Mass hysteria, monkey men, and penis panics
Shit! Who knew you could catch Tourette’s Syndrome online?
Well you, can’t, not really. But you may be able to ‘catch’ similar symptoms from friends in the real world, or through social media.
A group of young cheerleaders who started twitching and spasming uncontrollably are at the centre of a recent high-profile case of ‘mass hysteria’. And an expert in mass hysteria and moral panics says such outbreaks will become more common in Australia as we connect more with people through the interwebs.
The New York Times reports that at the local high school in the small community of Le Roy, 18 students starting twitching uncontrollably. It started among the cheerleaders, then spread.
Authorities checked the water and the soil, as the story of the twitching teenagers was told through the news and Facebook. Eventually, it was diagnosed as an episode of mass psychogenic illness – otherwise known as mass hysteria.
It wasn’t a diagnosis that pleased the parents – but it’s a diagnosis with a long history.
Many religious delusions, sightings and miracles are thought to be due to mass hysteria, as are sightings of strange beasts. Some believe the Salem Witch Trials were an example. Other groups have wriggled and writhed, miaowed and had fits. Often spirits are blamed at the time, but historians and scientists think these could actually be a diagnosable disorder.
In 1374 hundreds of people were caught up in a ‘dancing plague’ in Strasbourg. They just couldn’t, they just couldn’t, they just couldn’t control their feet.
In 1962 An epidemic of laughter hit Tanganyika (Tanzania). Schools were closed as the six-month contagion spread. Schoolkids started laughing and it turned into a mass hysteria, probably due to stress.
Then there’s ‘penis panic’. Victims of ‘Genital Retraction Syndrome’ believe their penises are disappearing. It can become a contagious belief, spreading through communities. It’s more common in Africa and Asia, where it is often blamed on witchcraft.
In 2007 there was a cluster of bad reactions to the cervical cancer vaccine in Victoria – which was eventually found to be a mass psychogenic illness. The Medical Journal of Australia described it as :
The collective occurrence of a constellation of symptoms suggestive of organic illness but without an identified cause in a group of people with shared beliefs about the cause of the symptoms.
Experts reckon mass hysteria became more common after September 11 where people would be convinced a terrorist attack was occurring: they also worried that there would be outbreaks at World Youth Day, and there has even been speculation that in some cases peanut allergies are a symptom of mass hysteria.
What is new is this idea that rather than being spread in a geographical community, or a school or a village, the internet makes it possible to spread it virally. Dr Robert Bartholomew, sociologist and author of Little Green Men, Meowing Nuns and Head-Hunting Panics: A Study of Mass Psychogenic Illness and Social Delusion, told Fairfax that social media is an “extension of your eyes and ears”, so can be a conduit for hysteria:
Before, you could contain the situation to a certain area, like a classroom or factory.
But if someone is posting videos and updates of what is happening or what they’re experiencing on social media, even though people in the wider community are not there with the sufferers they may start to think they’ve been affected in some way.
The possibilities are endless. Imagine the power of an evangelical church that can use the internet to induce people to witness miracles, or to see God, or to speak in tongues.
Maybe marketing companies will harness mass hysteria to sell products, or songs, or… tickets to the Wiggles?
Dances like she’s got the plague. Follow @ToryShepherd on Twitter
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