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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.

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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.”

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