Tag Archives: mass hysteria

Provincetown’s Black Flash

A beach front art class in 1940. Could some of the summer visitors, such as these, been responsible for the panic that gripped the town in 1939, or was something more sinister at work?

A beach front art class in 1940. Could some of the summer visitors, such as these, been responsible for the panic that gripped the town in 1939, or was something more sinister at work?

Shadowy figures have long haunted the pages of history. From ghosts to goblins to things less mentionable, the human psyche has a habit of inventing monsters to inhabit the dark reaches of the unknown. Several such figures have been chronicled on this site: the Halifax Slasher, the London Monster, and Spring-Heeled Jack, to name a few. Today, we’ll be adding another cloaked and hooded terror to the rogue’s gallery, this one known by a name straight out of a comic book: the Black Flash.

The year was 1939. The winds of war were blowing in Europe as Nazi tyranny began its spread. German submarines lurked off the Atlantic Coast, and the American public feared the growing likelihood of war. It was out of this atmosphere that the Black Flash appeared in Provincetown, Massachusetts. The village was tormented for a few weeks in the fall, scaring children and leading to a puzzle that still has people scratching their heads: who, or what, was the Black Flash of Provincetown?

 

A figure in black

School children on their way home from class were the first to report the black phantom. They claimed that a tall figure, dressed all in black, would appear from nowhere and disappear just as fast. Huge, and impossibly fast, it seemed the creature aimed only to frighten, a job it did exceedingly well.  The adults in town didn’t take the accounts very seriously, at least until one of their own saw the ghostly figure.

Mary Costas was walking by town hall one night in October when a tall figure dressed all in black jumped out of the bushes in front of her. The creature had glowing blue eyes, silver ears, and could jump impossibly high. The frightened Costas ran into a nearby coffee shop for help. A group of men who ran outside to look for the creature found nothing. Police who arrived at the scene thought the whole affair a big joke, despite Costas being genuinely frightened.

After Costas’ terrifying encounter, several more townspeople saw the monster. Reports were scattered all over town; as police received a call from a resident on one end of town claiming they had seen the beast running through their yard, another call would simultaneously come in from the opposite end of town. Even police began to believe the monster might be some sort of devil.  Townspeople knew the beast by various names: the Provincetown Phantom, the Devil of the Dune, and the name by which the apparition is known to history, the Black Flash.

 

A story grown with each telling

The Black Flash made radio news broadcasts around the world. It was the perfect sort of story for the radio broadcasts of the day, where news programs elbowed room on the dial along with serials and pulp dramas. The story grew and grew with the telling; the monster went from merely jumping out to frighten people to full on attacking hapless townspeople, spewing blue fire as it did so much like the legendary Spring-Heeled Jack. Here it is good to note how much the story has grown from those early reports. It entered into the folklore of the area and became more and more embellished over time. Many details that will be found on various sites about the monster and its attacks come from this oral tradition. The story as it exists today claims that the monster tormented Provincetown for the entire duration of the War, from 1939 to 1945, and that it was only stopped after children poured a pot of hot water on its head. In reality, the panic only lasted a few weeks in the fall of 1939.

As for Provincetown residents at the time, while a significant minority lived in fear of the Devil of the Dunes, most wrote the whole affair off as hogwash. They attributed the happening to a prank pulled by a local track star, or perhaps a left over tourist looking to stir up trouble.  Chief of Police Anthony Tarvers claimed the Black Flash was simply four teens playing a trick on the town. One boy sat on the shoulders of another. They wore a long cape and a flour sifter over their face; the device’s handles were the large silver ears that victims reported. The case, it seems, was closed.

 

A case of collective delusion?

While it would seem that the initial reports of the Black Flash were, as the Chief of Police stated, the work of four bored teens playing a Halloween prank, what can be made from the other “attacks?” And of the exaggerated abilities of the monster? After all, it would be difficult for anyone to make the leaps attributed to the monster with another person on his shoulders, not to mention sprinting at the speeds the monster was said to sprint.

It seems likely that, while a group of pranksters started the panic, from there the idea of a monster spread to those who were vulnerable: uneducated adults, particularly women, and children. Time and again, in cases of mass hysteria and collective delusion, these are the groups who are primarily affected. This can be seen in such cases as the Halifax Slasher, the Mad Gasser of Mattoon, and the laughter epidemic that struck Tanganyika in the 1960s.

The environment was ripe in Provincetown for such a panic to take root. Nazi subs lurked in the Atlantic, and news from overseas made the possibility of American being sucked into another global conflict more and more possible. America was still in the midst of the Great Depression as well. These stressors provided fertile ground for a collective delusion to take root. The idea spawned from this bout of collective delusion has proved to be hardy, as it moved from an odd incident that burned out within a few weeks in 1939 to a part of Rhode Island folklore, one likely to inspire chills among residents of Provincetown and beyond for decades to come.

 

Sources:

Desroches, Steve, “The ‘Black Flash’…The Legend Lives On.” Provincetownmagazine.com. October 26, 2011. Provincetown Magazine. January 30, 2016. http://provincetownmagazine.com/2011/10/26/the-black-flashthe-legend-lives-on/

“Fall Brings Out The “Black Flash.” http://advocate.provincetown-ma.gov/Default/Scripting/ArticleWin.asp?From=Search&Key=PRO/1939/10/26/1/Ar00103.xml&CollName=EVT_PREDEFINE&DOCID=22254&Keyword=%28black~+and+flash~%29&skin=Provincetown&AppName=2&PageLabel=1&ViewMode=GIF&GZ=T

Muise, Peter, “The Black Flash of Provincetown.” NewEnglandFolklore.blogspot.com. August 01, 2009. New England Folklore. January 30, 2016. http://newenglandfolklore.blogspot.com/2009/08/black-flash-of-provincetown.html

 

 

 

The West Bank Fainting Epidemic

A map of the West Bank.

A map of the West Bank.

Twenty years after the fainting epidemic in Blackburn, a similar outbreak of mystery illness struck the West Bank, an area familiar to most as a site of tensions between the Israelis and Palestinians.

The illness began at 8:00am on March 21, 1983, in the city of Arrabah. A 17 year old secondary school student complained about throat irritation and difficulty breathing when she walked into the classroom. The list of symptoms soon expanded to a headache, dizziness, and stomach pains. School officials allowed her to go home.

