Mass hysteria has long been one of the more bizarre features of history. Characterized by physical symptoms resulting from the spread of false beliefs, it is an outlet for pent up anxieties that have been building up for months or even years. There are two ways mass hysteria manifests: mass motor hysteria and mass anxiety hysteria.The Tanganyika Laughter Epidemic is an example of mass motor hysteria. These outbreaks of mass madness are characterized by bizarre behaviors and odd movements. They were more common in previous centuries, when superstitious beliefs were more widespread, although they can occur in the modern era in third world countries where traditional beliefs still hold sway. The outbreak of mass hysteria that occurred in Blackburn, England only two years after Tanganyika was an example of mass anxiety hysteria, a form of hysteria more typical of outbreaks in modern, industrialized countries.
The incident began the morning of Thursday, October 7, 1965 at a girl’s secondary school in Blackburn, England. It began innocuously enough, with some girls complaining about dizziness and generally feeling unwell. A handful fainted.
By noon, girls were dropping over left and right. The worst cases –85 total–were rushed to the hospital by ambulance. The remaining students were dismissed until the following Monday. Most of the girls who were hospitalized were able to return home the same day. Six of them were re-admitted over the weekend. Unlike the case in Tanganyika, were the girls returning home spread the illness to their home communities, the fainting in Blackburn remained confined to the school girls.
But like the case in Tanganyika, closing the school did little to halt the epidemic. When the school reopened on Monday, the fainting spells struck again. This time, 54 girls were hospitalized. Many of them were students who had been admitted during the initial outbreak. Those admitted a second time spent more time in the hospital than those who were newly affected. The majority of girls recovered that afternoon and were able to return home. Even so, school officials shut the school down for the rest of the week.
The school doors opened again the following Monday. The illness reared its head a third and final time. Fifty-six girls complained of symptoms, but no one was rushed to the hospital. No doubt, this response had a role in stopping the illness in its tracks. Afterwards, no other cases of mass fainting came from the school. Life in Blackburn returned to normal.
A case of mass hysteria
It is interesting to note that the Blackburn outbreak was one of the few cases where mass hysteria was suspected from the start. Doctors attending to victims of the first outbreak believed most of the girls were suffering hysteria, but that their hysteria was caused when they saw a classmate suffering a real illness.
However, after extensive medical testing performed on hospitalized girls showed nothing more harmful than a mild fever or two, doctors determined nothing was physically wrong with any of them. Food from the cafeteria also underwent a battery of tests, all of which came back negative for any toxins.
Once any biological causes were eliminated, officials turned to mass hysteria as an explanation. The symptoms experienced by the school girls were certainly consistent with most reported cases of mass anxiety hysteria. These included dizziness, headaches, shivering, nausea, hyperventilation, nausea, and of course, fainting.
Another key to the diagnosis of mass hysteria was the way I which the illness spread. It began the first morning of the outbreak with the senior class. But while the seniors were the first affected, their juniors were the worse victimized. Typically in a school setting, the older students are more likely to be imitated by the younger, not the other way around. In other words, their age and physical maturity gives them a higher status in the school hierarchy than their younger peers. One feature of mass hysteria is that it tends to move from higher status members of a social group to the lower status members. This is precisely what happened during the Blackburn outbreak.
Origins of the outbreak
Mass hysteria never occurs in a vacuum. Events in the broader society always have an impact on its members. This was the case in Blackburn as well, when a dread illness struck the small city earlier in 1965.
The scourge was polio, a virus largely forgotten in the 21st century but whose threat was still very real in the 1960s. Polio is a highly contagious viral infection that attacks the central nervous system. It mainly affects those under the age of five. About 1 in 200 cases result in irreversible paralysis, and between 5 and 10 percent of victims die when the virus immobilizes the muscles responsible for breathing.
Onset of paralysis can begin within a few hours of infection. Once someone is infected, there is no cure. The only way to stop the disease is by way of vaccine. Use of the polio vaccine has largely eradicated the virus from most of the world and saved millions of lives.
But in 1965, the virus still gripped large swaths of the world, even as health authorities began to use the vaccine to combat it. The disease was rightly feared, and an outbreak could shut down an entire community. Truck drivers and taxis refused to enter Blackburn during the outbreak, and holiday bookings were canceled. The town was in a state of panic, under attack by an invisible assailant it was incapable of combating.
This no doubt made an impression on the girls of the secondary school. There was a very real fear that they could be struck down at any time by the invisible hand of illness. While this made the girls more susceptible to mass hysteria, the actual roots of the illness took hold during a religious ceremony. The school required its students to attend a ceremony at a local Anglican cathedral. The ceremony was under royal patronage, but the royals were running late that day. The students were forced to wait on their arrival for 3 hours. May of them waited outside. During that time, 20 girls fainted. Others felt dizzy or faint but managed to stay upright.
The next morning, there was a lot of excitement around the miniature fainting epidemic. Girls talked in detail about who fainted and speculated as to why. At assembly that morning, the first faints of the actual epidemic began. After assembly, three more girls fell victim, and so did a fourth sent to get them a glass of water. Soon enough, another six students began to show symptoms. These girls were all brought into the hallway to sit or lie down, in full view of other students on their mid-morning class breaks.
After all the excitement of the previous day, the sight of so many of their peers laid out by an unknown cause was enough to tip the whole student body into hysteria, and the Blackburn Fainting Epidemic began in earnest.
Moss, Peter D. and McEvedy, Colin P. “An Epidemic of Overbreathing Among School Girls.” British Medical Journal. 1966, 2; pgs 1295-1300
“Poliomyelitis.” who.int. April 2013. The World Health Organization. March 5, 2014 <http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs114/en/>