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Strange tales of mass hysteria


BOB RICKARD welcomes a new encyclopedia of extraordinary social behaviour and wonders just what it is about humans that makes us fall prey to everything from daft fads to mass hysteria. Extracts by HILARY EVANS and ROBERT BARTHOLOMEW.

The Roman senate, in the 2nd century BC, expressed horror and anxiety about the way the public following of the Bacchanalia was getting out of hand. It began in Greece as a harmless daylight gathering of women, but by the time it took hold in Italy it had become a continuous orgy of indiscriminate sex, violence and crime. The senators were so convinced that this breakdown of law and order presaged the end of civilisation as they knew it that they authorised imprisonment and executions on such a scale that, according to Professor Norman Cohn, it set the precedent for most of the awful pogroms of the last two millennia.

History is filled with similar moments of shared delusion and madness, from silly fads and popular crazes to the more extreme forms of collective panic and cult paranoia. They’re examples of what has come to be called ‘mass hysteria’.

Such examples of humanity’s apparently limitless capacity for self-delusion and folly have found previous chroniclers – most notably Charles Mackay, who published his pioneering survey Extra­ordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds in 1841, cataloguing such phenomena as alchemy, the witch craze, financial bubbles and the tulip mania. Mackay, one imagines, would have thoroughly enjoyed our more recent tales of Spring-heeled Jack, the Mad Gasser of Mattoon, the Orson Welles Martian Panic, alien abduct­ions and Satanic Ritual Abuse scares.

Hilary Evans and Robert Bartholomew – who have spent many years exploring and cataloguing just such anomalies – have produced, in their new book, Outbreak! The Encyclopedia of Extraordinary Social Behaviour, what will undoubtedly remain the definitive reference work on collective delusions, mass panics and other strange forms of group behaviour for the foreseeable future.

We could not ask for two more qualified guides: both are experienced sociologists and anomalists who have published studies of the behavioural eccentricities of individuals and society in general and group behaviour in particular. Evans, a social historian, treated the psychology and sociology of ufo­logy in his 1987 book Gods, Spirits, Cosmic Guardians (1987) and others. Bartholomew, a preeminent academic specialising in “collective behaviour and social deviance” has titles like Exotic Deviance: Medicalizing Cultural Idioms: From Strangeness to Illness (2000) under his belt. The pair previously collaborated on Panic Attacks: Media Manipulation and Mass Delusion (2004). So what does this new work tell us about the capacity of human beings for shared delusion and strange behaviour, and how such phenomena come about?

The authors have sifted through a vast range of material, and believe the spectrum of extraordinary social behaviour encompasses everything from faddish children to the mindless mob – from the ‘harmless’ hula-hoop mania of 1958 (in which 30 million were sold in the USA alone within four months) to the flash-mobs of the French Revolution, in which seemingly ordinary bystanders were swept along to participate in brutal murders; from the rapid popularity of daft phrases like “See you later, alligator” to such notorious financial crazes as the reckless buying and selling of tulip bulbs.

Evans and Bartholomew cast their net wide in trying to make sense of such a wide spectrum of odd behaviours and marshal some of the broader issues under headings like Cargo Cults, Copycat Behaviour, Crazes, End-of-the-World Panics, Fads, Fantasy-proneness, Hoaxes, Mind Control Fears, Moral and Sexual Panics, Possession, Religious Revivals, Sects, and all kinds of mass persecutions of minority groups, both real and imagined. But underlying all these diverse manifestations, they argue, are two chief vectors: a negative one involving exaggerated fear and uncertainty, and a positive one driven by hope and expectation. In both cases, these emotions of fear and hope can multi­ply to such an extent that they shape society for better or worse… mostly, it has to be said, for the worse.

There have been many attempts to account for the kinds of outlandish collect­ive behaviour that so fascinate forteans – the book provides entries on many of these related theories and explan­ations, from Altered States of Consciousness and Anxiety to False Memory Syndrome, Hysteria and Psychosomatic Phenomena. Many once-favoured ideas don’t really stand up to much scrutiny: consider the fad among 19th-century physicians for ‘curing’ masturbators with bizarre surgical ‘intervention’ and for terrifying their hapless patients with the prospect of bodily ruin and eternal damnation. It could be argued that none of the theories that have been put forward – even the more promising ones – actually applies in all cases.

Ultimately, it’s clear there is no consensus on just why human behaviour should include such anomalies, or how and why they occur. Just possibly, they may be pathological forms of the more healthy processes that cement our personal and social lives and which are only noticed when they go wrong. In many cases, the best that can be done is to understand the local social, political and cultural dynamics, but even so the causes of many such outbreaks remain obscure. This is important, because such erratic collective behaviour casts an awful shadow over human history, and we are no closer to understanding it now than Mackay was in 1841.