But in the two hours after she left, six more students developed a similar set of symptoms. Two of them reported smelling an odor like rotten eggs. This led school officials to contact local public health authorities, who arrived by 10:00am. Suspecting a gas leak or the possibility of a poison gas attack, they immediately tested the air for toxins. They found nothing that could explain the symptoms, but as a precaution they closed the school anyway. For the next three days, locals around the area of the school reported headaches and fainting spells.

The next wave of illness began March 26 and lasted until March 28. It occurred in and around Jenin, which is located in the northern West Bank. It began when locals watched a car drive slowly up the streets, belching out clouds of thick black smoke. The symptoms were identical to the outbreak at Arrabah: headaches, stomach aches, and fainting. Most of those who fell ill were school girls, but all ages and sexes were effected. It is interesting to note that four of the victims were Israeli Self Defense Force soldiers.

The third and final wave of the outbreak struck on April 3 in Hebron, located in the southern sector of the West Bank. After this outbreak, all schools in the West Bank were closed. No more cases were reported afterwards.

 

A War of Words

Anyone who has paid even the slightest attention to the news knows that Israel and Palestine are not the best of friends. The conflict between the two nations has raged since the state of Israel was re-established by the UN in 1946. To oversimplify the matter, both sides claimed the land we now call Israel, and the Palestinians who lived there when Israel was established weren’t too happy with the newcomers taking over what they saw as their land. Of course, the Israelis also saw the area as their ancestral homeland.

This has led to a conflict that has raged for decades, characterized by seething hatred, violent clashes, and atrocities committed by both sides. Again, this is a vast oversimplification of the history of a troubled land, but for our purposes it will do. The outbreaks occurred against this backdrop of hatred and animosity, where citizens and soldiers on both sides lived in constant fear for their lives.

The hysteria itself became a part of the war of words between the two sides, as each believed the other was responsible. Palestinian leaders accused the Israelis of using chemical weapons against Arab school girls. In a bizarre leap in logic, they claimed that the alleged attacks were meant to sterilize the adolescents.

Not to be beaten to the punch, some politicians on the Israeli side accused Palestinian extremists of something even more bizarre: launching poison attacks against their own people in order to stir up dissent. Somehow, this was supposed to encourage Palestinians to take to the streets and launch demonstrations against the United States and, for some reason, the Red Cross.

More reasonable officials on the Israeli side – public health officials actually investigating the case – pointed to mass hysteria.

 

Political hysteria

As with the fainting epidemic in Blackburn, officials in Israel could find no physiological cause for the illness. Toxicological and environmental testing showed no results: no toxins, poisons, or any other substance that could cause the reported symptoms. The transitory symptoms, the age groups involved, and the fact that most victims were female all pointed to mass hysteria.

However, the outbreak in the West Bank differs a bit from the fainting in Blackburn because it might well have been caused initially by environmental factors. Remember how two students at Arrabah reported smelling rotten eggs? The stench was traced back to a latrine on the school grounds that was leaking gas; specifically, hydrogen sulfide. The gas can be lethal in high concentrations, but luckily the amounts present at the school that day were not enough to be toxic.

This no doubt pungent odor was the spark that lit the tinder box of hysteria. The girls were living in an environment characterized by political tension and a realistic fear that they might be die a violent death. Less an existential threat, but still a big cause of stress among school age children, was the fact that the schools were preparing for exams around the time the outbreak began.

The outbreak spread to Jenin and Hebron and their surrounding districts by breathless media reports of poisonings in secondary schools. No doubt they also reported on the remarks made by leaders on both sides accusing each other of heinous deeds. In a climate of fear like that, any odd site or smell– a slow moving car with exhaust problems, for example– could trigger an outbreak.

 

Source:

“Epidemic of Acute Illness – West Bank.” Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. The Centers for Disease Control. April 29, 1983, 32(16); 205-208 <http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/00000068.htm>

 

Shipler, David K. “More School Girls in West Bank Fall Sick.” The New York Times. April 4, 1983 <http://www.nytimes.com/1983/04/04/world/more-schoolgirls-in-west-bank-fall-sick.html>

 

Murphy, Dan. “Mass Hysteria Blamed for Afghan School Girl ‘Poisoning’, Not the Taliban.” CSMonitor.com. July 9, 2012. The Christian Science Monitor. March 7, 2014. <http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Security-Watch/Backchannels/2012/0709/Mass-hysteria-blamed-for-Afghan-schoolgirl-poisoning-not-the-Taliban>

 

Rubin, Trudy. “Poison Controversy is Latest Symptom of Distrust on the West Bank.” CSMonitor.com. April 5, 1983. The Christian Science Monitor. March 7, 2014. <http://www.csmonitor.com/1983/0405/040561.html>

An Epidemic of Fainting in Blackburn, England

Blackburn Cathedral, where the mass hysteria outbreak likely began. "BlackburnCathedralFront" by TreveX - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:BlackburnCathedralFront.jpg#mediaviewer/File:BlackburnCathedralFront.jpg

Blackburn Cathedral, where the mass hysteria outbreak likely began. “BlackburnCathedralFront” by TreveX – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:BlackburnCathedralFront.jpg#mediaviewer/File:BlackburnCathedralFront.jpg

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.

 

Epidemic fainting

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

TEM image of the polio virus.

TEM image of the polio virus.

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.

 

Sources:

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/>

 

A Miracle in India: The Mumbai Sweet Water Incident

"Mahim creek". Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

“Mahim creek”. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

A miraculous happening occurred in India in 2006, near the city of Mumbai. On Friday, August 18, fishermen noticed that the water of the Arabian Sea behind the Mahim Mosque had become “sweet” (meaning it was fresh instead of salty.)

Word of the supposed miracle spread quickly, and people flocked to the area to taste the sweet water, this despite the fact it was contaminated with industrial chemicals and human sewage draining from Mahim Creek and the Mithi River. Health officials and police were horrified to see whole families wading into the tainted water. Some filled bottles and plastic bags with the ‘miracle’ water to bring back to family and friends who could not make it to the event, even as trash and waste floated by.

The belief spread that the sweet water was a miracle from Makhdoom Ali Mahtmi, a 13th century Sufi saint. It was believed to have healing powers. But by Saturday even the divine power of a saint could no longer make salt water fresh. The water had become salt again, and the outbreak of collective delusion ended.

Like the Milk Miracle before it, the Mumbai Sweet Water outbreak was perceived as a miracle by believers due to their ignorance of the very real, tangible causes behind it. The water in the bay became sweet due to something as routine in India as the day/night cycle: seasonal monsoons.

