Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Mass Hysteria: From Dance Floors to Factory Floors

• April 17, 2012 • 11:39 AM

Throughout the years, people’s minds have played tricks on them, but oftentimes their bodies react for real.

Do you have an uncontrollable desire to jump up and dance while watching “Dancing with the Stars”? Perhaps it’s not the music and excitement, but tarantism. In the 17th century, this urge to engage in a frenzied whirling dance, accompanied by nervous bouts of melancholy and hysteria, spread widely in southern Italy. The syndrome’s name comes from an energetic dance, the tarantella, a supposed cure for the venomous bite of a tarantula.

The officially dubbed “tarantism” followed a 1518 outbreak when a woman danced for days in the streets of Strasbourg. Before long, dozens of others joined in, and within a month, this frenetic dance plague spread among hundreds of people and resulted in many deaths. To exorcise the demons thought to be causing this mass hysteria, people prayed to St. Vitus, now the patron saint of dancers. And in his honor, St. Vitus Dance became the popular name for a nervous system twitching disorder doctors know as Sydenham chorea.

What’s of interest to skeptical and critical thinkers is how such symptoms and behaviors spread like a contagion without any biological or viral sources. Lest we think these manias are relegated to medieval times, consider events in LeRoy, New York. In November 2011, six teenage girls at the local high school reported waking up with mysterious Tourette-like (or perhaps tarantist-like) symptoms of shaking, verbal tics, and twitching. By February 2012, 18 girls claimed similar symptoms. Explanations reflected people’s personal anxieties: ticks spreading Lyme disease, HPV vaccinations, fracking, and pediatric autoimmune neuropsychiatric disorders associated with streptococcal infections. Speculation concerning possibly polluted air and water even led Erin Brockovich to investigate a decades-old toxic chemical spill.

Not everyone cited their favorite bugaboo; others focused on mass psychogenic illness — mass hysteria — sometimes called “conversion disorder.” The Mayo Clinic explains conversion disorder as “a condition in which you show psychological stress in physical ways. The condition was so named to describe a health problem that starts as a mental or emotional crisis — a scary or stressful incident of some kind — and converts to a physical problem.”

New Zealand sociologist Robert Bartholomew has written extensively on mass hysteria in his books, such as Hoaxes, Myths, and Mania (co-authored with Benjamin Radford), which are packed with examples, such as reactions to Orson Welles’ infamous 1938 War of the Worlds radio broadcast, which included people sensing the heat from the Martian rays, choking from the gas emanating from the spaceships, and seeing flames from the fires set by the invaders. In 1944, residents of a small town in Illinois experienced nausea, burning lips, dizziness, and headaches after one woman smelled gas from a “mad gasser” supposedly stalking the area.

[class name=”dont_print_this”]

Skeptic's Cafe

SKEPTIC'S CAFE
Peter Nardi discusses how to use our critical skills to avoid scams, respond to rumors and debunk questionable research.

[/class]

Recent bouts of conversion disorder are not limited to the U.S. In 2009, more than 1,200 workers in a Chinese factory went to emergency rooms vomiting, nauseous, and dizzy and believing it was from toxic fumes at a nearby chemical plant. Such physical symptoms are no laughing matter — although sometimes they are. In 1962, three teenage girls in the village of Kashasha (in what is today Tanzania) started laughing for hours, and soon days, on end. Before long, laughing spread around the school and to other schools in nearby villages. Many were forced to close. Rashes, respiratory problems, and fainting often accompanied the laughing.

Mass hysteria events have similar patterns: physical symptoms can be debilitating and are certainly real, even if the causes may not be. Workplaces, schools, and other confined places help spread the symptoms, and anxieties and stressful situations clearly remain a key source. One puzzling pattern is the disproportionate prevalence of conversion disorders among women, from the Salem witch trials to Beatlemania. We are mindful that women writers have pointed out how medical doctors often disregard women’s health symptoms as “just” hysteria; the word itself is based on the Greek word for “womb” and links behavior with disturbances in the uterus. Yet, we must critically think about how our cultures contribute to stress among teenage girls and examine what the outlets are for dealing with their anxieties, especially in comparison to boys.

Over time, the symptoms usually subside and the treatments – counseling, prescription medications, physical therapy – can be effective. There are also some innovative cures. Writing in Slate, Ruth Graham tells the story of a 1789 textile factory in England. As a joke, a woman put a mouse down the dress of a fellow worker who went into a convulsion. A rumor spread that imported cotton had caused the convulsion, and 24 people began violent seizures and had to be restrained. The suggested treatment was to “take a cheerful glass and join in a dance.” They danced and the next day most returned to work.