One person acting ‘irrationally’ – saying God made him kill his children, or that his penis had vanished, or that he was visited nightly by a demon that sat on his chest – might well be labelled with a psychiatric disorder, but how do we explain groups, or even whole crowds of people, behaving in a manner “so far at variance with contempor­ary mainstream standards of what is normal, rational or real”? What is it that the hundreds of Catholics in Ireland who were convinced they saw statues of the Virgin Mary move and weep share with the Islamic ecstatics who scourge their backs with whips made of razors, or the self-mutilating Skopsti sectarians who believed that when their numbers reached 144,000 their dead founder would rise from his tomb?

Hope and fear may well be powering the change occurring within an individual when he gives himself over to the collective. The traditional view would be that an individual somehow ‘loses’ his individuality in the pro­cess. Evans and Bartholomew take a different tack, suggesting that autonomy is in some way “transferred” to the group “with which the individual, for the time being at least, identifies himself”, and that the individual plays a part “in fashioning the behaviour of the group to which he has attached himself”. The mystery of this transference has a lot in common with that other great unknown, ‘hypnosis’, and how it may tap into the extra­ordinary mimicking powers of our psychosomatic processes. Time and again in these cases we encounter individuals who, while under the influence of a collective mania, perform extraordinary feats of endurance and access levels of ability not available to the ‘normal’ human being – wounds without bleeding, sight without eyes, bearing pain without injury, tele­pathy, stigmata, visions and prophecy, to name a few.

While there are plenty of stories of hysterical outbreaks from the worlds of stocks and shares, medicine, factories, playing fields, schools, advert­ising, restaurants and the Internet, by far the greatest number concern religion of one form or another – perhaps because, more than any other human experience, it offers the opportunity for the individual to transfer autonomy to the group, and is powered by belief, the engine of most extraordinary behaviour.

Take the Salem witch-hunts of 1692, in which a Massachusetts community was panicked into arresting 200 people – and executing 20 of them – by accusations made by a small group of histrionic girls in fits of crying and shaking trances. Or the ancient Thugee cult that menaced British India with more than a million strangulations in the belief that murder pleased the goddess Kali and would win the killers posthumous rewards.

In times past, many Christian cultists have believed this world (especially at the turning of the millennium) was under siege by Satan and his minions, but as recently as the 1980s we witnessed the Satanic Child Abuse panics, demon­strating that the modern world is not immune. Partly this was down to Christian fundamentalists working in the welfare services who firmly believed that Satanic groups had infiltrated every tier of public life and could abduct children for sacrifice while frustrating efforts to stop them.

This feeling of helplessness, of being trapped in a hostile system being exploited by evil people, is one that feeds paranoia, isolation and fear, the fertile ground for mass delusion. The 1980s was also the time of the ‘Survivors’ – people like Michelle Smith, who published lurid accounts of how they were brought up in cannibalistic ‘Black Magic’ covens and yet somehow broke away and now make a handsome living lecturing to the gull­ible, who lap up every ghastly detail. In echoes of Salem and the Swedish 17th-century Mora Witches, in which children’s imaginations were shaped by the preoccupations of their inquisitors in an atmo­sphere of mounting hysteria, modern society had its own epidemic of children accusing adults, parents, day-care teachers, and others of the most heinous acts. The result was wrecked families and ruined lives, wounds that are still raw today. Further, some psycho­therapists sought to help adults by uncovering ‘repressed’ memories of child abuse, based on their own beliefs in the reality of Satanic abusers.

Salem, though a tragedy, simply pales into insignificance compared to the scale of the anti-witch pogroms that plagued Europe intermitt­ently between the mid-14th and the late 17th centuries. Rossell Hope Robbins (in his 1959 Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Demonology) puts the number of executions at 200,000, while a more modern estimate ventures half a million. Whatever the true figure, most of these were a direct result of communities giving in to imagin­ation and rumour that was exploited by others. Even this is overshadowed by the great Children’s Crusade of 1212. This started when a 12-year-old French boy convinced others that he’d met a beggar who had revealed himself to be Jesus and told him to preach, saying that an army of children might succeed in the Holy Land where soldiers could not. While historians argue over the exact figures, none doubt that the scale of the phenomenon was staggering. Within two months, as the excitement spread, an estimated 30,000, most of them children, gathered in Vendôme. Two months later, they set out to relieve Jerusalem by way of Marseille; only 5,000 finished the journey. About the same time, and undoubtedly inspired by the French children, an army of 20,000 children left Germany, led by a 10-year-old boy. Only about 7,000 reached Genoa, where they disbanded after they were disappointed in their expectation that the Mediterranean would part, allowing them dry passage to the Holy Land.