Monsoons had caused Lake Vehar, Mumbai’s water source, to overflow. The excess water flowed into Mahim Bay down the Mithi River. Since fresh water is less dense than salt water, the water from Lake Vehar formed a layer over top of the sea water. By Saturday this layer of fresh water had mixed thoroughly with the water of the Arabian Sea and become salty.

The only real miracle in this case is that none of the victims of the collective delusion became ill from drinking water brimming with industrial chemicals and human sewage. Officials tested the water and found it contained e. Coli, an intestinal bacteria present in feces that can cause severe illness.

 

Sources:

 

“Hundreds Drink ‘Sweet Sea-Water.’” BBC.com. August 19, 2006. BBC News. March 11, 2014. <http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/5266092.stm>

 

“People Taste ‘Sweet’ Sea Water in Mumbai.” Indiatimes.com. August 19, 2006. The Times of India. March 11, 2014. <http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/mumbai/People-taste-sweet-sea-water-in-Mumbai/articleshow/1907898.cms?referral=PM>

 

“People Defy Health Warning, Continue to Taste ‘Sweet’ Water.” DNAIndia.com. August 20, 2006. dna. March 11, 2014 <http://www.dnaindia.com/mumbai/report-people-defy-health-warning-continue-to-taste-sweet-water-1048386>

 

Underwatertimes.com News Service. “Indian Scientists: ‘Sweet’ Sea Water No Miracle; Tests Show Pollution, Sewage.” UnderWaterTimes.com. August 22, 2006. Underwatertimes.com. March 11, 2014 <http://www.underwatertimes.com/news.php?article_id=84010371659>

 

The Milk Miracle of 1995

A statue of Ganesh.

A statue of Ganesh.

Outbreaks of collective delusion do not always have to involve phantom slashers or mad gassers. These outbreaks of mass mental illness often take the form of supposed miraculous events, especially in countries where people are devoutly religious.

One such alleged miracle occurred September 21, 1995, when Hindu faithful witnessed statues of the Lord Ganesh, an elephant headed god revered in India, apparently drinking milk offerings. Faithful held the milk offerings up tot he deity’s lips, and witnessed the liquid disappear. Some reported hearing loud slurping noises. The belief spread like wildfire through the Hindu community, by word of mouth bur primarily through media reports.

The frenzy drew mobs of faithful to temples all around the world. From the first reported case in India, miracle reports spread to places as far afield as London, New York, and parts of Africa.

However, by Sunday, September 24, dejected Hindus began to claim that the statues rejected their offerings. As quickly as it had come, milk miracle mania disappeared.

By the end of the outbreak, a few people were hurt in stampedes as excited crowds rushed Hindu temples, eager to view the miracle. Stores in districts populated primarily by Hindus were stripped clean of milk, and many work places were forced to stop their normal operation as devout skipped work to witness the supernatural happenings.

The event also left a lot of head-scratching in its wake. What actually happened during those few days in September, when the world seemed to witness a miracle?

 

No miracle, just science

Miracles are, by definition, events that defy natural explanation. They are usually recorded in religious texts that describe the feats of divine beings. The most well known miracles among Americans would be the supernatural exploits attributed to Jesus of Nazareth in the New Testament. From turning water into wine to resurrecting three days after his execution, millions of people around the world believe that Jesus literally performed these feats. Millions more believe that tales of his exploits are greatly exaggerated.

Arguing for or against the existence of miracles is far beyond the scope of this post. Suffice it to say, the belief in the miraculous is common throughout the world, even in industrialized countries. Miracles are matters of faith, and that belief in the miraculous is at the heart of the strange outbreak in September of 1995.

Simply put, the belief in miracles predisposes people to thinking that things they don’t understand are miraculous in nature. In ancient times, fire was revered as a gift from the gods. Nowadays, we know that flames result from combustion reactions. Their causes and behavior have been well documented.

It is the same with the milk drinking miracle. People saw something happening that they couldn’t explain, and perceived it as a miracle. However, the events described by Hindu faithful were based in simple science. Many statues of Ganesh and other deities were made out of ceramics or stone. Since both materials could have simply absorbed milk as it was held to the statue’s mouth. This occurred via capillary action, which is the tendency for fluids to flow up a narrow tube by the actin of surface tension at the top of the fluid column. Basically, liquids stick to the side of the tube and crawl up the sides of it as more fluid is pushed up behind.

The crack in the lips of the statues, or Ganesh’s trunk, which usually had a shallow hole in the tip, acted as tubes for the capillary action to work. Ceramic or stone statues might have retained the fluids for awhile, before releasing it when fully saturated. While copper or brass idols would not have been able to absorb the milk, capillary action still could have drew the liquid out of the spoon. It would have then ran down the sides of the statue. Many worshipers reported seeing the milk running down the sides of metal statues and pooling at the base.

 

A highly susceptible population

The population of India is highly susceptible to outbreaks of collective delusion, for a variety of reasons. Socioeconomic factors played a strong role in the outbreak. The vast majority of people in India are impoverished and poorly educated. Traditional beliefs and superstitions are woven deep into their daily lives. This includes a strong devotion to their gods. Hindus do not see their gods as distant figures, reclining in a luxurious heaven and ruling over the universe like kings over an empire. They see their gods as family members, as friends, as parts of themselves.

These factors all conspired together to produce the milk miracle. One devotee, believing not just in the reality of their god, but feeling an intimate relationship with them, saw what they believed was their god trying to communicate with them. This was of course something no more miraculous than, say dipping a paper towel into a puddle. But because the worshiper saw something they couldn’t understand, and were primed to see it as something supernatural, they interpreted the event as a miracle. Others similarly primed began to try the miracle for themselves, and upon seeing capillary action at work and not knowing how to explain it, also believed they’d witnessed a miracle. Word of the miracles spread, and others came to temple fully expecting to see a miracle. Their bias made them susceptible, just as the “victims” of the Mad Gasser of Mattoon were primed to believe they were going to be attacked. If a person looks hard enough for something, they will find it.

But as the outbreak wore on, both the media and the community took a more skeptical view of the strange happenings. Some of this was no doubt due to the frenzy surrounding the supposed miracle, the work stoppages, and the injuries from stampeding faithful. When the more skeptical mood took hold and experts started to come out in the media dismissing the miracle as fantasy, reports began to drop off. Some continued to believe that the miracle had actually occurred, but they explained away the skeptical explanation by claiming that the statues were beginning to reject the offerings.

The milk miracle was a classic example of mass wish fulfillment. People wanted to see their gods in action. And they did, even if the supposed miracle had a perfectly natural explanation.

