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

October 24 • 8:00 AM

What Do Clowns Think of Clowns?

Three major players weigh in on the current state of the clown.


October 24 • 7:13 AM

There Is No Surge in Illegal Immigration

The overall rate of illegal immigration has actually decreased significantly in the last 10 years. The time is ripe for immigration reform.


October 24 • 6:15 AM

Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.


October 24 • 5:00 AM

Why We Gossip: It’s Really All About Ourselves

New research from the Netherlands finds stories we hear about others help us determine how we’re doing.


October 24 • 2:00 AM

Congratulations, Your City Is Dying!

Don’t take population numbers at face value.


October 23 • 4:00 PM

Of Course Marijuana Addiction Exists

The polarized legalization debate leads to exaggerated claims and denials about pot’s potential harms. The truth lies somewhere in between.


October 23 • 2:00 PM

American Companies Are Getting Way Too Cozy With the National Security Agency

Newly released documents describe “contractual relationships” between the NSA and U.S. companies, as well as undercover operatives.


October 23 • 12:00 PM

The Man Who’s Quantifying New York City

Noah Davis talks to the proprietor of I Quant NY. His methodology: a little something called “addition.”


October 23 • 11:02 AM

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.


October 23 • 10:00 AM

The Psychology of Bribery and Corruption

An FBI agent offered up confidential information about a political operative’s enemy in exchange for cash—and they both got caught. What were they thinking?


October 23 • 8:00 AM

Ebola News Gives Me a Guilty Thrill. Am I Crazy?

What it means to feel a little excited about the prospect of a horrific event.


October 23 • 7:04 AM

Why Don’t Men Read Romance Novels?

A lot of men just don’t read fiction, and if they do, structural misogyny drives them away from the genre.


October 23 • 6:00 AM

Why Do Americans Pray?

It depends on how you ask.


October 23 • 4:00 AM

Musicians Are Better Multitaskers

New research from Canada finds trained musicians more efficiently switch from one mental task to another.


October 22 • 4:00 PM

The Last Thing the Women’s Movement Needs Is a Heroic Male Takeover

Is the United Nations’ #HeForShe campaign helping feminism?


October 22 • 2:00 PM

Turning Public Education Into Private Profits

Baker Mitchell is a politically connected North Carolina businessman who celebrates the power of the free market. Every year, millions of public education dollars flow through Mitchell’s chain of four non-profit charter schools to for-profit companies he controls.


October 22 • 12:00 PM

Will the End of a Tax Loophole Kill Off Irish Business and Force Google and Apple to Pay Up?

U.S. technology giants have constructed international offices in Dublin in order to take advantage of favorable tax policies that are now changing. But Ireland might have enough other draws to keep them there even when costs climb.


October 22 • 10:00 AM

Veterans in the Ivory Tower

Why there aren’t enough veterans at America’s top schools—and what some people are trying to do to change that.


October 22 • 8:00 AM

Our Language Prejudices Don’t Make No Sense

We should embrace the fact that there’s no single recipe for English. Making fun of people for replacing “ask” with “aks,” or for frequently using double negatives just makes you look like the unsophisticated one.


October 22 • 7:04 AM

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.


October 22 • 6:00 AM

How We Form Our Routines

Whether it’s a morning cup of coffee or a glass of warm milk before bed, we all have our habitual processions. The way they become engrained, though, varies from person to person.


October 22 • 4:00 AM

For Preschoolers, Spite and Smarts Go Together

New research from Germany finds greater cognitive skills are associated with more spiteful behavior in children.


October 21 • 4:00 PM

Why the Number of Reported Sexual Offenses Is Skyrocketing at Occidental College

When you make it easier to report assault, people will come forward.


October 21 • 2:00 PM

Private Donors Are Supplying Spy Gear to Cops Across the Country Without Any Oversight

There’s little public scrutiny when private donors pay to give police controversial technology and weapons. Sometimes, companies are donors to the same foundations that purchase their products for police.


October 21 • 12:00 PM

How Clever Do You Think Your Dog Is?

Maybe as smart as a four-year-old child?


Follow us


Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

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