A less well-known example is the Taiping rebellion, which began in southern China in 1844 and lasted 20 years. Its instigator was a young man who suffered a breakdown after failing an exam; in a vivid experience, he travelled to heaven, where he learned he was the brother of Jesus. God, he learned, wanted him to return and rid China of demons and human wickedness and establish a ‘Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace’ (the eponymous Tai Ping). He was not a Christian and his know­ledge of the faith was superficial, but he travelled widely preaching his message, mixing politics, religion and economic reform. His key followers frequently spoke in tongues, possessed by the Holy Ghost, and violently disagreed over leadership. In 1853, more than a million of them, all peasants, took the city of Nanking. In retaking it, government troops killed more than 100,000 rebels, who fought fiercely, believing they would ascend to heaven. Another 100,000 killed themselves, dying inside burning buildings – surely the biggest group suicide in history?

Dire poverty plays a great part in many of these stories, reminding us that we should always examine the prevailing economic and social contexts behind any such cases. Against a background of great deprivation in South Africa, in 1856, the Xhosa people were convinced by the visions of a simple girl to kill all their (mostly diseased) cattle in the hope that their ancestral spirits would replace them with healthier ones. They used all their remaining resources to rebuild their houses and take on other projects. When nothing turned up, the community was devastated.

Such examples, though seemingly historic­ally distant, are important; we can see their relationship to cultish millenarianism of the sort we are all too familiar with nowadays, from the Jonestown Massacre to the Heaven’s Gate and Solar Temple tragedies.

From the surprising number of movements in more archaic societies based upon veneration of often vengeful ancestors, it is a surprisingly small step to consider groups ‘inspired’ by channelled entities from other worlds (both spirit and alien), visions, revel­ations and possessions of all types. For example, 17th-century Europe suffered a rash of possessed nuns demonising their priests (most famously at Loudon, but in many other convents across France, Germany and the Netherlands). Similarly, the extra­ordinary Convulsionnaries met in a Parisian graveyard, begging to be violently struck, trampled, hanged, crucified or fed revolting substances, any of which would send them into soaring ecstatic states. Other variations on this behaviour in other times and places involve mass jumping, cat-like mewing or being compelled to laugh, dance or run until exhaustion put an end to it. Glosso­lalia – spontaneous and impromptu speech often during a trance – is a feature of such agitated groups who believe higher beings are speaking through them.

It may be significant that many of the features of the grimmer religious manias also figure in the founding stories of mainstream religions. These cults and sects are, in a way, success stories in which the orig­inal anomalous behaviour becomes integ­rated into a robust orthodoxy. For example, there are some similarities between the 14-year-old Xhosa prophetess and the young visionaries of Lourdes and Fatima; in each case they told of encountering a strange being in an isolated place, which called to them and gave them prophecies. However, unlike the Xhosa, the latter cults evolved within an institutionalised religious structure, helping them thrive into the present.

On the other hand, the Cat Massacres of France in the later Middle Ages were nothing but cruel and evil. The historian Robert Darnton has detailed the public gatherings at which cats were thrown on bonfires, hanged, burned at the stake, set alight and chased through streets, or horribly tortured. More bizarrely, if that is possible, it was believed – much as the Thugees did – that these killings would bring good luck and, as Darnton notes, people “took much pleasure” in these festivals as occasions for hilarity.

On the plus side, it would be nice to be able to say that there was a balance of ennobl­ing or enlightening stories to offset such horr­ors – but, to be honest, there isn’t. The Moon hoax; outbreaks of speaking in poetic verses or laughing; Cargo cults; Hindu milk-drinking statues; the ‘oat bran’ fad of the 1980s; apparitions of the Virgin Mary; online social networking virtual ‘second lives’; these are some of the more pleasant subjects covered in Outbreak.

But despite the predominance of danger­ous delusion on display here, Evans and Bartholomew wisely remind us that, in all such cases, we are dealing with real people and real beliefs: “They may not have realised that they were behaving in an extra­ordinary manner, but they surely realised that some­thing extraordinary was happening to them. In many cases, their response took the form it did because they subscribed, consciously or unconsciously, to a particular set of beliefs, and if we find their behaviour extraordinary it is because we do not share those beliefs.”

Outbreak represents the authors’ attempt to investigate the contexts that might help us better understand two millennia of “exotic deviance” through around 340 cases over 784 pages. Although the filing of this mass of material is eccentric, this makes the book a browser’s delight in which you can suddenly come upon such personal favourites as the 1983 story of the Houston schoolchildren terrified by the rumour that an army of evil Smurfs was heading their way. The fascinating entries are well written and complex issues are clearly explained; so be prepared to say goodbye to hours as you follow the copious cross-references all over the place, linking similarities of type, phenomena and explanation.

