Menus Subscribe Search

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

September 12 • 4:00 PM

Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Plastic Bags

California wants you to pay for your plastic bags. (FYI: That’s not an infringement on your constitutional rights.)


September 12 • 2:00 PM

Should We Trust the Hearts of White People?

On the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, revisiting a clip of James Baldwin on the Dick Cavett Show.


September 12 • 12:00 PM

Big Government, Happy Citizens?

You may like to talk about how much happier you’d be if the government didn’t interfere with your life, but that’s not what the research shows.


September 12 • 10:00 AM

Whispering in the Town Square: Can Twitter Provide an Escape From All Its Noise?

Twitter has created its own buzzing, digital agora, but when users want to speak amongst themselves, they tend to leave for another platform. It’s a social network that helps you find people to talk to—but barely lets you do any talking.


September 12 • 9:03 AM

How Ancient DNA Is Rewriting Human History

We thought we knew how we’d been shaped by evolution. We were wrong.


September 12 • 8:02 AM

Give Yourself a Present for the Future

Psychologists discover that we underestimate the value of looking back.


September 12 • 8:00 AM

I Walked Through the Financial Crisis

Why are former Wall Street employees guiding tourists around the Financial District? Paul Hiebert signed himself up and tried to find out.


September 12 • 7:05 AM

Scams, Scams, Everywhere


September 12 • 6:17 AM

In Soccer as in Art, Motifs Matter

A new study suggests a way to quantitatively measure a team’s style through its pass flow. It may become another metric used to evaluate potential recruits.


September 12 • 4:00 AM

Comfort Food Is a Myth

New research finds that, contrary to our beliefs, such foods don’t have any special ability to improve our moods.



September 11 • 4:00 PM

Reading the Camouflage Uniforms in Ferguson: ‘You Are Now Enemy Combatants’

Why are police officers wearing green or desert camouflage in a suburban environment?


September 11 • 2:00 PM

Wage Theft: How Two States Are Fighting Against Companies That Categorize Employees as Independent Contractors

New York and Illinois have passed hard-nosed laws and taken an aggressive tack toward misclassification.


September 11 • 11:03 AM

Yes, I’m a Good Person. But Did You Hear About Her?

A new study tracks how people experience moral issues in everyday life.


September 11 • 11:00 AM

Searching for Everyday Morality

Experimenters use text messages to study morality beyond the lab.


September 11 • 8:00 AM

The Geography of Uber

If it continues to grow—and there are few reasons to think it won’t—will Uber transform the infrastructure of cities or glom onto what’s already there?



September 11 • 6:05 AM

One Man’s Search for an Orgasmic Life Force

It remains unclear what “orgone” actually is, but Wilhelm Reich thought you could find it by sitting inside a box.


September 11 • 4:03 AM

Jack the Ripper’s DNA: Was Aaron Kosminski Behind the Whitechapel Murders?

Russell Edwards says he’s solved the mystery. His proof might be a little threadbare.



September 10 • 4:00 PM

The Average White American’s Social Network Is Just One Percent Black

And three-quarters of white Americans report that they haven’t had a meaningful conversation with a single non-white person in the last six months.


September 10 • 2:00 PM

Eye on the Fly

The tiny fruit fly has been beloved by developmental biologists for more than a century. Turing patterns may yet explain its shape.


September 10 • 10:02 AM

Why Do Women Earn Less as Mothers and Men Earn More as Fathers?

For women, becoming a parent means you can expect to earn even less over your lifetime—unless you’re Marissa Mayer.



September 10 • 7:00 AM

Is Back Pain Ruining Your Sex Life?

You might be doing it wrong.


Follow us


Big Government, Happy Citizens?

You may like to talk about how much happier you'd be if the government didn't interfere with your life, but that's not what the research shows.

Give Yourself a Present for the Future

Psychologists discover that we underestimate the value of looking back.

In Soccer as in Art, Motifs Matter

A new study suggests a way to quantitatively measure a team’s style through its pass flow. It may become another metric used to evaluate potential recruits.

Searching for Everyday Morality

Experimenters use text messages to study morality beyond the lab.

Is Back Pain Ruining Your Sex Life?

You might be doing it wrong.

The Big One

One country—Turkey—produces more than 70 percent of the world's hazelnuts. September/October 2014 new-big-one-2

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