Sucked into the
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
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.