Stumbling across the brief entry for ‘The Miracle Hen of Leeds’ (panic spread through the land in 1806 as eggs were laid bearing the message “Christ is coming”), I was reminded of the story FT reported that, in August 1978, Idi Amin’s soldiers were hunting a tortoise believed to be causing panic in Uganda by predicting the end to his regime. There is much here of direct interest to forteans, indeed FT has reported on many of them – epidemics of fainting and nausea in factories; Martian invasion scares; India’s ‘monkey man’ phantom and other mystery attackers who poke pins, slash or throw acid; genital-stealing scares; the mad gassers; mass-witnesses to images bleeding and weeping; ‘hoaxes’ like the BBC Ghostwatch affair. We know from FT’s coverage of a great many other ‘outbreaks’ – such as mermaid rumours in Hong Kong, ‘ninja-sorcerer’ panics in Indonesia, the Phantom Social Worker scares, and the hysteria over the imagined curse carried by ‘Crying Boy’ paintings – that there is abundant material for further volumes if called for.

So what do Evans and Bartholomew predict for humanity, given that this periodic slide into collective madness seems in-built? As manifestations of mass hysteria seem to mirror the preoccupations that define each era, we’ll definitely see more mistrust of the authorities, anxiety about conspiracy and secrecy, terrorism, fundamentalism, and fears concerning the environment and global warming. And what about viral market­ing? FT has noticed an increase in frauds and hoaxes which exploit the credul­ous and ignor­ant; but a return to witch-burning, mewling and alien invaders?

If it happens, it'll be in FT.

Alabama: 21 September 1973

On 21 September 1973, 57 of 120 members of an Alabama marching band either fainted or felt ill shortly after performing at a high school football game. The incident occurred on a hot, humid evening after band members had travelled 100 miles (160km) to reach the away game. The game was particularly exciting as the favoured visiting team lost 7–6. The band successfully performed their seven-minute half-time routine, remaining on the field in a kneeling position while their counter­parts from the rival school performed. When the rivals’ drill was completed, the visiting band briefly stood to attention, marched to the grandstand, and were seated, when without warning a girl fainted. Over the next 10 minutes, five other girls suffered a similar fate. During the following 20 minutes, the girls rested on benches and several were sent to the hospital. During this period, many more band members reported feeling sick. Many of those affected seemed to be over-breathing, felt a tingling sensation in the limbs, and developed a choking sens­ation. Some also reported stomach pain or cramps, dizziness, nausea, and weakness.

CONTEXT  During an exciting football game, a group of musicians in a marching band were apparently dressed too heavily for the warm weather conditions. This appears to have triggered minor dizziness and fainting, which in turn generated extreme anxiety in other band members who subsequently succumbed to mass hysteria.

A second wave of symptoms occurred as band members were boarding buses after the game. Over the next three days, 10 more girls were stricken, with five experiencing relapses. Tests ruled out food poisoning. Heat stroke was also eliminated as the cardinal symptom, and fever was absent. While heat may have played a minor role, according to Dr Richard Levine of the United States Public Health Service who investigated the episode, mass psychogenic illness was the primary culprit. Levine states that “the discipline of a precis­ion marching drill, the discomfort of wearing heavy clothes in a hot environment, the excitement and disappointment at losing a close game – suggests that the setting… was appropriately tense for mass hysteria to occur.”

Dolagobind Hamlet, Orissa, India: July–August 2004

Between July and August 2004, at least a dozen schoolgirls began to exhibit fainting spells. Upon regaining consciousness, they would behave like cats, meowing, walking on all fours, and clawing at their faces. The school, in the remote hamlet of Dolagobind in Orissa, India, was temporarily closed. The first sign that something was amiss was on 26 July, when Sasmita Mohapatra, a Class 10 student, fainted during prayers. Later that day, two more students fainted in a similar manner, only to regain their senses and start acting like cats. On other occasions, they would act like cats and then faint. School headmistress Manjubala Pande told journalists that the following day “some six–seven girls started crying, fell down on the floor making sounds like those of a cat. We immediately informed others in the vill­age but after the faintings and behaviour repeated, we were forced to shut the school.” The girls were between the ages of six and 12. Each of the school’s 75 students, including the affected girls, were then taken to a nearby hermitage where they were told to recite Vedic mantras in hopes of ridding them of the evil spirits. Other cleansing rituals were also being organised. Similar outbreaks were reported at other area schools. Pande told the Indian News Agency: “They get normal after a few hours.”

CONTEXT  Possession states are a form of psychological defence mechanism against pent-up stress and reflect cultural beliefs. In modern India, cats are symbols of bad luck. In some places they are believed to be the incarnation of witches.

Soon after the strange outbreaks at Dolagobind Girls’ School, other schools within the region reported mass outbreaks of fainting, though there were no specific descriptions of meowing or other cat-like behaviour. Other outbreaks were reported at schools in the Oupada section. Over a two-day period, no fewer than 20 students from a variety of classes lost consciousness. Some were taken to the Iswarpur Primary Health Centre after complaining of nausea and vomiting, but were examined and soon released. Panic swept through the school – and the region – amid rumours that the same evil ghost or ghosts responsible for the closing of Dolagobind Girls’ School the previous month were at work again.

