Human are odd creatures. Here are some of history’s greatest mass hysterias.
According to reports in 18th century German medical texts, a nun at a convent in the area spontaneously started to chase and bite all the other nuns around her. As news of the very specific attacks spread, nuns at other German convents were observed biting each other. Soon after, the behavior started up in the Netherlands and Italy, too.
For a week in 1938, the residents of the small town of Halifax, England, were gripped by the fear that they’d be brutally murdered by the “Halifax Slasher,” a man who carried a mallet and wore shiny buckles on his shoes. Two individuals — victims — described him thusly, while another survivor of an attack claimed the shiny-buckled man carried either a knife or razor. Police struggled to identify or capture a suspect, and an assist from Scotland Yard didn’t help either. The high levels of fear and panic subsided after one of the victims announced that he’d faked the attack and injured himself. Then all the other victims, five in all, said they’d faked their injuries, too.
In England’s Revolution of 1688, citizens seeking a more powerful parliament who were aligned with William of Orange of the Netherlands, overthrew King James II. In the period of extreme chaos before the fall of James and his loyalists, rumors abounded that the Irish soldiers stationed around England to fight off the Dutch contingent had gone rogue. To exact revenge for the end of James’ reign, the story went, they were roaming the country, burning villages to the ground, stealing whatever they could, and carrying out a general reign of terror. As “news” spread, these villagers formed well-armed militias and prepared to fight the Irish troops…which never did show up with their lit torches.
Fearing some kind of biological attack at worst (or foodborne illness at best), the U.S. Navy executed a mass evacuation of more than 600 men stationed at a barracks in San Diego, California in 1988. More than 100 were rushed to area hospitals to treat respiratory symptoms — all reported having a terrible, sudden difficulty to breathe. What happened? Nobody’s sure. An investigation found no trace of toxins in the air, intentional food poisoning, or attack.
Life imitating movies
What seemed to be some kind of plague washed over Portuguese schools in May 2006. With little to no connection with each other, more than 300 students at more than a dozen schools all complained of the same symptoms: trouble breathing, dizziness, and rashes. That certainly disrupted life at the affected schools, while plenty others shut down for a few days out of fear that their students would catch and spread this strange sickness. Before long, it was all dismissed as mass hysteria, with a bit of life-imitating-art thrown in. The “outbreak” happened soon after an airing of the popular teen soap Morangos con Acucar (Strawberries with Sugar), in which many of the main characters faced a life-threatening sickness characterized by…trouble breathing, dizziness, and rashes.