 

Sources:

Press Trust of India. “Idols ‘Drinking’ Milk is Pure Science.” IndiaExpress.com. August 26, 2006. ExpressIndia.com. March 8, 2014 <http://expressindia.indianexpress.com/news/fullstory.php?newsid=72699>

 

“Milk Miracle Vanishes.” Lawrence Journal-World. September 23,1995

 

Tayaraman, T. “Obscurantism vs. Science Behind the Milk-Drinking ‘Miracle.’” The Institute of Mathematical Sciences. <http://www.imsc.res.in/~jayaram/Articles/milkb.html>

 

Bhardwaj, Prabha Prabhakar. “The Milk Miracle: Tales and Reflections.” HinduismToday.com. December 1995. Hinduism Today. March 8, 2014. <http://www.hinduismtoday.com/modules/smartsection/item.php?itemid=3460>

 

Scripps Howard News Services. “Hindus Disappointed as Idols ‘Reject’ Milk.” Gainesville Sun. September 25, 1995. 8A

 

Persoud, Gitanjal. “Hindu ‘milk miracle’ Frenzy Hits Guyana.” Stoernek News. September 23, 1995 p. 32

The Dancing Plagues: Mass Hysteria in the Middle Ages

Pilgrims stricken by the dancing plague.

Pilgrims stricken by the dancing plague.

Mass hysteria and collective delusions are two forms of mass psychological illness that are, even today, not well understood. They have afflicted all every society, and continue to crop up even in the modern world. While the term “mass hysteria” is often used as a blanket term describing both mass hysteria and collective delusions, the two phenomena differ quite a bit in their presentation. Collective delusions do not feature physical illness. More often than not, they involve the fear of something attacking the community, such as a razor-wielding madman. The idea of the imagined threat, the delusion, spreads through the community as the panic grows.

On the other hand, mass hysteria is a form of conversion disorder, where deep seated anxieties are converted into physical symptoms. These symptoms come in two broad classifications: mass anxiety hysteria and mass motor hysteria. Mass anxiety hysteria is characterized by symptoms such as fainting, vomiting, and feelings of dread or paranoia. It is short lived–the symptoms only last a couple of hours, while the outbreaks themselves last a few weeks at most. The Mad Gasser of Mattoon is a classic example of mass anxiety in action. Mass motor hysteria is characterized by bizarre body movements and strange behavior. These outbreaks can last upwards of a year, possibly longer. They were more common in the pre-modern world, and in modern third world countries, where the belief in the supernatural was more prevalent and the threat of demonic possession was seen as a very real and present danger. One example of such an outbreak in the modern world was the Tanganyika Laughter Epidemic.

Perhaps the most bizarre and infamous outbreaks of mass hysteria occurred on and off throughout the Middle Ages. These featured mobs of people spasmodically dancing through the streets of medieval cities, often to the point they died of exhaustion.

 

1374-Aux-la-Chapelle

One of the earliest recorded outbreak of hysterical dancing occurred in Aux-la-Chapelle in 1374. Sufferers formed circles, joining hands. They danced for hours at a time, until they fell down exhausted. Those afflicted with the hysteria seemed oblivious to what was going on around them. They suffered delusions as well, claiming that they were being tormented by spirits, whose names they shouted as they danced. Others saw angels and saints.

The worst cases would have been truly frightening to behold. Some of the dancers fell into something akin to epileptic seizures. They would have violent convulsions and foam at the mouth, but still continue to dance.

By July of that year, the dancing plague had spread to what is now the Netherlands. In Belgium, dancers wore garland in their hair and attracted crowds of curious onlookers, some of whom found themselves sucked into the spectacle. In some cases, the dancers took over churches. People said prayers for the unfortunates, thinking they were possessed. Priests would attempt exorcisms on the dancers, only to find themselves being berated by the afflicted and the crowds they drew as well.

Communities in the affected regions were at a loss as to what to do about these poor souls. Ordinances were passed to appease the dancers, such as bans on pointed toe shoes which had become popular during the plague (however, square toes were allowed.) The sight of pointed shoes enraged the dancers, sending them into even more hysterical fits. The same went for weeping and the color red.

The priesthood found itself the victim of this seemingly random rage. It feared that the mania would spread to the upper classes (most of the dancers were lower class) and completely upset the social order. Here is the social element that is always present both in collective delusions and mass hysteria. The dances were release valves for years of pent up stress and anxiety. It was a way for the lower classes to rise up against the powers that be. By adopting the role of the hysteric (although they did so unintentionally–they actually were sick), the peasant could finally stand up to their oppressors.

Still, the rebellion as it were only lasted so long. Priests continued to perform exorcisms, noticing that they seemed to be the only treatment that helped the afflicted. After about ten or eleven months, the spastic dancing finally faded away.

 

Two centuries of outbreaks

Music was played during outbreaks. Counter intuitive as the thinking was, this was believed to help the afflicted.

Music was played during outbreaks. Counter intuitive as the thinking was, this was believed to help the afflicted.

Similar outbreaks occurred in Cologne and Metz in 1375. Smaller in comparison to the dancing plague of the previous year, the disturbances still brought chaos wherever they went. A new phenomena occurred during these later outbreaks–the imitators. There were those who saw the attention the dancers were getting, and decided to intentionally imitate the bizarre movements. This is in contrast to people who were actually afflicted, who to a large extent could not control themselves. The imitators spread the illness as readily as the actual sufferers–mass hysteria can literally be spread by sight and sound.

Dancing manias continued on and off for the next two centuries. Perhaps the most famous occurred in Strasbourg, France in 1518, when 400 men, women, and children danced uncontrollably in an outbreak that lasted for months. Dozens died from heart attacks and exhaustion.

 

St. Vitus and the Dancing Plagues

An example of Danse Macabre artwork. The style became popular after The Black Death.

An example of Danse Macabre artwork. The style became popular after The Black Death.

The cultural and religious traditions at the time played a huge role in how these dancing plagues played out. It has already been said how the belief in possession as an ever present danger helped to fuel the outbreaks. A more divine figure might have had a role in the outbreak as well. St. Vitus was a Sicilian who was martyred during Diocletian’s persecution of Christians in 303AD. His body was transferred to Corvey in 836, when miracles were ascribed to his tomb. As his worship spread, people sought his assistance in all sorts of problems.

The Legend began at the beginning of the fourteenth century that St. Vitus prayed for God to protect sufferers of the dancing mania, if they worshiped and fasted before the day of his martyrdom was commemorated. legend held that when the prayer finished, a voice came from Heaven saying “Vitus, thy prayer is accepted.”