Worldwide: 1958

Often dubbed the greatest fad of the 20th century, the hula-hoop took the United States by storm in early 1958. A bamboo or rattan hoop had long been in use by Australian grade-schoolers as a fun exercise tool in gym classes and by some Pacific islanders who gyrated it with their hips. After noticing an interest in Australian hoop sales, Arthur Spud Melin, co-founder of the Wham-O Manufact­uring Company, made several proto­types using polyethylene plastic. During this time, Melin’s wife Suzy discouraged him from proceeding: “He said it would be huge. But I said, ‘You can’t put that on television. They just banned Elvis Presley’s hips from the Ed Sulli­van Show.’” Melin listened to his instincts and in the spring, he began travelling around southern California, giving demonstrations in schools and other venues in hopes of drumming up interest. The mass media quickly picked up on the local interest in the colourful hoops that spanned 3ft (90cm) in diameter, and it spread like wildfire to the East Coast. Soon amateur competitions (usually endurance contests) or “hoop-ins” were being held across the country.

The popularity of the hula-hoop coincided with criticism, in conservative circles, of Elvis Presley’s hip gyrations and may have reflected a shift in public attitudes regarding the body and sexuality at the dawn of the liberal 1960s.
Once hula-hoop mania set in, it seemed as though every psycho­logist had a theory for its phenomenal growth. Explanations ranged from a subconscious eroticism evoked by gyrating the hips, to the hoop representing a symbolic vagina, to encirclement offering a sense of security. A few even claimed that it symbolised God, as it had no beginning or end. It may have simply been fun and novel.
Scores of companies quickly jumped on the bandwagon, offering a variety of spin-offs – everything from the Spin-a-Hoop to the Hoop-D-Doo and the Hooper-Dooper, selling for one to two dollars. By some estimates, between 100 and 120 million hoops were sold in the US and abroad in 1958, and at one point at least 47 varieties of hoops were on the market. As the hoop-la peaked, practitioners became more creative and outlandish in their uses of the hoop, including getting it to climb stairs, diving into one floating in a swimm­ing pool, and using it in animal stunts.
As hoop interest quickly waned in the fall of 1958, manufacturers tried to rekindle interest, but to no avail. Attempts at revival included hoops with bells, hoops that made musical sounds – even a hoop that could be used as an umbrella. By November, hoop sales plunged and the fad was over as quickly as it began. Surprisingly, when the hula-hoop fad came to a sudden unexpected end in the fall, Wham-O was left with millions of unsold hoops and posted a ,000 loss for 1958. Despite well-planned attempts to rekindle the craze, all have failed. In 1967, Wham-O introduced the Shoop-Shoop Hula Hoop (the ball bearings inside made a swoosh sound), and in 1982 it was the Peppermint Hula Hoop (complete with a peppermint aroma). Despite promotional campaigns, including attempts to market hula-hoop exercise classes, and brief spurts of interest in 1988 and 1992, none has been able to captivate the public’s interest anywhere near the extent of the 1958 fad. More recently, Maui Toys has tried marketing the Wave Hoop (filled with water), the non-edible Scented Hoop (fruit or bubble gum), and the Razzle Dazzle Hoop, without great success.
As interest quickly waned in the US, there was a sudden, brief surge of international interest in parts of the Middle East, Europe, Japan, and Asia. In Japan, the Prime Minister even demonstrated his hoop skills, and there was fascination for the hoops across much of the Soviet bloc. Hula-hoops were introduced at .98 and sold for .79 at their peak, but by the time the fad went bust, stores couldn’t even sell them for 50 cents.
COMMENTS Social scientists still cannot explain the hula-hoop’s sudden, intense popularity and subsequent indifference during 1958.

Mhondoro, Zimbabwe: June and July 2002

In July 2002, a phantom goblin scare swept through the St Mark’s Secondary School in Mhondoro, Zimbabwe. The headmaster of the school, which is operated by the Anglican Church, reportedly fled the school and was hiding out amid claims by parents that he was in control of tiny creatures who were sexually harassing both girls and female teachers. Commotion surrounding the hysteria forced the school’s temporary closure. The community was in an uproar over the accusations and angry parents were turning up at the school, demanding to see the headmaster.

Several students and teachers told journalists that they had also been beaten by “invisible objects”. In all, at least 30 stud­ents said they had been attacked. One teacher, who did not want to be identi­fied for fear of being victimised, said that some of the students were possessed by evil spirits: “I witnessed one incident when a student went into a trance… He was demanding meat, threatening that after finishing with the students, the spirits would attack the teachers next. We are living in fear here.” The outbreak coincided with mid-term exams.

