The Tribune - Spectrum

, September 22, 2002
Lead Article

Sucked into the madding crowd!
Sucked into the madding crowd!

Mass hysteria often occurs when a group of people collectively suffers from some kind of psychological stress and anxiety. The form the hysteria assumes is often dictated by the culture of the group in question, its literacy level and economic standing, media reactions and coverage, rumours, the social and political context and reinforcing actions by the authorities, says Juhi Bakhshi.

BARELY had the New Delhi’s notorious Monkey Man faded out of public memory that the newspapers were again agog with reports of a mystery monster lusting for people’s flesh and blood. This time round, the monster was no monkey but an unidentified flying object that scratches people’s faces. It has been named Muhnochwa (face-scratcher) by it’s victims. The afflicted area this time is the Balia-Ghaziabad belt of eastern Uttar Pradesh.

Panic is writ large among the residents of these areas. As the fear psychosis spreads, people get down to tactics like night patrols and vigils to grab this strange fiend. But while the monster itself remains elusive, death seems to be quite near, not so much at the hands of the monster but at the hands of the ‘guardians’ themselves. The fear of this eerie creature has resulted in death through lynching of over half a dozen of people who were unlucky enough to be mistaken as muhnuchwas by the over-alert villagers.


After its characteristic dawdling tactics, the state administration finally got down to tackling the mysterious beast, when reports of the sightings reached Lucknow itself. Searches have not yielded much except hoaxes and false complaints where muhnuchwa turned out to be nothing more than a bulb-fitted gas balloon, a kite, an insect and so on. Scientific experts investigating the scene pinned the entire panic on a rare form of ball lightning that strikes drought-affected areas. Ignorance, leading to fear amongst some odd individual witnesses of this phenomenon, is said to be responsible for the spread of the mass hysteria and panic.

The hysteria might die its natural death as did the mass hysteria generated by the Monkey Man in New Delhi in May last year, but not before taking its toll on human life, sanity and rationality. Several deaths were reported when the monkey man had struck but these were caused more out of the panic the creature generated rather than through the beast itself. Several manhunts, police patrols, border checks and monetary rewards later, the entire episode was decreed to be little more than "a case of mass hysteria fuelled by rumours, fear, pranksters and a few New Delhi monkeys."

Incidents of such mass hysteria are neither new nor are they peculiar to India. They have taken place throughout the world at all the times. Psychologists try explaining mass hysteria as "episodes of collective delusions characteristically affecting small, tightly-knit groups in enclosed settings. These collective delusions are typified as the spontaneous, rapid spread of false or exaggerated beliefs within a population at large, temporarily affecting a particular region, culture or country." The cause of mass hysteria is often a baseless belief that begins small but, like a hurricane, travels and becomes more devastating as it picks up speed.

Mass hysteria, it is noted, often occurs when a group of people collectively suffers from some kind of psychological stress. The form the hysteria assumes is often dictated by the culture of the group in question, its literacy level and economic standing, media reactions and coverage, rumours, the social and political context and reinforcing actions by authorities.

The Monkey Man haunted an "overpopulated, economically depressed East Delhi resettlement colony" where people were plagued by prolonged power cuts and acute water shortage at the peak of summers. They routinely slept in dark, lightless streets and neighbourhoods. Aggressive monkeys also roamed these areas. All these created mass stress and conditions favourable to a mass hysterical reaction. Incidentally, following the Monkey Man scare the administration increased the power supply in the affected localities. Water supply too improved somewhat and the monkey man vanished. The Muhnuchwa episode too, interestingly, comes in the wake of a severe drought situation in the country and has appeared in a poverty-ridden, illiteracy-plagued belt of UP.

A study of several other mass hysteria instances in history also reveals the presence of mass stress factors that lead to mass hysteria. One of the earliest recorded incident of mass hysteria, the outbreak of dancing mania, was in France in the July of 1374. People were seen dancing uncontrollably in the streets, foaming at the mouth and screaming of wild visions, dancing until they collapsed from exhaustion. This incident is believed to have occurred during times of beautiful art, music and poetry. Researchers suggest, those were also times of tremendous social upheaval. Black Death had struck several times and given rise to massive terror and despair, engendering mass hysteria.

In the Middle Ages too, there arose several cases of the ‘meow-meow’ nuns in cloistered European Christian convents where young girls were forced into joining religious orders to lead celibate lives of poverty and demanding physical labour. The psychological pressures of such abnormal lifestyle caused a nun to meow like cat — an animal with supposed devil connections — soon all the nuns were meowing together everyday. Only fear of beatings with rods by soldiers finally put an end to this bizarre behaviour. The infamous 1692, Salem Village (now Danvers, Massachusetts) witch-hunts which lead to torture and jailing of several innocents and executions of 20 innocent humans and two dogs, blamed for strange fits afflicting eight young girls, also took place during times of great poverty and social and political upheaval and uncertainty.

