Collective hysteria, a strange epidemic

Collective hysteria, a strange epidemic

In 1518 a large number of the Strasbourg population began to dance incessantly for hours, days and months, some of those affected by this strange crisis coming to die because of this unstoppable urge to dance. In 1692 several girls from an American town suffered symptoms that the authorities blamed on a curse. The girls suffered unexplained seizures and spasms and were burned at the stake by witchcraft. It was the case of Salem witches. Although not much is said about it, the power of suggestion and social influence can become almost as important as physical illnesses. Today we talk about a curious phenomenon that appears again and again in different historical contexts and moments, a phenomenon that manages to fill mystery pages of events and of which little has been studied so far at the scientific level: collective hysteria.


  • 1 The Halifax Killer
  • 2 What is collective hysteria?
  • 3 Symptoms of collective hysteria
  • 4 Types of collective hysteria
  • 5 Treatment of collective hysteria

The killer of Halifax

In 1938 there was also a strange event whose characteristics filled public opinion with concern. In Halifax, England, two people claimed to have been attacked by a man carrying a mallet and shiny buckles on his shoes. A few days later, another citizen reported having suffered an attack by the mysterious man who was nicknamed "The Halifax Slasher." Soon terror broke out and complaints against the mysterious attacker proliferated among the population. Police surveillance teams met and the streets were mired in fear, so much so that many shops closed and people who were suspected were attacked by gangs of guards.

When they blamed a man suspected of being the true Halifax Slasher, the citizens claimed his death sentence and that was when the denouncing people began to admit that they had self-inflicted the damage, being denied the existence of the mysterious attacker. Nine of the twelve people who had reported damages acknowledged that this had not happened. What led these people and the population of Halifax to this irrational behavior?

What is collective hysteria?

What happened in Halifax, as in so many other parts of the world, was an episode of collective hysteria. The mass hysteria, it is a psychological phenomenon in which there is a unreal threatening perception shared by a group of people who feel the same physical symptoms and share the same irrational ideas.

It is an obsessive behavior that occurs in collectivity. Collective hysteria is not a rare occurrence and appears in all types of societies during many historical moments.

Although there is still great ignorance on the part of science, collective hysteria is considered something like a Anxiety Attack en masse, a distorted perception of reality that is experienced in a group context and that causes changes and physical ailments in those affected.

Although the causes are unclear, it seems that oppressive and stressful environments can affect the emotional stability of a group of people who begin to experience the same sensations. It seems that anyone can experience collective hysteria, although there is talk that women in adolescent stage can become more prone.

Symptoms of collective hysteria

For a case of collective hysteria to be considered as such, the following characteristics must be met:

  • The symptoms that appear in people cannot be explained by physical causes such as illness or poisoning.
  • Affected people usually did not behave this way before the outbreak.
  • It does not occur in group contexts in which symptoms are deliberately caused through conviction.
  • People who experience the hysteria episode do not have a casual link, but are part of a community.

Types of collective hysteria

According to Professor Simon Wessley, of King's College London there are two types of collective hysteria:

  • Anxious collective hysteria: In this type of hysteria, physical symptoms associated with a state of anxiety are experienced, such as abdominal pain, chest pain, fainting, dizziness, nausea or palpitations.
  • Motor collective hysteria: It is the type of hysteria in which motor symptoms such as seizures or paralysis develop.

A stranger case of anxious collective hysteria is that of Chalco boarding school, in Mexico. In 2006, girls from Chalco boarding school began to be affected by an unknown disease. Symptoms included fever, difficulty walking or the nausea that 600 of the girls in the boarding school suffered. After meticulously studying the health of the little ones and the conditions in which they were in the boarding school, doctors ruled out the existence of a physical illness and they blamed these symptoms on a massive psychogenic disorder that affected girls. The oppressive atmosphere of the boarding school in which the girls were isolated with few interactions with their relatives and under great stress, made collective hysteria encamp at ease.

Treatment of collective hysteria

Although collective hysteria is not a phenomenon widely studied by the scientific community, the symptoms it generates are real and people often need psychiatric or psychological treatment. This treatment is based on get patients to control stress and anxiety. In addition, people who experience the symptoms are usually separated and away from the situations that generate them, and the stressors that have been able to generate this overflowing situation have also been investigated. Despite these basic measures, much remains to be studied on this phenomenon that highlights the importance of social context, thinking and suggestion in our own physical health.

Links of interest

What is collective hysteria? Jacob Silverman. //

Mass hysteria: An epidemic of the mind ?. Jasmin Collier //