Mass delusions are not new, of course – the media advertises a ‘problem’ (and gives a helpful list of ‘symptoms’) and a new ‘syndrome’ or even ‘epidemic’ is born. Reader John Blanton reminds us of this classic case:
On April 15, 1954, Bellingham, Seattle and other Washington communities are in the grip of a strange phenomenon — tiny holes, pits, and dings have seemingly appeared in the windshields of cars at an unprecedented rate. Initially thought to be the work of vandals, the pitting rate grows so quickly that panicked residents soon suspect everything from cosmic rays to sand-flea eggs to fallout from H-bomb tests. By the next day, pleas are sent to government officials asking for help in solving what would become known as the Seattle Windshield Pitting Epidemic. (History Link)
The case Time raises (and which Brockovich shamelessly seeks to exploit) involves imaginary ills manifesting themselves in physical symptoms and is more common in adolescent girls:
Mysterious Tics in Teen Girls: What Is Mass Psychogenic Illness?
About a dozen upstate New York girls have been diagnosed with a psychogenic disorder. Does that make their symptoms any less real?
By MAIA SZALAVITZ
Last fall, when a dozen teenage girls in a single upstate New York high school developed a condition that looked like Tourette’s syndrome — complete with sudden verbal outbursts, uncontrollable arm motions and facial tics — it seemed likely that a chemical toxin or infectious agent was to blame. But none could be found.
More recently, three other students at Le Roy Junior Senior High School, including one boy, developed the same baffling condition, prompting parents to call in the big guns: environmental activist and heroine of a Julia Roberts movie, Erin Brockovich, who has just stepped in to investigate possible environmental causes.
Brockovich’s team said it would be six weeks before tests of groundwater samples near the school could identify contamination, but in the meantime, doctors have already diagnosed most of the girls with a disorder: mass psychogenic illness — otherwise known as conversion disorder or, to use an outmoded term, mass hysteria.
Mass psychogenic illness is thought to be triggered by stress or emotional distress, in response, for example, to reports of a chemical exposure, toxin or virus. The symptoms — which can and have included everything from uncontrollable dancing, unstoppable laughter and fainting spells to fits of meowing and penis shrinkage — spread through groups by way of humans’ often unconscious social mimicry of one another’s behavior.