panics and poisoning fears are outlets for concern about illness and pandemics. In other words we manifest panics and delusions to displace deeper anxieties, like in Ghostbusters when Gozer tells them to choose the form of their destruction, and Ray thinks of the Stay-Puft marshmallow man, thereby summoning a huge malevolent simulacrum of cherished childhood memories.
Superficially, that argument makes a lot of sense, but it breaks down pretty quickly. It’s pretty easy to create a story about the “real” cause of some panic (like chemical weapons for Gulf War syndrome), but we are left to wonder if such explanations actually explain anything, or if they are convenient and unverifiable “just-so stories” that only work with benefit of hindsight. If you are trying to use this framework to predict the next mass panic: good luck. But there’s a deeper fundamental weakness, a giant wrench thrown in the machinery of attempts to attribute causality to mass panics. And that concern is: windshields.
To explain, let’s discuss the ur-example of mass delusion what-the-fuckery: the great Seattle windshield pitting epidemic of 1954. Over the course of about two weeks in April 1954, reports of sudden and unexplained pitting, bubbles, and holes in car windshields wended its way from Bellingham, 80 miles north of Seattle, right into town. More than 3,000 cars were reported damaged, and Seattle’s mayor called the fricking president for help, and boy do I wish we (a) had the audio of that call and (b) LBJ had been president. The outbreak was not limited to Seattle: localized pitting pockets turned up in eight other states and Canada.
No cause could be isolated, which is not to say no causes were suggested. A brief list: meteorite dust, hatching sand flea eggs, acid dropped by flying bugs (?), the falling skeletons of minuscule marine life that had been aerosolized by H-bomb testing, fallout from H-bomb testing, and my personal favorite: imperceptible oscillations from the Navy’s new million-watt radio transmitter, which is very nearly the plot to an X-Files episode. Later, Seattle’s crime lab reported the widespread pit mania owed to “5 per cent hoodlum-ism and 95 per cent public hysteria.” Now, sure, you could explain that as some kind of displaced anxiety about nuclear testing, but come on: windshields?
Other cases also defy straightforward causative explanations. One such example is the “Mad Gasser of Mattoon,” a/k/a the “Anesthetic Prowler” and the “Phantom Anesthetist.” In September, 1944 the town of Mattoon, Illinois ignited in town-wide panic when a woman claimed an intruder had opened her bedroom window and sprayed her with a sweet smelling gas that paralyzed her. Gassing reports spiraled rapidly, with newspapers delighting in reporting the gasser’s “maniacal forays,” then just as quickly stopped. There was nothing but inconsistency in the eyewitness/victim reports: was the gas sweet, musty, or odorless? Did it knock you out, make you sick, or paralyze you? Nothing made sense, most likely because the mad gasser did not exist. And—here’s the fun thing: that wasn’t even the first mad gasser! In 1933-4, rural Virginia’s Botetourt county was terrorized by a mad gasser with almost the exact same M.O., and presumably the literal exact same degree of actually-existingness. One report on the Botetourt events notes: “A few calls may even have been triggered by passing flatulence.” (Side note: when I say rural, I mean rural: it was thought that the gasser might have been using “chicken gas,” apparently used by chicken thieves to anesthetize the animals before taking them).
Mysterious ephemeral attackers are common in the annals of mass hysteria (hyst-ory? no…no. Mike, you’re better than that). The Halifax Slasher nonexistently terrorized Halifax in 1938 and likewise the “Phantom Slasher of Taiwan” in 1956. One sleepy English village was supposedly attacked by a sniper. Spring-Heeled Jack straddles a boundary of folklore, urban legend, and mania.
Perhaps the most bizarre is the “London Monster,” a man said to wear needles on his knees or to hide a knife in a bouquet of flowers with which to stab victims. Upwards of 50 victims were reported in the late 1700s, leading to vigilante patrols (they give you the sack, but you have to fill it with your own doorknobs), a “No Monster Club,” and women wearing copper pans over their petticoats for self-defense. Eventually a 23-year-old florist named Rhynwick Williams was arrested for the crimes, and owing to the peculiar illogic of the British penal code, was charged with defacing clothing, which carried stiffer penalties than assault and attempted murder. His trial was enough of a kangaroo court that he was granted a retrial, at which he was sentenced to six years in prison despite alibis for most of the attacks and no real evidence besides speculative, conflicting testimony. There was little evidence that any attacks had even occurred at all. Side note: that British legal code is colloquially known as the “Bloody Code” due to the surfeit of crimes that could receive the death penalty.
Even panics that appear at first to be explicable as anxiety made manifest aren’t always what they seem. “Dancing manias” occurred multiple times in Europe from the 8th to 17th centuries. The events were marked by groups of people—sometimes numbering in the thousands—entering a sort of dissociative state and dancing for hours, days, or weeks at a time. Their feet would be bloody and they would not eat or drink; hundreds o f people died of exhaustion or heart attacks. They literally danced themselves to death. Though some have speculated that the dancing manias were the result of mass ergot poisoning, it’s most commonly held that, like the nuns and schoolchildren, they were the response to shared stress; it was serfs living under the yoke of the church finding an outlet. As a point in favor of this hypothesis, it’s noted that dancing outbreaks occurred primarily after natural disasters. But this doesn’t explain how or why dancing was the physical form of the hysteria, and why it was geographically isolated to certain areas of Europe.
It also doesn’t explain why, in one solitary part of southern Italy, dancing mania was thought to be caused by the bite of a tarantula. This belief was so ensconced that musicians literally wrote music, and people created a dance—the tarantella—specifically performed to “cure” oneself. “the tarantulees, after having danced for a long time, meet together in the chapel of Saint Paul and communally attain the paroxysm of their trance, … the general and desperate agitation was dominated by the stylised cry of the tarantulees, the ‘crisis cry’, an ahiii uttered with various modulations…”
More than a dozen workers at the US embassy in Cuba have reported a strange mix of symptoms, ranging from nausea to hearing loss to headaches, from late 2016 through August of 2017. These coincided with sporadic reports of strange sounds in the building. In response, the US reduced staff, and theories abounded about potential causes. Hopefully if you have gotten this far you are saying: “oh right this sounds like a classic case of mass psychogenic illness,” and you are not one of the huge numbers of people who believe this was caused by some bizarre “sonic weapon.” It turns out that the strange sounds were probably caused by malfunctioning surveillance equipment, and unless our entire understanding of the physics of sound waves is wrong, did not cause physical damage. Nevertheless, the state department appears to be doubling down on the “it was an attack” hypothesis, which is always reassuring.
If indeed our manias and panics reveals something deep and dark in the soul of our culture, if they reflect latent fears and prejudices, if they really mean something more than just the event itself, I only have one question: what exactly does the clown panic of 2016 imply?
Background Reading and References
Some background reading: A good article about the vampire panic is here. A really good article about dancing plagues is here. Some nice amuse-bouche lists of mass hysteria events are here and here. Some deeper sources at , , , ,