Wednesday, April 9, 2014

H is for . . .

Image courtesy: Frank Balsinger

Hysteria, as in mass hysteria. You're probably aware of the Salem witch trials in the 1600s, but did you know about the Dancing Plague of 1518? One woman in Strasburg France started dancing wildly in the streets. Others joined and boogied until they dropped dead of heart attacks, strokes, or pure exhaustion. Can I use this as an excuse not to dance at the next wedding reception?

If you google "incidents of mass hysteria", you will find plenty of modern-day examples. The 2012 Leroy, N.Y. case hit close to home. In this small town, about 30 miles south of where I live, several teenage girls experienced unexplained twitching and weakness of limbs to the point that they could no longer attend school. Their high school was investigated for environmental causes, and even Erin Brokovitch sent a team to see if a 1970 train derailment, which dumped a nasty chemical called TCE, could be the explanation.

Nothing came of these investigations and many of the afflicted girls were diagnosed with conversion disorder, the updated name for mass hysteria. Case closed? Not necessarily. Unsatisfied with the notion that it was "all in their head's", several of the girls continued to search for a physical cause and were later diagnosed with P.A.N.D.A.S., a rare complication from strep that can cause tics, among other things. Still, other experts claimed this alternative diagnosis didn't really fit.

According to Wikipedia, one girl was diagnosed with Tourette's syndrome and the rest finally responded to psychological treatment after they stopped participating in the media feeding frenzy.

This subject would make a fantastic plot device. Outside of The Crucible, can you think of other novels that feature mass hysteria?


  1. I know it's a bit weird to be starting my own comments, but I was strolling through the A to Z blog list and came upon a review for an upcoming book called The Fever by Megan Abbott loosely based on the Leroy incident. How cool is that?

  2. Fascinating topic, and it would make a great premise for a story or novel. If you look at some accounts of the Second Great Awakening in early American history, some of the supposedly spiritual effects sound a bit more like mass hysteria. Considering some of America's weirdest cults were born at this time, it makes a certain amount of sense.

    Nice to meet you through the A-Z
    Laurel's Leaves

  3. Yes, this "mass hysteria" would make for a great novel! I could see it as a detective novel with someone like Erin B. trying to figure it out:) Great post!

  4. Mass hysteria can certainly be debilitating. There may have been mass hysteria regarding swine flu. People were afraid to go anywhere near a pig!

  5. There are a number of cases in Japan too, including towns of people seeing frogs and other animals rain from the sky. It has usually happened during times of extreme change and one explanation was that priests created the situation to drive people back to the church/temple. Murakami's Kafaka on the Shore references this.

  6. Interesting. I had no idea there were modern cases of this. I did read about the ones in the past before.

  7. Would make an interesting topic


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