The strange turn of events left the school’s assistant headmaster in the “hot seat”, having to deal with the community. Somewhat “shell-shocked”, he was reportedly referring inquiries to the Ministry of Education, Sports and Culture. He also insisted that his name not be published in the newspapers, citing Public Services regulations. In trying to put on a “brave face”, he was quoted as saying: “Everything is now back to normal and I understand lessons have resumed.” Despite the reassurance, his words did not seem to be taken seriously and the situation seemed to be far from normal.

The first signs of trouble began six weeks earlier when some students claimed that “mysterious beings” were harassing them in their hostels at night. The creatures were known as zvikwambo and mubobobo in Shona, and tokoloshe in Zulu. According to one student: “About 30 students have been victims of the attacks and we can’t bear spending another night at this haunted place... A friend of mine was bitten on the arm after she wrestled with a ghost which wanted to sleep with her.”

Several of the school’s female teachers were said to be thinking about quitt­ing their jobs. Just like their students, the teachers said they were being sexually assaulted at night by strange creat­ures. A statement issued by some of the teachers read in part: “Sometimes we get up in the morning to find the bedd­ing mysteriously wet and we suspect foul play.”

Maine, USA: 18th /19th centuries

The phrase “Jumping Frenchmen of Maine” refers to a famous condition in the annals of neurology and cross-cultural psychiatry, the origin of which remains contentious. In the north-eastern United States, along the northern fringe of Maine and New Hampshire, and in the adjacent Canadian province of Quebec, small pockets of people, especially in isolated communities and lumberjack camps, exhibit dramatic responses when suddenly startled. These include a combination of jumping, screaming, swearing, flailing out and striking bystanders, and throwing objects that may be in their hands. The most extraordinary feature of these displays is “automatic obedience” – briefly doing whatever they are told. “Jumping” is (or was) especially prominent among residents of French-Canadian heritage, and in Maine, hence their nickname the “Jumping Frenchmen” of Maine. There are two main theories to account for “jumping”. Some consider it a nervous disorder of probable genetic origin; others interpret the condition as a social phenomenon.

CONTEXT  The “Jumping Frenchmen” phenomenon was unique in the context of the environment of isolated logging communities in the north-eastern United States and Canada during the 18th and 19th centuries, and may have originated as a formalised response to “the kicking horse game”.

The “Jumping Frenchmen” first gained public attention in 1878, when promin­ent New York neurologist George Beard boarded a train to the Moosehead Lake region of Maine to see the phenomenon first-hand and wrote up his observations in an 1880 edition of the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease. He encountered numerous “jumpers”. One 27-year-old man sat in a chair while holding a knife that he was about to use to cut tobacco. Sudd­enly he was struck hard on the shoulder and ordered to “throw it”. The knife flew from his hand and struck a beam. He again forcefully commanded the man to “throw it”. Beard wrote: “He threw the tobacco and the pipe on the grass at least a rod [16ft 6in/5m] away with the same cry and the same suddenness and explosiveness of movement.” Beard noted that the condition appeared to run in the family, began in childhood, lasted a lifetime, and was rare in women. Beard described the jumpers as physic­ally and mentally strong. He speculated that jumping was caused by temporary degeneration from exposure to their rustic environment, but made no conclus­ions about racial heredity, or a diminished capacity to make rational judgments.

Interest in “jumping” was rekindled in the 1960s and led to a debate as to whether it was a disorder or habit. Reuben Rabinovitch, a Canadian neurologist, wrote in 1965 about his childhood experience with “jumping”. He said that while growing up in Quebec, the exaggerated reflex was common to all of the children in his village. Each spring, lumberjacks came out of the woods and set up camp nearby, sharing their food, music, and entertainment. In this way, Rabinovitch was exposed to “the horse kicking game”, in which children snuck up on their victim and suddenly poked them while making the neighing sound of a horse. The “victim” then jumped up in the air and flailed out while blurting out a horse cry. A vital part of logging camps, the horses were often temperamental, and the lumberjacks could be badly hurt from being kicked when entering a stall. Typically, one lumberjack would sneak into the stall next to his intended victim’s horse and wait. When the victim arrived, the prankster would “reach over and sudd­enly and violently poke his victim and give vent to the loud neighing cry of an enraged horse. This would most often frighten the victim into jumping away from what he thought was his own horse about to kick him.” Dr Rabinovich’s anecdote sugg­ests that social and cultural factors were import­ant in the development of “jumping”.

