Mob mentality is as old as the human race, and yet it remains something slightly mysterious, perhaps because we have no real way to understand or control it. There are stories going back centuries about people who, for one reason or another or for no reason at all, collectively lose their sh*t.
Maybe papers have been written on common delusions and the madness of crowds, but none have come to any solid conclusions – which is perhaps what makes these 4 historical manias so fascinating, still.
4. Genital Retraction Syndrome (Koro)
“Koro” refers to the irrational fear that your genitalia is shrinking or retracting into the body – and people have suffered in en masse since around 300 BCE. The syndrome is usually found in Africa and Asia and accompanied by severe anxiety, fear of impending death, or terror at losing one’s sexual ability.
The most recent known outbreak happened in Singapore in 1967, where more than 1000 men tried to stave it off using clamps and pegs.
Women have also been victims, believing their breasts or nipples are disappearing, but it’s more likely to affect men in societies where their worth is determined by their reproductive prowess. Psychologists blame culture today, though in the past, witchcraft has (of course) been seen as the cause.
3. Deadly Dancing Mania (1374)
In the Middle Ages, a dancing plague called choreomania gripped dozens of villages along the Rhine River. Hundreds of villagers leaped, jerked, hopped, and danced to music no one unaffected could hear. They barely ate or slept, just danced until their feet bled and the collapsed from exhaustion, hunger, and dehydration.
It happened again in 1518 when a woman in Strasbourg began dancing. Within a week, her troupe had grown to 34 people, and then within a month, to 400 people. Dozens of people died, dancing themselves into heart attacks, strokes, and exhaustion.
Both times, the “plague” disappeared on its own without explanation.
Historians, psychologists, and scientists have all tried to figure it out. At first, the prevailing theory was a mass psychotic episode brought on by eating molded bread, but as the people were dancing, not convulsing, a new theory is mass psychogenic illness.
Professors like John Waller believe it was sparked by pious fear and depression, as both documented dancing plagues occurred during periods of famine, crop failure, flooding, and other high-stakes catastrophes.
A more recent occurrence in the 1840s, in Madagascar, seems to prove that we’re not done with this phenomenon, yet – nor do we understand how it starts or how to stop it.
2. Motor Hysteria
Historical reports that nunneries in the Middle Ages were rife with “motor hysteria,” a mass psychogenic illness where some women exhibit signs of demonic possession, some act out in sexually disturbing ways, and some even meowed like cats and tried to climb trees.
The strange phenomenon lasted for around 300 years and affected convents across Europe, usually ending with a mass exorcism that put a stop to things.
A prevailing theory as to why is a combination of stress and the religious tradition of trance and possession. Nunneries were not gently places, and many women ended up there unwillingly during the Middle Ages, so they could have acted out their stress in strange ways.
1. Tanganyika Laughter Epidemic (1962)
In 1962, a girl in a Tanganyikan (modern day Tanzanian) boarding school told a joke.
Then, 95 girls started laughing and didn’t stop, forcing the school to shut down fora. full 2 months. The mission-run school existed in a tiny, rural village and started with uncontrollable laughing in just 3 students. It turned into a crying fit, anxiety, the fear of being chased, and occasionally violence when restrained. The symptoms spread quickly, apparently transmitted by contact, and lasted anywhere from a few hours to 16 days.
After more than half the students were infected, the school shut down. 10 days later the disease popped up again in a village 55 miles away. 217 people were afflicted over the course of two months, then the disease continued to spread through the countryside – every new victim had come into contact with one of the girls from the closed school in some way.
There was nothing physically wrong with any of the afflicted – no fever, no convulsions, nothing interesting in their bloodwork. Once again, there was no medical explanation for a very real condition that swept through a population.
I’m going to read more about a few of these, because they really are breaking my brain in the best possible way!
What are your theories? Share them with us in the comments!