Another figure called on to protect the dancers was John the Baptist. Worship of both Vitus and John were characterized by reenacting ancient pagan forms of worship, such as having people and animals jump through flaming hoops. These festivals were often host to raucous dancing and partying. It has been suggested that dancing of the worship festivals might have been the catalyst for the form that the dancing plagues took.

Broader issues were at play in addition to the festivals. The Black Death had ravaged the world only twenty years earlier, within the living memory of many people alive when the dancing manias started. The trauma from the Black Death permeated the entire culture, fundamentally changing how people viewed the world. No doubt there was an element of that trauma that played a part in the manias to come.

In addition, the region had suffered terribly since the ravages of the plague. Civil strife was rampant, with barons fighting one another incessantly in petty wars over territory. There were no laws to protect the common man, and most were at the mercy of the local noble’s whim. In addition, the Rhine and Maine rivers had flooded, ravaging the region. These social and environmental powers conspired to make the stresses that were to be released by the ceremonial worship of St. John and St. Vitus, but the revelry of those festivals spun out of control.

The outbreak in Strasbourg had similar underpinnings. There had been a terrible famine in the time leading up to the outbreak. Food prices soared. Farmers came into the city seeking food. A weakened population in an overcrowded city made the perfect target for an outbreak of disease, in this case leprosy and syphilis. These stressors provided the fuel for the fire of the dancing mania.

 

Sources:

Hecker, JFC. “Epidemics of the Middle Ages.” London –G. Woodfall and son. 1844

Waller, John “Dancing Plagues and Mass Hysteria.” The Psychologist 22;7 (2009) 644-647. http://www.thepsychologist.org.uk/archive/archive_home.cfm/volumeID_22-editionID_177-ArticleID_1541-getfile_getPDF/thepsychologist%5C0709look.pdf

 

A Mad Man in the Night: The Halifax Slasher

Modern day Halifax "Halifax 310805". Via Wikimedia Commons -

Modern day Halifax
“Halifax 310805”. Via Wikimedia Commons –

The city of Halifax, England was tormented for nine days in November and early December 1939 by a razor wielding maniac. The marauder lurked among the shadows of the factory town, lunging out at unsuspecting passersby to slash them with his blade before disappearing without a trace.

At the height of the incident, police received so many calls from victims of the madman that they believed there could be as many as three slashers at large on the streets of Halifax. But when the panic from Halifax began to spread to other towns and cities, as far away as London, the theory that the mayhem was the work of a single madman began to stretch credibility. Clearly, something else was at work. As we will see, the real truth behind the strange happenings in Halifax are stranger than even the motives of a rogue with a razor who got his jollies slashing women’s clothes.

 

A reign of terror begins

The evening of November 16 was like any other for Gertie Watts and Mary Gledhill. Mill workers, the pair were walking home, no doubt looking forward to an evening of relaxation. But the night had other plans. The next time anyone laid eyes on them, the pair were frantically knocking on the door of a nearby house, blood running down their faces from cuts on their heads. They told the Good Samaritans inside a strange story about a man who appeared out of the shadows and slashed them before disappearing as quick as he came.

The no doubt shaken residents called the police. A quick investigation revealed no physical evidence, other than the cuts, of any attacker. The local paper, the Halifax Courier, ran the strange story the next day.

Five days later the mysterious attacker reared his head again. Mary Sutcliffe was attacked on her way home from her job at Mackintosh’s Queen’s Road factory. She pushed her attacker away, but after the altercation she found a cut on her wrist, which she thought might have come from a razor. While she was able to describe her attacker, it did little good for the police who rushed to investigate the incident. They could find no trace of the attacker, as if he had disappeared back into the shadows that gave him life.

On the 24th, a man named Clayton Aspinall fell under the madman’s razor. Again, the assailant could not be located by the police. The Halifax Courier reported on the attack the next day. Police offered a $10 reward for any information leading to the arrest of the Halifax Slasher.

The odd series of events took a new dimension on November 25, when Hilda Lodge reported being attacked on her way to buy vinegar from a shop near her home. This time, word of the attack spread quickly and a large crowd gathered, eager to take a pound of flesh out of the mysterious slasher. As the crowd worked itself into a frenzy, it turned on one of their own. A man by the name of Clifford Edwards was denounced as the Halifax Slasher. Although the reasons for the accusation remain unclear, the danger to Mr. Edwards was very real. Surrounded by an angry crowd, the innocent man was in serious danger of being lynched right then and there. Luckily, police were able to rescue him before the worst happened. He was escorted home, and his role in the story ended there.

Two nights later, another attack occurred not far from where Hilda Lodge’s home. The victim this time was a nineteen year old woman named Beatrice Sorrell. She appeared at the fire station on Gibbet’s Street with a cut in her sweater sleeve and two shallow wounds in her arm. Oddly calm for a woman who had just confronted a madman, she reported to the flummoxed firemen that a man had jumped out of a dark yard as she was passing buy and attacked her. Another mob gathered, eager to track down the slasher. But, par for the course by this point, neither they nor the police could find any evidence. Despite the show of force, the slasher struck three more times that night.

The next reported attack was out of character for the Slasher because it happened in the morning. The morning of the 28th, Constance Wood was standing by her front gate when a man in a rain coat ran by. He happened to bump into her, knocking her to the ground. She felt a pain in her left arm, and found two small scratches on her arm and a tear in her sweater. She raised the alarm and another mob descended on the scene, hunting for tall men in rain coats. By this point, the results of their search were predictable: they found nothing.

 

The Slasher changes address

By November 30th, police in Halifax were swamped. The sheer volume of attacks suggested that there might be as many as three slashers at work in the city. Mobs armed with canes, clubs, and just about anything else that could be used to brain someone roved the streets on the hunt for the elusive madman. Put short, the city was in a panic and it was too much for the local authorities to deal with. So the overwrought police department turned to the famous Scotland Yard for help with the case.

Meanwhile, the slasher changed address. Thirty-five miles from Halifax, eighteen year old Winifred Walshe reported that the madman attacked her in her backyard, leaving her with a five inch gash on her left arm. Not long after the Walshe attack, he struck again in Manchester, slashing a fourteen year old four times on the arms after leaping out at her from a dark corner. Another attack occurred in Lancanshire, fifty miles from Halifax.

The most dramatic of the Slasher’s exploits outside of Halifax came from Brentford, five miles outside of London. Marjory Maple, fourteen, staggered into a candy shop, blood dripping from a dozen cuts on her arms.

