Written By Aaliyah Khan
The phrase, “Dance until your feet fall off,” has been used coined by many over the years, but an event in history made this a reality. Science has struggled to understand the phenomenon of Mass Hysteria. When hundreds of people seem to face the same psychological and physical symptoms simultaneously, it is clear to see there is no room for coincidence. To try and understand what Mass Hysteria truly is, let’s take a look at its definition and some examples from the past and present.
What is Mass Hysteria?
Mass Hysteria is considered “collective obsessional behaviour,” otherwise known as mass psychogenic illness. Some, incorrectly so, characterize this behaviour as unreal, and purely a result of psychological issues. Many have accepted that it is in fact due to physiological illness. Simply put, physiological illnesses begin in the brain, and lead to physical symptoms. The direct definition is: “the epidemic occurrence of a succession of physical symptoms without organic disorder or identifiable illness agents.”
It can be easy to classify even the most casual of events as a form of mass hysteria, which is why Simon Wessley, a Professor from the United Kingdom created 5 rules to help classify events as accounts of Mass Hysteria:
- The actions are abnormal and not attributed to an existing physical illness
- People involved are unknown to act in such a manner
- Does not include symptoms induced from peer pressure or convincing
- “It excludes collective manifestations used to obtain a state of satisfaction unavailable singly, such as fads, crazes, and riots”
- There is some connection between the group of people, it is not a coincidence
Along with the classification of mass hysteria, there are also two main types: Mass Anxiety Hysteria, and Mass Motor Hysteria.
- Mass Anxiety Hysteria: This type has many symptoms that coincide with those of anxiety. These include chest and abdominal pain, headaches, dizziness, etc.
- Mass Motor Hysteria: This type involves one’s motor functions. When faced with this Mass Hysteria, “pseudo-seizures” and “pseudo-paresis” are the symptoms.
The Incident in France.
Mass Hysteria has been presented sporadically throughout history. One of the most infamous cases occurred in July of 1518. Strasbourg, Alsace, was the victim of “The Dancing Plague”. It began one evening when a local woman walked into the street and began shaking and convulsing in a dance-like manner. She silently twisted and shook on her own, before being joined by multiple other people within a week. By August, the dancing plague had taken over the lives of nearly 400 people. The town began to get into the spirit of the apparent dance-off by bringing in bands and setting up a large stage for everyone to dance on.
Soon, the lighthearted jigs were met with pain and the inability to stop. People would injure themselves, only to rest for a few moments and get back up to continue dancing. Residents began collapsing from exhaustion and some even suffered heart attacks and strokes from the vigorous dancing. At its peak, the hysteria was taking nearly 15 lives a day, finally coming to an end in September. Thankfully, the city in France was able to recover. There were similar cases of this occurrence in other places throughout Europe, however, none were quite as deadly as the plague of 1518. Many people believe this to be an example of Mass Anxiety Hysteria due to the levels of disease and famine the country was facing at the time. This example of large group thinking followed Prof. Wessley’s criterion for Mass Psychogenic Illness.
Mass Hysteria in the Present.
After learning what Mass Hysteria is, can we imagine what it would like today? Some believe that social media can induce behaviour that mimics Mass Hysteria. In 2012, there was an instance where a video of a girl experiencing symptoms similar to the Tourettes illness posted to YouTube. Many people who watched the video claimed to be experiencing the same symptoms. Although it is impossible to unequivocally state that this was an instance of mass hysteria, many have come to this conclusion. Either way, social media affecting our physical and mental well-being is a known fact. So, is the concept of social media causing Mass Hysteria truly as implausible as it sounds?
Mass Hysteria is a fascinating scientific concept. Trying to comprehend how such a large group of people can face the same physical symptoms simultaneously is extremely difficult. In the case of the incident in France, the consequences went beyond strange behaviour; people lost their lives due to this illness. So, although some may look back at that historical event with humourous curiosity, it carries a much more solemn message.