Dr E Charles Kunkle, a Maine neuro­logist, also emphasised the influence of learned roles in analysing the game reported by Rabinovitch, noting that this game involved subjects who, when start­led, were “expected to produce a formalized response of jumping violently, flailing out, and shouting angrily, often imitating the cry of a kicking horse”. Kunkle felt that this represented a “socially condit­ioned reflex, reinforced by example and by repeated stimulat­ion” and a “part of regional folklore”. As a physician, he was able to talk to and examine 15 jumpers. Kunkle said that jumping seemed to develop and flourish in “relatively closed and unsophisticated communities and in entirely masculine work groups”.

In 1986, two Canadian neurologists, Marie-Helene Saint-Hilaire and Jean-Marc Sainte-Hilaire, and psychologist Luc Granger, published their study of eight jumpers in the region of Beauce, Quebec, where men traditionally worked as lumber­jacks across the border in Maine. In six of those examined, the symptoms began with their work as lumberjacks. One man, when startled, “would run, swear, throw an object he was holding, strike at bystanders, or obey commands”. He said that one time he “jumped from a height of 10ft (3m) after a sudden command”. The researchers noted that all eight subjects would scream, most would throw an object in their hand or strike out, and half briefly obeyed commands shouted at them immediately after being startled, such as “jump”, “run”, or “dance”.

Is “jumping” nature or nurture? Some scientists believe these symptoms occur in rare individuals suffering from a dysfunct­ion of the human startle response known as hyperstartle, with local culture shaping the response. Others think it is more common and akin to a regional habit. It appears that “jumping” resulted from a set of social conditions that may be related to other examples of hyperstartle. There is probably a genetic predisposit­ion to excessive startle in the general population, but this does not explain the prevalence of “jumping” in isolated Maine commun­ities. While certain medical condit­ions can cause excessive startle, jumpers have no known conditions, suggesting a social and cultural linkage. Rabinovitch suggested that as lumberjacks were confined to the northern woods from autumn to spring, they invented distractions in their isolation and boredom involving the only contacts available, men and horses. The jumping syndrome then grew out of the lumber camps and moved to surrounding towns and vill­ages. “Jumping” appeared to die out with the passing of the traditional logging camp. Tractors replaced horses, lumberjacks became less isolated, and the incidence of “jumping” declined. Experts have noted that even severe “jumpers” lost their exaggerated responses as they were removed from the continual stimuli, which suggests an origin in operant conditioning in a closed community. According to the principles of operant condit­ioning, acts that are reinforced tend to be repeated, while those that are not tend to diminish in frequency.

COMMENTS: A plausible explanation for “jumping” is that it began as a local idiom that became institutionalised among a select group of people. If logging camp inhabitants lived with the knowledge that they might be surprised by a sudden “poke”, and exaggerated startle was the expected response, then this conditioned social reflex became a normal part of social intercourse.


Since the late 1990s, intense public interest has developed in the conviction that the United States military is engaged in a series of systematic, secret experiments involving the dispensing of chemical trails from high-altitude jet aircraft. Scores of websites have appeared discussing the phen­omenon, usually accompanied by myriad conspiracy theories. It is also commonly believed that chemtrails are responsible for a variety of ailments experienced by people on the ground.

One conspiracy theory holds that chemtrails are created by the military as an inexpensive wireless communication system; another insists that the chemicals are used to control the thinking of the masses. However, the most popular explanation centres around the view that these chemtrails are an attempt to modify the weather. Many websites claim that chemtrails are caused by secret United States military experiments being conducted with its allies, designed to produce a sky shield in order to protect Earth from the ravages of global warming. Some point to a 1994 patent taken out by the Hughes aerospace company, which entails mixing jet fuel with a variety of reflective materials, including tiny aluminium oxide particles, that would provide the Earth with a chemical sunscreen.

In 1998, the issue of chemtrails became a prominent concern in parts of Canada, in particular the tiny town of Espanola in northern Ontario, where United States KC-135 aircraft were said to be making routine passes over the comm­unity and dispensing harmful chemicals. The concerns became so great that on 18 November, a representative of Canada’s New Democratic Party, Gordon Earle, presented a petition to parliament, calling for the covert spraying programme to stop. At the time, many residents were claiming to be suffering from ill health as a result of the chemtrails, including dizziness, sudden fatigue, headaches, asthma, joint pains, and flu-like symptoms.

Based on an analysis of the chemtrail phenomenon, a meteorologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) contends that the chemtrail scare is unfounded. Thomas Schlatter says that in understanding the so-called mystery it is imperative to first define “contrail”. The word is short for condensation trail, which form when high altitude jets disperse water vapour into the lower levels of the stratosphere (or high troposphere) resulting in saturated air. As for chemtrails (plumes of chemicals emitted from aircraft), Schlatter believes that they don’t exist as such. That is, he believes that chemtrails are actually contrails.

Schlatter states that normally contrails dissipate quickly, but this depends on the conditions. For instance, where very cold air temperature combines with high humidity, contrails have been known to stretch 100 miles (160km) in length. Whenever the temperature is –400F (–400C) or lower, and the relative humidity is at least 70 to 80 per cent, contrails will develop.

