Throughout history there have been numerous events that were left mostly unexplained by those who witnessed them. Incidents where people all began to act mysteriously and demonstrate symptoms that seemingly made no sense, like nuns that bark or children that can’t stop laughing. As quickly as they come, they often fade away and few people are any worse for it. When these unexplained conditions pop up, mass hysteria is often the cause.
10. The Cuban Embassy Attacks
One of the biggest and scariest stories of 2016 and beyond dealt with a series of bizarre illnesses that befell American diplomats at the US Embassy in Cuba. Numerous people came down with serious issues ranging from memory loss to hearing loss to actual, physical brain damage. The Trump White House accused Cuba of deploying some kind of secret sonic weapon against the Embassy. But subsequent research has made this less plausible.
Today, if you look at the Wikipedia page for the attacks, there is a section that dismisses the idea of mass hysteria thanks to JAMA research that concluded the victims had suffered physical trauma. That makes it seem pretty cut and dry. However, that was dated from 2018.
Other researchers reviewed the data and came up with some critical errors. The reports that staffers at the embassy were riddled with physical ailments offered no context. There is no data whatsoever to back up claims that people suffered injuries, including the nature of the injuries, how they were evaluated, or anything else.
Much of the data relied on for reports cited in the media were based on self-reporting.The idea that the trauma was inflicted by a new sonic weapon took off, except that no one in the world has ever made such a weapon and even those that have tried, like the US government, have had little success with anything similar to what happened in Cuba because physics don’t allow things to work that way.
What the condition did seem to mirror very well were the symptoms of mass hysteria outbreaks.
9. Salem Witch Trials
Possibly America’s most famous case of mass hysteria, and one of its darkest, the Salem Witch Trials show just how extremely dangerous mass hysteria can get. In the span of one year in the late 1600s, nineteen women were executed by hanging as witches while hundreds more faced persecution for the made up crime. More died in prison and from additional methods of torture.
The local priest had set up an environment where citizens were shamed publicly for their transgressions. When his children began having fits, he accused locals of devilry. Dozens were arrested and put on trial to face bizarre and nonsensical tests to prove whether they were witches. One of the tests involved simply touching someone having one of these fits. If the fit stopped, the person was a witch. Even the presence of a mole, then known as a witch’s teat, was considered direct evidence of witchcraft.
8. Monkey Man
Some cases of mass hysteria seem easier to believe than others. But there’s long been a powerful thread of the supernatural and unbelievable behind many cases that makes it even harder to understand how any of it could have been believed by anyone, let alone many people. Few cases of this are more dramatic than the Monkey Man of New Delhi.
In 2001, residents of New Delhi began reporting sightings of a terrifying half-man, half monkey. The creature traveled across rooftops and had razor sharp metal claws as well as a helmet, presumably for safety.
People reported being attacked and injured by the creature. Worse, several people even died in what was believed to have been attempts to escape the monkey man that resulted in them falling from rooftops. Police were unable to keep up with all the reports, and most of the injuries were chalked up to animal bites rather than supernatural monkey man bites.
The hysteria was believed to have been fueled not just by superstition but by rolling blackouts that were leaving people unexpectedly in darkness at random times. That likely exacerbated fears and made the situation worse.
The situation got bad enough at some point that gangs of vigilantes were roaming the streets and had even beat up a very short man, assuming he was the monkey man in question.
7. Halifax Slasher
In 1938 in Halifax, England, a man with shiny buckles on his shoes and a mallet began attacking women. Two women claimed the man attacked them and set off a panic that saw people taking to the streets in an effort to hunt the villain down.
Within the first week other attacks were reported, and the weapon changed from a mallet to a knife or razors. Scotland Yard was called to help with the investigation. Vigilantes attacked those that they felt might be the slasher, and things spiralled out of control. Local businesses closed up shop in fear and the panic spread to other towns where attacks also started being reported.
Eventually one of the victims caved in and admitted they had made the attack up and actually harmed themselves. Others did the same, and eventually five of the so-called victims were charged with public mischief.
6. Tanganyika Laughter Incident
Laughter is the best medicine, some people say, but that can’t be the case when laughter is also the problem. That was the case of an incident in 1962 in Tanzania when one girl at a school started laughing and couldn’t stop. School officials tried to make her stop to no avail and laughter contagious as it sometimes is, spread to other students. Nearly 100 of the school’s 159 students were affected. The event started in January and was still going on in March when the school was forced to shut down.
The laughing epidemic spread beyond the borders of the school. People in other towns and other schools fell victim. Some people were affected for days, some for weeks. But it spread around enough that over 1,000 victims were claimed in total and 14 different schools had to be closed over the course of several months.
Looking back on the incident, most researchers have concluded that the laughter was anxiety-borne. There were a number of contributing factors that were causing excessive stress to students at the time. Unknown expectations of the British run schools and thr fact that the region has just gained independence were likely major causes of unrest in people’s minds.