Taking the attacks in Halifax and those outside together, the Slasher had been responsible for eighteen attacks in eight days. Police in the towns outside Halifax were on the watch for accomplices or imitators which they believed were responsible for the attacks.

Back in Halifax, police deputized eighty citizens. Private citizens cruised the town looking for any suspicious activity, and local stores sold out of canes, bats, and anything else that could be used as a weapon. Halifax was under siege by the invisible attacker, and on the verge of a complete panic.

 

Confessions roll out, and the panic ends

However, in the first week of December, reports of Slasher attacks took a nose dive. As quickly as it had began, the panic ended. Mostly, this was brought about by a series of shocking confessions from the victims of the Slasher. Many came forward and said that they were not attacked. Worse, many confessed that they faked their wounds.

Hilda Lodge was among the fakers. Her wounds came not from a madman with a razor but rather nothing more threatening than a broken vinegar bottle.

Beatrice Sorrell used a razor to slash her coat sleeve and then she cut her arm until the blood flowed freely. She did the stunt because she was upset with her boyfriend. She had read the reports of the slasher in the paper, and imitated the attacks for the attention.

As for the fourteen year old in Manchester who suffered the five inch gash in her arm? It was caused by a madman with a razor, but rather she suffered the injury in an accident.

However, not all of the “victims’ were fakers. Constance Wood, who was knocked down outside her gate by a running man in a raincoat, genuinely believed that she had been attacked. Her wounds, two small scratches and a tear in her sweater, probably came from falling to the ground. But she and her neighbors were in such a state of paranoia–fueled by the newspaper reports of the slasher and the general panic in the town–that they believed a Slasher attack was inevitable. So, when Constance Wood had a run in with what, under normal circumstances, would have just been a very rude man, she interpreted it as an attack by the madman and perceived her injuries accordingly.

 

Aftermath

By the end of the panic, police logged between 200 and 400 reports related to the Halifax Slasher. Eighty men were deputized to help investigate the huge influx of reports, while hundreds more took to the streets on their own to hunt down the elusive attacker.

The vigilante mood among the general public made the police’s work that much harder. On at least two occasions, the police had to save a man denounced as the slasher from mobs intent on lynching them.

Once it became clear that there was no attacker, the police turned their attention to the alleged “victims” themselves. In January, 1939, three young women and a young man were convicted of malicious mischief and sentenced to a month in jail for their fake reports. One of the youths sentenced was none other than Beatrice Sorrell, who made her report in a fit of pique against her boyfriend. Hilda Lodge also received a four week sentence for her false report.

If there was not a real attacker on the loose in Halifax, what happened? The first impulse is to label it mass hysteria and call it a day, but the case doesn’t fit the parameters of a mass hysteria outbreak. Most damning for the case of calling it mass hysteria is the fact that there were no reports of illness. Mass hysteria is an outbreak of usually short-lived symptoms with no biological basis. Victims didn’t reports being ill; they reported being attacked. It might seem like a quibbling distinction since there was no real attacker, but it is an important one.

Hitler and his idol, Mussolini. Hitler's saber rattling and the memories of WWI may have been part of the stressors that caused the Halifax Slasher incident.

Hitler and his idol, Mussolini. Hitler’s saber rattling and the memories of WWI may have been part of the stressors that caused the Halifax Slasher incident.

Rather than mass hysteria, the Halifax Slasher case should be classified as a collective delusion. Although it was not truly an outbreak of a conversion disorder, the panic in Halifax had similar stresses underpinning it. The victims were mostly low class women who lived in poverty, working grueling factory jobs. Adding to the stress was the grim news from Europe of German expansionism under the iron hand of Adolf Hitler. Talk of potential war with the German strongman was on a lot of lips. After the horrors of World War I, another massive war was not a pleasant prospect in the least.

So the backdrop against which the victims lived was ripe for an outbreak of mass hysteria or collective delusion. But why did it take the form of a madman with a razor as opposed to, say, poison gas? While it can be hard to tell for certain, in the immediate aftermath of the panic there was speculation that the initial attack that started the panic was genuine, and that all of the others after that were simply a result of panic at the prospect of being attacked.

It is an intriguing possibility, and it sounds plausible. Oftentimes panics and hysteria radiate out from an index case who suffers genuine symptoms of a disease. Or, in this case, a genuine attack. However, police at the time found no evidence for any attacker. The only witnesses were the victims themselves. In the absence of any corroborating evidence, the first attacker hypothesis remains just that, a hypothesis.

If there was a real-life Halifax Slasher who started the trouble that followed that cold November night, he never showed his face again. After the nine days of panic in 1938, no other reports of a mad phantom with a razor blade came out of Halifax.

 

Sources:

Bartholomew, Robert E. Little Green Men, Meowing Nuns, And Head-Hunting Panics: A Study of Mass Psychogenic Illness and Social Delusion. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc. 2001. pgs 15-16

The Associated Press. “British Put Three Girls in Jail for ‘Slasher’ Stories.” St. Petersburg Times. January 24, 1939

The Associated Press. “England’s Phantom Slasher Just a Fake.” St. Petersburg Times. December 15, 1939

The Associated Press. “Scotland Yard Thinks ‘Slasher’ is Phantom; New Tales of Attacks.” The Lewiston Daily Sun. December 1, 1938

The Associated Press. “Shadow Slasher Stalks Women in Another Town.” The Milawukee Journal. November 29, 1938

Glover, David. “Terror Reign of Halifax ‘Slasher.’” Halifax Courier. April 24, 2013. Retrieved from: http://www.halifaxcourier.co.uk/news/nostalgia/terror-reign-of-halifax-slasher-1-5607760

 

 

The Monkey Man of Delhi

Illustration based on witness accounts of the Monkey Man "Monkey Man". Via Wikipedia -

Illustration based on witness accounts of the Monkey Man
“Monkey Man”. Via Wikipedia –

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.

 

Sources:

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://157.166.226.165/2001/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

 

A Blood Sucker in Glasgow: The Gorbals Vampire Panic

"Southern Necropolis gatehouse, Glasgow" by Stephen Sweeney - From geograph.org.uk. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

“Southern Necropolis gatehouse, Glasgow” by Stephen Sweeney – From geograph.org.uk. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

People have told vampire stories for at least as long as civilization as existed. While the popular image of vampires today is of well coiffed, moody young people who spend more time brooding over romance than draining the living of their lifeblood, the vampires of ancient times were fearsome monsters. The closest a modern vampire story gets to the ancient archetype is the blood sucker who started it all: Dracula, the titular monster of Bram Stoker’s classic gothic novel.