Laredo, Texas: 1993

In early March 1993, a newspaper hoax created excitement in Laredo, Texas (population 130,000), after the Morning Times of Laredo published a bogus account of a giant 300lb (136kg) earthworm measuring 79ft (24m) in length. The creature was reportedly found dead, draped across Interstate 35, tying up traffic.

CONTEXT The incident highlights the influence of the mass media in the information age, and how susceptible society is to journalistic hoaxes.

According to the story, entomologist Luis Leacky from Laredo State University had located a mucus trail along the Interstate, speculating that the creature had mutated from the nearby Rio Grande. Laredo police and US Border Patrol officers reportedly converged on the scene in rubber gloves, removing the mammoth worm with the help of two cranes and a large truck.

Local police were deluged with hundreds of calls from inquisitive residents as scores of people drove to the scene to glimpse the fictitious worm after the journalist who wrote the story, Carol Huang, wrote: “Because federal environmental guidelines do not outline the proper disposal method for large earthworm carcasses... authorities have left the creature in the Target store parking lot until Monday, when zoologists and EPA officials are expected to arrive from Washington.” Even before the store opened, a Target worker said that curiosity seekers kept asking if the worm carcass was inside the building.

Huang, who was dismissed from her job the same day, said she wrote the account on her computer as a joke but was flabbergasted to see it appear on page 3A several days later. The news editor who allowed the story to appear, Thomas Sanchez, left his job shortly after the incident, but said the account ran “by accident”.

Ecuador: February 1949

On the night of 12 February, a radio play based on HG Wells’s novel The War of the Worlds sparked pandemonium in Ecuador. A reporter on the scene said the broadcast “drove most of the population of Quito into the streets” as panic-stricken residents sought to escape Martian “gas raids”. The drama described strange creat­ures heading toward Quito after landing and destroying the neighbouring commun­ity of Latacunga, 20 miles (32km) to the south. Broadcast in Spanish on Radio Quito, the realistic programme included impersonat­ions of well-known local politicians, journalists, vivid eyewitness descriptions, and the name of the local town of Cotocallao. In Quito, rioting broke out and an enraged mob marched on the building housing the radio station and Ecuador’s leading newspaper, El Comercio. Rampaging mob members blocked the entrance to the building, hurling stones and smashing windows. Some occupants escaped from a rear door; others ran to the third floor. Groups poured gasoline onto the building and hurled flaming wads of paper, sett­ing fires in several locations, trapping dozens inside and forcing them to the third storey. As the flames reached them, the occupants began leaping from windows and forming human chains in a desperate bid to reach safety. Some of the “chains” broke, plunging terrified occupants to their deaths. Twenty people were killed and 15 injured. Soldiers were mobilised to restore order, rolling through the streets in tanks and firing tear gas canisters to break up the demonstrators and allow fire engines through. Damage to the news­paper building was estimated at 0,000. Help was slow to arrive, as most mobile police units had been dispatched to Cotocallao to repel the “Mart­ians”, leaving Quito with a skeleton police and military presence.

The tragic events began with the sudden interruption of a regular music programme with a special bulletin – “Here is urgent news” – followed by reports of the invading Martians in the form of a cloud, wreaking havoc and destruct­ion while closing in on the city. “The air base of Marisal Sucre has been taken by the enemy and it is being destroyed. There are many dead and wounded,” the announcer said. A voice resembling that of a government minister appealed for calm so the city’s defences could be organised and citizens evacuated in time. Next, the “Mayor” arrived and made a dramatic announcement: “People of Quito, let us defend our city. Our women and children must go out into the surrounding heights to leave the men free for action and combat.” At this point, a priest’s voice could be heard asking for divine forgiveness, followed by a recording of church bells sounding alarms throughout Quito. Positioned atop the city’s tallest building, La Previsora tower, an announcer said he could discern a monster engulfed in plumes of fire and smoke, advancing on Quito from the north. It was at this point, according to a New York Times reporter, that citizens “began fleeing from their homes and runn­ing through the streets. Many were clad only in night clothing.” The panic was not limited to Quito. In some parts of the country, hundreds of terrified Ecuadorians fled into the mountains to avoid capture, believing, according to the radio, that the Martians had already taken over much of the country.

COMMENTS  The rioting, murder and public unrest is the most extreme reaction to a War of the Worlds radio recreation, exceeding even the original 1938 episode.

All extracts adapted from OUTBREAK: The Encyclopedia of Extraordinary Social Behaviour by Hilary Evans and Robert Bartholomew, Anomalist Books 2009 (anomalistbooks.com); ISBN: 1933665254. Available from anomalistbooks.com at USD 39.95 and amazon.co.uk at £29.95.

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