5. The Mad Gasser of Mattoon
You’d be forgiven for not knowing much about the town of Mattoon, Illinois. With a population under 20,000 people, it’s a tiny place that isn’t well known for much. Except for the Mad Gasser who plagued the town in the 1940s and who also didn’t actually exist.
For several weeks, residents in the town reported being attacked by a stranger who exposed them to poisonous gas. Witnesses also corroborated these reports, assuring police they had seen the gasser at work.
According to reports, victims would be at home and notice an unusual smell. They would then suffer symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, and paralysis. Despite this, police never found a shred of evidence that the gasser existed. In fact, they were able to find much more evidence that there was no gasser, and the strange smells all had easy to pinpoint explanations from spilled nail polish to animals.
4. Charlie Charlie
The Charlie Charlie Challenge, an adaptation of a much older game simply called “the pencil game” reportedly summoned forth nefarious spirits from beyond and led to death and suicide. None of that was true but it didn’t stop countries like Fiji and Libya from banning the game outright to protect vulnerable children.
The idea of the game is simple. You place a pair of pencils on a sheet of paper, one balanced on the other to create what looks like a plus sign. You have things like names written in each of the four segments of the sheet of paper that are bordered by the pencils. Players ask a question like “which boy likes me?” and the pencil rotates on a pivot point to point at one of the four names you have written on the sheet of paper.
Because the pencil is very precariously balanced, it can move with very little force. Even breathing near it will cause it to rotate. In principle it’s very similar to how a Ouija board works, seemingly moving of its own volition even though there are easy to understand forces at work.
In 2015, however, this game got out of hand. Renamed “Charlie Charlie,” the idea was that kids were asking a spirit or demon to move the pencil. Most stories called it a Mexican demon, despite the English name. Four girls in Colombia ended up going to the hospital as a result, screaming and hysterical, believed to be victims of the supernatural forces at work. Doctors diagnosed it as mass hysteria and nothing more.
3. The Clown Panic
In 2016, the world was in the grip of clown panic. Chiefly centered in the United States, it had spread to many other countries including Canada, the UK and others. There was a widespread belief that evil clowns were roaming the streets. By October there were dozens of reports coming in every day about sinister clowns.
The clown panic seems to have started as the result of a single viral marketing stunt in Wisconsin. And stunt was a generous term. A man dressed as a creepy clown was simply standing in street corners looking like a clown.
After that, reports began rolling in from all over the country. Clowns with weapons, clowns making threats, clowns looking ominous. And as near as anyone could tell, none of it was real. Not a single clown actually did anything ominous or dangerous during the entire event.
Police were receiving anonymous reports of clowns trying to lure children and little to no evidence to back anything up. But each subsequent story made national news, and that put more fuel on the fire. The panic lasted for months, throughout the summer and well into the fall.
By October most media sources were openly calling it all a hoax since no genuine harm had been caused and no real arrests had been made, just false arrests based on false reports.
2. The Dancing Plague
One of the oldest known cases of mass hysteria took place all the way back in 1518. The incident was actually used as a partial basis for a plot point in Buffy the Vampire Slayer back in the day as well. The residents of Strasbourg, Alsace were struck with an inextricable urge to dance. It became known as the Dancing Plague.
The incident started in July. A woman called Frau Troffea took to the street one day and began to dance. She danced for a day and then two days. She danced for an entire week and by week’s end, she had three-dozen back up dancers. By the time August rolled around, as many as 400 residents of the town were busting moves in the streets.
Doctors, already at a loss to explain most well-known illnesses, settled on “hot blood” as the cause. So the cure was basically an “if you can’t beta ‘em, join ‘em” situation. The town erected a stage and hired a band.
Instead of fixing the problem, the dancers were just pushed to their breaking point. Reports that people danced themselves to death circulated after the fact and whether or not they are true is still up for debate.
1. Puppy Pregnancy Syndrome
Generally speaking, mass hysteria is a limited scope phenomenon. It happens for a defined period of time then it goes away when people realize the thing they fear is not real. Such is not the case with puppy pregnancy syndrome in West Bengal, India. This strange mass panic keeps popping up again and again over the years.
Puppy pregnancy syndrome is tragically very much what it sounds like. Victims are bitten by dogs and then convinced that the dog bite has impregnated them with puppies. The vast majority of people in one small village are convinced this is a very real thing.
According to their beliefs if a dog in a clear state of sexual arousal bites a human, the dog saliva transmits the fetal dogs to the human bloodstream. It doesn’t matter if you’re a man or a woman, the dog babies will take root. That means men are in a far worse position than female bite victims as, according to the belief, they are doomed to birth puppies through their urethra.
Men are convinced they will die during the delivery process. As a result, there are so-called experts in town who can perform rituals to abort the puppies and save human lives. This must be especially important when you consider some female victims have claimed that they could even hear the puppies in their abdomen barking in the night.
As silly as it sounds, the syndrome has had serious, real consequences. Victims had to be medicated to overcome serious fears of dogs and obsessive compulsive disorders.