While there are few today who believe that vampires – brooding teenage or the more traditional style nosferatu – are real, the fascination remains. There is no room in the modern world for beasts of that bygone age, who are no restrained to popular culture. But despite the modern skepticism toward creatures of the night, an odd episode took place in 1954 that illustrated the hold vampires have over the imagination, even in a time of expanding technological and scientific knowledge. Pint-sized vampire hunters, carrying improvised weapons and their parents in tow, turned out in the Gorbals district of Glasgow, Scotland. They scoured the Necropolis, a vast cemetery housing 250,000 of Glasgow’s former citizens, looking for an iron toothed vampire they claimed had killed two children.

 

 

Iron toothed vampire on the prowl

The strange story began the evening of September 23, 1954. Constable Alex Deeprose responded to a call telling him of trouble in the Southern Necropolis in Gorbals. This was not the first time the constable had been called about mischief in the old cemetery. The ancient monuments were often the targets of vandals.

But Constable Deeprose didn’t find vandals when he arrived that evening. Instead, he found hundreds of children between the ages of five and fourteen, many of them armed with anything that could be remotely called a weapon. Many had brought dogs to aid them in their search. The constable was shocked to find out what had brought the crowd to the home of the dead. The children told him that a vampire with iron teeth lived in the cemetery, and the fiend was responsible for the deaths of two children.

The constable was understandably perplexed by the story. If two children had been killed anywhere in Gorbals, he would have known about it. In fact, no child murders were reported that year. Luckily for the Constable, cooler heads prevailed before the situation could get out of control. The headmaster of a nearby primary school managed to convince the crowd that the entire story was ludicrous and that no iron toothed vampire existed anywhere, let alone inside the Necropolis.

The crowd dispersed at sunset, but like clockwork the next night (and the night after), the crowds gathered again to hunt for an elusive creature with a macabre appetite.

 

 

The playground rumor mill

The bizarre panic began not in the cemetery, but on the playgrounds and classrooms of Gorbals. At the time, the causes for the panic were not entirely clear. But one look at the Necropolis and it is easy to see how impressionable children could believe that a vampire could take up residence there. It was a gloomy bone yard of looming headstones and Gothic architecture. Nearby, the furnaces of the iron works at Dixon Blazes cast eerie shadows over the tombs.

But as to why exactly the children believed a vampire had taken up residence among the ancient tombs, parents and officials both were at a loss. It wasn’t long though before they came up with a scape goat: American comic books. Specifically, horror comics like EC Comics and Tales from the script, both comics that are infamous for their lurid and graphic subject matter. Members of Parliament were so convinced by this explanation that they passed the Children and Young Persons (Harmful Publications) Act of 1955, which prohibited horror comics or any other type of medium that was deemed harmful to children.

However, some free speech advocates were quick to point out that none of the stories in horror comics at the time featured a child-eating vampire with iron teeth. What parents, officials, and priests all seemed to miss in the outbreak of hand-wringing that followed the Gorbals vampire panic was that well known local folklore stories contained a vampiric beast with iron teeth.

Her name was Jenny with the Iron Teeth, and she was the subject of a Scottish dialect poem called “Jenny wi the airn teeth.” The poem was told from the perspective of a mother who was trying to get her restless child to sleep. She tells the poor kid that Jenny would come after him and bite a chunk out of his side with her iron teeth before carting him off to her lair if he would not get to sleep. This poem was commonly recited in schools in the Gorbals area.

This use of scary bogeys to control children’s behavior is pretty common. It is a good way for parents to keep children away from dangerous places or behaviors without having to resort to the tired cliche: “because I said so.” An example of another, more common, urban legend that had its origins in the same era as the Gorbals vampire panic is the legend of the Hookman. The story is about a pair of teenagers who go off to a local Lover’s Lane. On the way, they hear a radio broadcast about a madman with a hook for a hand who escaped from a local insane asylum. The girl is afraid, but the boy has his mind on what’s going to happen when they park. After they reach their destination and start to make out, the girl hears a noise and convinces her irritated boyfriend to turn the car around. When they arrive home, the boy gets out to let his girlfriend out of the car, only to find a hook hanging from the door handle.

The story was meant to scare teenagers away from the practice of parking. Whether it was effective or not was anyone’s guess. Jenny with the Iron Teeth and another local bogey, the Iron Man, performed much the same function. Children were warned that if they misbehaved, the Iron Man would come for them. They were also warned to stay away from the cemetery, because the Iron Man lurked there. Mostly likely the real reason was due to how close the cemetery was to the iron works, not to mention that the place was regularly vandalized so unsavory characters likely hung out in the area.

 

 

The origin of the panic

The local folklore and parental warnings to stay out of the cemetery provided fertile ground for a panic. It is difficult to say exactly what caused the panic to start with. Perhaps one of the school children sneaked into the cemetery against his parent’s will, and saw someone lurking among the headstones which he interpreted as the legendary Iron Man. Then, when he returned to school and told his friends of the event, it spread from his group of friends to other students through the process of Chinese Whispers, changing with each retelling.

Then, by the end of the day, the story morphed from a sighting of the Iron Man to that of an iron toothed vampire who ate children. The collective delusion caused enough excitement that hundreds of children (and a few of their no doubt bewildered parents) turned out to the cemetery to investigate.

What is interesting about this case is that two types of collective delusions were at work. The first was an immediate community threat panic. The playground community felt that they were under direct threat of an enemy they themselves invented out of the folklore they all shared. This initial panic was the catalyst for another type of collective delusion that swept all the way to Parliament: a moral panic. The belief that the traditional values were under threat from something authorities found distasteful – horror comics in this case – brought about a panicky action to address the threat. In this case, the action was to ban those comics entirely.

It goes to show that anyone–child, adult, or member of Parliament–can fall victim of a collective delusion.