Anyone up for a tarantella?

Peter M. Nardi
Peter M. Nardi, Ph.D, is an emeritus professor of sociology at Pitzer College, a member of the Claremont Colleges. He is the author of "Doing Survey Research: A Guide to Quantitative Methods.”

More From Peter M. Nardi

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

November 26 • 4:00 PM

Turmoil at JPMorgan

Examiners are reportedly blocked from doing their job as “London Whale” trades blow up.


November 26 • 2:00 PM

Rich Kids Are More Likely to Be Working for Dad

Nepotism is alive and well, especially for the well-off.


November 26 • 12:00 PM

How Do You Make a Living, Taxidermist?

Taxidermist Katie Innamorato talks to Noah Davis about learning her craft, seeing it become trendy, and the going-rate for a “Moss Fox.”


November 26 • 10:28 AM

Attitudes About Race Affect Actions, Even When They Don’t

Tiny effects of attitudes on individuals’ actions pile up quickly.


November 26 • 10:13 AM

Honeybees Touring America


November 26 • 10:00 AM

Understanding Money

In How to Speak Money, John Lanchester explains how the monied people talk about their mountains of cash.


November 26 • 8:00 AM

The Exponential Benefits of Eating Less

Eating less food—whole food and junk food, meat and plants, organic and conventional, GMO and non-GMO—would do a lot more than just better our personal health.


November 26 • 6:00 AM

The Incorruptible Bodies of Saints

Their figures were helped along by embalming, but, somehow, everyone forgot that part.


November 26 • 4:00 AM

The Geography of Real Estate Markets Is Shifting Under Our Feet

Policies aimed at unleashing supply in order to make housing more affordable are relying on outdated models.



November 25 • 4:00 PM

Is the Federal Reserve Bank of New York Doing Enough to Monitor Wall Street?

Bank President William Dudley says supervision is stronger than ever, but Democratic senators are unconvinced: “You need to fix it, Mr. Dudley, or we need to get someone who will.”


November 25 • 3:30 PM

Cultural Activities Help Seniors Retain Health Literacy

New research finds a link between the ability to process health-related information and regular attendance at movies, plays, and concerts.


November 25 • 12:00 PM

Why Did Doctors Stop Giving Women Orgasms?

You can thank the rise of the vibrator for that, according to technology historian Rachel Maines.


November 25 • 10:08 AM

Geography, Race, and LOLs

The online lexicon spreads through racial and ethnic groups as much as it does through geography and other traditional linguistic measures.


November 25 • 10:00 AM

If It’s Yellow, Seriously, Let It Mellow

If you actually care about water and the future of the species, you’ll think twice about flushing.


November 25 • 8:00 AM

Sometimes You Should Just Say No to Surgery

The introduction of national thyroid cancer screening in South Korea led to a 15-fold increase in diagnoses and a corresponding explosion of operations—but no difference in mortality rates. This is a prime example of over-diagnosis that’s contributing to bloated health care costs.



November 25 • 6:00 AM

The Long War Between Highbrow and Lowbrow

Despise The Avengers? Loathe the snobs who despise The Avengers? You’re not the first.


November 25 • 4:00 AM

Are Women More Open to Sex Than They Admit?

New research questions the conventional wisdom that men overestimate women’s level of sexual interest in them.


November 25 • 2:00 AM

The Geography of Innovation, or, Why Almost All Japanese People Hate Root Beer

Innovation is not a product of population density, but of something else entirely.


November 24 • 4:00 PM

Federal Reserve Announces Sweeping Review of Its Big Bank Oversight

The Federal Reserve Board wants to look at whether the views of examiners are being heard by higher-ups.



November 24 • 2:00 PM

That Catcalling Video Is a Reminder of Why Research Methods Are So Important

If your methods aren’t sound then neither are your findings.


November 24 • 12:00 PM

Yes, Republicans Can Still Win the White House

If the economy in 2016 is where it was in 2012 or better, Democrats will likely retain the White House. If not, well….


November 24 • 11:36 AM

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it’s relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.


Follow us


Attitudes About Race Affect Actions, Even When They Don’t

Tiny effects of attitudes on individuals' actions pile up quickly.

Geography, Race, and LOLs

The online lexicon spreads through racial and ethnic groups as much as it does through geography and other traditional linguistic measures.

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it's relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends' perceptions suggest they know something's off with their pals but like them just the same.

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.