However, the most amazing incident of psychological stress precipitating mass hysteria happened nearer in time and place. It all began on Halloween Eve of 1938, with a live fictional radio drama based on H.G. Wells’ novel The war of the worlds being broadcast across much of the USA. The drama depicted an attack by Martians on the USA. People somehow failed to decipher the fictional nature of the broadcast and took the drama to be a real news flash leading to nationwide panic. Telephone lines got jammed due to a large number of people calling the radio station, newspapers, and their families. Massive traffic jams were caused by people trying to escape the invasion, people ran in the streets to watch the skies, doctors and nurses called in to volunteer their service and so on.

The mass hysteria, many psychologists suggested, was a manifestation of the stress created by the events of the 1920s and 1930s — the World War I, the stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression, the fear of the growing power of fascism and communism, and impending World War II.

Stress apart, of considerable importance is the role played by the mass media, especially in modern times in reporting incidents that spark off rumours leading to mass hysteria. Taking the recent examples of the Monkey Man and Muhnuchwa, it is of interest to note the manner in which media dealt with the initial reports of such attacks. A considerable emphasis was placed on the unusual sightings, the ‘victim’ or the ‘eye-witness’ accounts, the prevailing atmosphere of fear rather than on the false and trivial nature of many a complaint, informed scientific and medical opinion and the like, leading to a feeling amongst the readers that the Monkey Man was probably a reality and a phenomenon to be scared of.

In the Muhnuchwa case too, the injuries, lynching, casualties and fear reactions have received more newspaper space than probable scientific explanations of rare type of lightening. Similar analyses of other mass hysteria incidents show that many, especially in modern times, were generated or aggravated by an overenthusiastic , sensationalising media, which played up the problem and downplayed solutions, findings and investigations.

A very interesting role of the media can be seen in generation of mass delusion of the first wave of the flying saucer sightings of 1947. A private plane pilot on June 24, sighted what he perceived to be nine glittering objects in skies near Washington State. The objects remained visible for three minutes before getting lost. Worried that these may be enemy-guided missiles, the pilot tried reporting the sightings to the FBI office which happened to be closed, so he went to the offices of The East Oregonian newspaper where journalist Bill Bequette produced a report of the sightings for the Associated Press. The pilot had described the objects as crescent-shaped, referring only to their movement as "like a saucer would if you skipped it across the water". The term "flying saucer" was created by headline writers on June 25 and 26, and appeared in all major newspapers, leading to a worldwide wave of flying saucer sightings during the summer of 1947, and other waves since. Prior to the media-reported ‘flying saucers,’ there were only scattered historical references to disc-shaped objects, but no consistent pattern emerged until 1947 news reports. Hence, the global 1947 flying saucer wave can be regarded as a media-generated collective delusion that was unique to the twentieth century.

With regard to the nature of the mass delusions too an interesting fact emerges. In Third World countries, the mass hysteria often assumes the form of supernatural powers — witches, man-beasts and the like. In developed countries, however, extra-terrestrial life forms, toxic environmental chemicals are the content of most mass delusions as was the case in the much-reported rumble in Bronx case in New York in 1999, when in a Bronx school about 1,200 students had to be evacuated, after nearly 140 students and teachers fell sick after inhaling alleged toxic fumes being released in the school. Investigations revealed no such gas leak, leading to the outbreak being labelled as an instance of mass hysteria.

Mass hysteria is almost always determined by the current fears that dominate the mass psyche, thus taking various forms like hate attack and the anthrax scare in the USA after the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Experts suggest that mass hysteria can be best countered through very early intervention. The most powerful tool is for a calm authority figure to give clear and accurate information repeatedly and to remain visible and available to provide updates and reassurance.


Dynamics of mass hysteria

According to researchers, people caught up in mass hysteria are not usually acting out new emotions but releasing existing feelings that are kept in check under normal conditions. Two factors account for individuals being caught up in mass hysteria.

One, the individual has to be a member of a group "in a suggestible state" and two, the group must be exposed to a repeated suggestion, slogans or repetitive drumming or movements that are continuous. A clever leader can sense and time the suggestions and play on suppressed emotions so as to generate mass hysteria.

When the mob psychology takes over, individual rationality, logic and discerning ability takes a backseat. Instead, there is surrender to the collective consciousness that is successful in whipping up and overplaying volatile, uncontrollable emotions that, once they have been fuelled, acquire a momentum and dynamics of their own. This momentum creates fear and suspicion and leads to a consequent loss of life as well as property because individuals cease to be persons but become one with the group. So it is the mind of the mob that is at work and individual will is subordinated to this collective hysteria. What is needed to curb mass hysteria?