 

Sources:

Westwood, Jennifer. Kinsghill, Sophia. The Lore of Scotland: A Guide to Scottish Legends. Random House. 2012. Pgs 186-187

Nicolson, Stuart. “Child Vampire Hunters Sparked Comic Crackdown.” BBC.co.uk. March 22, 2010. BBC News. March 1, 2014 <http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/scotland/8574484.stm>

English, Paul. “Before Hollywood Went Vampire Crazy, Scots Kids Hunted Them In Graveyward.” DailyRecord.co.uk. March 27, 2010. Daily Record and Sunday Mail. March 1, 2014 <http://www.dailyrecord.co.uk/news/uk-world-news/before-hollywood-went-vampire-crazy-1054391>

Hobbs, Sandy. “The Gorbals Vampire Hunt.” HeraldScotland.com June 23, 1989. Herald Scotland. March 1, 2014. <http://www.heraldscotland.com/sport/spl/aberdeen/the-gorbals-vampire-hunt-1.623152>

“Hundreds in Grim Hunt for ‘Monster.’” The Sydney Morning Herald. September 26, 1954

The Tanganyika Laughter Epidemic

"Two Laughing Men." by Hans von Aachen. Laughter is usually associated with joy, but during the Tanganyika epidemic it was anything but joyful.

“Two Laughing Men.” by Hans von Aachen. Laughter is usually associated with joy, but during the Tanganyika epidemic it was anything but joyful.

Everyone knows that laughter is contagious. Seeing another person laughing can be enough to inspire a fit of giggles (or chuckles, if you prefer) in even the most taciturn person. It doesn’t even matter if you’re in on the joke or not.

But if laughter is contagious, could it become an epidemic? This seemed to be the case in Tanganyika (now Tanzania) in 1962, when three girls at a mission school began to act odd. The resulting epidemic swept through the entire country and spilled over into neighboring nations. It was characterized, at least in popular memory, by uncontrollable laughter. As we will soon see, the truth is more complex and not nearly as amusing.

 

Epidemic laughter?

The epidemic began on January 30, 1962 at a mission run boarding school at Kashasha village in Tanzania, 25 miles south of Bukoba. Three girls began to show symptoms that would come to characterize the outbreak: laughing and crying fits, restlessness, and paranoia. Patients would often become violent when restrained. The symptoms lasted for hours or even days, with the longest stretch lasting 16 days. After the initial onset of symptoms, most of the girls showed signs of improvement before lapsing back into an altered state.

By March 18, 95 of the school’s 159 students – which were all girls ages 12-18 – were effected, forcing the school to close. The girls were sent home, and they brought the epidemic with them.

The outbreak reached Nshamba village when two boarding school students returned home. The Nshamba outbreak began March 28 and ran until April 30. Of 10,000 village residents, 217 villagers fell ill. All of the victims were school children or young adults. Both sexes were affected.

In May, the Kashasha boarding school attempted to reopen, but the laughing and crying fits struck again. However, this outbreak wasn’t as severe as the initial one, with only 57 out of 159 students affected. Still, the school was once again forced to close its doors.

On June 10, the epidemic hit Ramashenye Girl’s Middle School, which was located on the outskirts of Bukoba. Some students form Kashasha lived in the area. This outbreak lasted eight days and sickened 98 of 154 students, forcing the school’s closure.

While the middle school suffered its outbreak, another student spread the illness to her home village. This outbreak was confined to three of her family members.

From that point, the reports become sketchy. The facts of the incident were not well recorded. The incident lasted from about six months to a year, and spread through large swaths of Tanganyika and into the neighboring countries of Kenya and Uganda. Thousands fell ill before the outbreak ended as mysteriously as it began.

Exhaustive testing of both food and the school itself showed no presence of pathogens or toxic agents that could explain the odd behavior. Medical tests on the girls themselves revealed no infections or physical ailments. Ruling out any biological causes led experts to turn to the only viable explanation for the odd events: our old pal, mass hysteria.

 

Tanganyika, more or less how it appeared in the 60s during the epidemic.

Tanganyika, more or less how it appeared in the 60s during the epidemic.

Regional stresses and intense pressure

The outbreak occurred against a backdrop of immense change. In 1962, Tanganyika gained its independence from Great Britain. The country, like many others in Africa. had been a colony since the end of the 19th century, when it was claimed by Germany. Then it came under the aegis of the British Commonwealth after World War I.

These stresses no doubt played a part in the larger outbreak. Of more immediate importance to the girls among whom the initial outbreak happened was a stressful environment that reflected the larger changes

in microcosm. These were adolescent girls who left their families and villages, often the only world they’d ever known, to go live with strangers in an unfamiliar setting. They were exposed to strict Western style educational practices and to Christian morality for the first time. These would be much different than the tribal values that the girls grew up with. Like Tanganyika itself, the girls were walking an unfamiliar path in unknown territory, in a state of flux.

In addition, racial segregation in schools was done away with on January 1, 1962. It might seem odd today that this could be stressful, but a simple look at how desegregation of schools in the US caused so much uproar shows how a big change like that can effect people.

Taken together, these factors all built a pressure cooker tailor made to produce mass hysteria.

 

An outbreak of motor-variant hysteria

The Tanganyika laughing epidemic was an outbreak of motor-variant hysteria. Rare in the modern world, it mostly confines itself to the third world, where belief in the supernatural often still holds sway and people are more likely to be subjected to oppressive circumstances, both political and cultural.

While the Tanganyika outbreak has become entrenched in both popular culture and scientific literature as an epidemic of hilarity, the laughter was only one symptom. The others were crying, restlessness, and violent behavior. But the focus on the laughing is understandable, since laughter is usually associated with mirth and good times rather than illness. However, laughter can be a symptom in a variety of disorders. People suffering from dementia and other mental illnesses might laugh at inappropriate times, for no apparent reason. Another disease with laughter as a symptom is kuru, a neurodegenerative disease similar to mad cow disease. The end stage of the disease is characterized by fits of laughter.

So, to return to the Tanganyika case, the victims weren’t laughing because they found something funny. The laughter was one of several ways that the profound stress and anxiety they could not express in healthier ways was converted into physical symptoms. This laughter was not continuous, as is implied by the term “laughter epidemic.” Humans can only laugh for about 20 seconds straight. The act of laughing is, believe it or not, every taxing. It puts a lot of stress on the respiratory system and abdominal muscles.

Anyone who has laughed until their sides ached and they couldn’t breathe has experienced just how strenuous laughter can be. Now, imagine experiecing fits of laughter like that day in and day out for months at a time. It is easy to see then how the victims of the Tanganyika laughing epidemic suffered.

 

Sources:

Hempelmann, Christan F. “The Laughter of the 1962 Tanganyika ‘Laughter Epidemic.’” Humor: International Journal of Humor Research. 2007. Vol. 1, pg 49-71 23p

 

Rankin AM, Philip PJ. “An Epidemic of Laughing in the Bukoba District of Tanganyika. Central African Journal of Medicine. May 9, 1963; pgs 167-170