Collective delusions and mass hysteria can occur in any society, but India’s deep seated belief in the supernatural makes it particularly vulnerable. Among the strangest was the outbreak of panic in Delhi that occurred in 2001, when residents reported a mysterious attacker, described as a monkey man with iron claws.
Monkey man mania
The nights in Delhi in May, 2001, were sweltering. The region was suffering under a heat wave, and the local state run power company couldn’t keep up with demand. The city would suffer periodic rolling black outs to try and keep the system from giving out entirely.
The mystery attacker first struck one hot night in early May in Ghaziabad, a city near Delhi. By mid May, the panic spread to East Delhi and the rest of the city.The attacker was described as a four foot tall creature with a hairy body, monkey-like facial features, and metal claws. It would appear out of the darkness and rake victims with its razor sharp claws before disappearing back into the night. The victims were primarily men sleeping on the roof of their homes in an attempt to escape the oppressive heat.
Police initially believed the attacks were the work of mass groups of miscreants who capitalized on the heat and darkness to work their mischief. Locals, however, insisted it was a creature of some sort. They ascribed amazing feats to the monster, claiming it could leap off buildings and that it could run far faster than a human. Police contacted the local zoo to see if perhaps a chimp or other ape had escaped, but every animal was accounted for.
With more reports rolling in and the overwhelmed police at a loss, the Chief of the Delhi Police issued a shoot to kill order to all officers. He also put a 50,000 rupee price on the monster’s head.
Meanwhile, skepticism began to mount. Descriptions of the monster began to vary wildly. Reports of a more cat-like creature began to filter in, while one woman claimed that the beast transformed from its original simian form to a cat right in front of her eyes.
Absurd as such reports may be, the panic had very real consequences. Monkey man mania was directly responsible for two deaths. The first was a man who panicked when e believed the monkey man was after him. He jumped off the roof of his building to escape the imaginary threat. The second was a pregnant woman who was sleeping on her roof when she heard her neighbors scream that the monkey man was attacking someone. She tried to flee but tripped when she was running down stairs. She died later that night.
Mob violence came close to killing another. A wandering Hindu mystic named Jamir was practicing rituals in a nearby wood when a mob attacked him and beat him senseless. He was about four feet tall, hairy, and wild-looking. To a panicked mob, he would have easily met the description of the monkey man. The mob dragged him to the police station, where there was nearly a stampede as people tried to get a glimpse of their to-that-point invisible tormentor.
By May 25, the police had fielded 397 calls from alleged victims of the simian menace. No culprit in the case was ever found.
A unique case
What makes the Monkey Man of Delhi an interesting case of mass hysteria was not the subject of the panic – although it was bizarre – but rather the victims. Males outnumbered females by a 3:1 ratio, which turns what you would expect from a mass delusion case on its head. The first victim was male, and males were more likely to sleep on the roofs of homes while the women and children slept inside, so they could realistically believe that they would be more likely to fall victim to the phantom attacker.
Most of these victims were in the lower socioeconomic classes. They lived in cramped quarters in the best of times, but during the hot nights of the heat wave their living conditions would have become unbearable. The nights were deep and dark as the state run power plant cut electricity. It would have been blacker than pitch when most people were sleeping. It’s quite possible that many of the cases of alleged attacks came when people tripped or otherwise injured themselves when getting up to go and relieve themselves.
It is also possible that some of the cases were actual animal attacks. Monkeys do live in the city, and they’ve been known to attack people from time to time. A few of the cases were animal bites, although it is unclear whether they were monkeys. In any case, in a hysterical climate like the one that descended over Delhi during the panic, any animal bite could have been construed as an attack by the monkey man.
The Associated Press. “’Monkey Man’ Spawns Hysteria in New Delhi.” USAToday.com. June 19, 2001. USA Today. March 10, 2014. <http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/world/2001-05-16-monkey-man.htm>
“Mysterious ‘Man-Monkey’ Strikes Delhi.” BBC.co.uk. May 15, 2001. BBC News. March 10, 2014. <http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/1331940.stm>
“’Monkey-Man’ Fears Rampant in New Delhia.” CNN.com. May 16, 2001. CNN. March 15, 2014. <http://126.96.36.199/2001/WORLD/asiapcf/south/05/16/india.monkeyman/index.html>
Verha SK. Srivastava DK. “A Study on Mass Hysteria (Monkey Men?) Victims in East Delhi.” Indian J. Med. Sci. 2003; 355