The solution is to target sane and sensible individuals within the mass to generate a countering influence so as to be able to combat the mindlessness of the group mentality. Effective communication and dissemination of exact, fact-based information by political leaders, community heads and social workers who should take the lead in scotching all rumours and misinformation. A leader who is sensitive, unbiased and an effective communicator can help quell mass hysteria. This is especially relevant in the Third World countries like India where literacy and awareness levels are low and consequently the reach of the mass media can not be a substitute for personal contact and dialogue and community is more susceptible to local leaders and spokespersons.

Involvement of grassroot-level workers, block development officers and panchayat members and apolitical leaders can serve to contain mass hysteria. Mass hysteria by itself is not evil and occurs in religious rights, political rallies, sports and entertainment events. A strong sense of identity and values are the surest defense against becoming victims of mass hysteria.

The role of media in public scares

When rumours about an unnatural occurrence break out, what should be the role of the media? Should it be a neutral disseminator of information or a more proactive agency of mass communication, shouldering a greater social responsibility of containing the spiralling vortex of public scare and mass hysteria?

This is a debate that rages each time an unexplained event—one that crosses the realm of the real—is detected and reported. Though one school of thought believes that the Press should remain a disinterested, unbiased channel of information, it has been seen time and again that the media persons too get sucked into the swirl of mass frenzy. Be it stories about the "attack of aliens", the sighting of UFOs or rumours of Ganesha idols sipping milk, journalists too are swept by the current and, in fact, sometimes become instrumental in perpetuating mass hysteria and its twin social anxiety, the conspiracy theory. Many a time, it becomes a classic case of the media becoming infected with the infectious rumours that it is meant to contain.

Even as the debate remains inconclusive, one thing is certain. The growing levels of sophistication that define our cyber-dominated existence today place enormous responsibility on all agencies of mass communication, particularly the media, to play a very responsible role to ensure that rumours about unnatural events or stories about paranormal experiences are not sensationalised in the mad scramble for pushing up readership or viewership.

In earlier centuries, owing to the limited reach of the print and electronic media, the role of the journalists was negligible as far as localised rumours were concerned. For the simple reason that by the time the local rumours or panic reached a wider audience or readership, they had been contained locally. But now, owing to the rapidity with which reports and images of, say a monkey man or a Muhnochwa, originating from an obscure village, bombard the public at the press of a remote or click of a mouse, greater responsibility lies at the door of the agents of mass communication. Rumours, if dramatised or overexposed, can become potent tools for fuelling or generating mass panic or fear psychosis in the hands of those very media men who are meant to contain the towering infernos of hysteria. Not too long ago reports of a monkey man or of envelopes containing a lethal white powder arriving at strategic public places occupied prime space in all major newspapers and television channels.

True that unfounded and unsubstantiated rumours die a natural death, but not before doing damage or triggering off a mass scare that has even psychosomatic dimensions. For instance, soon after the anthrax scare was unleashed on the public psyche, a liquid was sprayed at a US subway station. As many as 35 persons reported sick with nausea, headache and sore throat at this new perceived danger. It is another matter that the fluid turned out to be a window cleaning fluid! This just shows that overexposure to reports of an ‘alien’ object or creature can leave after-effects of fear that may turn even innocuous, everyday things into objects of suspicion.

Commenting on the role of the media in view of the panic attacks generated by anthrax, a Washington Post columnist, Howard Kurtz, had commented , "If whoever is behind these disease-laden envelopes, foreign terrorists or local nutjobs, wants to disrupt the country, it’s already working ( with ample assistance from the media)." Thus the role of the media cannot in any way be underestimated in building up and even containing mass hysteria. Events that have the potential of generating mass hysteria first need to be identified for what they are and then reported with maturity and accuracy, sifting fact from fiction. Journalists must never be instrumental in pressing the panic button since inaccurate or unconfirmed reports of unnatural occurrences are as potentially dangerous as the white powder (anthrax hoax) or virus(Y2K scare) they report about. Considering the vast reach of the print and now electronic media and news websites, a newscaster or reporter can let loose a wave of panic and scare, sometimes more damaging than the word-of-mouth publicity of a rumour-monger.

Here then are some of the ways in which the media can shoulder its greater social responsibility in times of such a crisis:

  • Giving safe instead of scare headlines.

  • Not dramatising or sensationalising unsubstantiated stories by giving them too much space or visibility.

  • Printing facts from reliable, named sources.

  • Providing a context to rumours, speculation and alarmist theories.

  • Exposing myths and conspiracy theories.

  • Highlighting the untruth in past rumours that created a public scare.

  • Quoting experts and people in responsible positions to defuse a scare or lift the lid off unfounded beliefs and rumours.

By virtue of the vast reach and the special place that the media enjoys in democratic societies, it certainly cannot abdicate its larger moral and social duty of informing the people about what is—not what may be—in a mature, accurate manner shorn off any elements of speculation and make-believe. Therein lies the bottomline —the media has to carry forward facts without getting carried away by them.

—Chetna Banerjee