Magazine article Skeptic (Altadena, CA)

Strange Tales from the Classroom: From Demonic Possession to Twitching Epidemics and Itching Frenzies-The Extraordinary History of Mass Hysteria in Schools

Magazine article Skeptic (Altadena, CA)

Strange Tales from the Classroom: From Demonic Possession to Twitching Epidemics and Itching Frenzies-The Extraordinary History of Mass Hysteria in Schools

Article excerpt

"Imagination frames events unknown, in wild, fantastic shapes of hideous ruin, and what it fears, creates."

--Hannah Moore (1)

FOR CENTURIES, GROUPS OF STUDENTS HAVE BEEN stricken with an array of illness signs and symptoms for which the labels of bizarre, abnormal, or mentally disturbed, would at first seem to apply. Outbreaks often grab media headlines for a short time, only to fade into obscurity. The fleeting appearance of such reports typically leaves the reader with more questions than answers as journalists lack the expertise to do little more than describe these events, known by psychiatrists as conversion disorder. The term, formerly referred to as hysteria, was coined by Sigmund Freud and describes the rapid spread of symptoms for which physicians are unable to identify an organic cause. Mass hysteria occurs when conversion disorder spreads, usually within close-knit groups. The most common site of outbreaks is schools.

British psychiatrist Simon Wessely has identified two key types of mass hysteria. (2) The first type is "anxiety hysteria," which may persist from a few hours to several days, and is triggered by sudden fear in response to a false or exaggerated threat. Episodes are common in Western schools and are usually triggered by a strange odor; they reflect fears about contaminated air, food, or water. A second form, "motor hysteria," builds slowly over weeks or months in students who are under relentless anxiety, which eventually results in disruptions of the motor neurons that send messages to the muscles, resulting in outbursts of twitching, shaking, and convulsions. The emotional trauma may trigger trance states or bouts of uncontrollable weeping and laughter. Outbreaks of this type are common in parts of Asia, Africa and on several Pacific islands. The identical syndrome swept through a group of adolescent girls at Salem Village beginning in December 1691. The incident helped to fan allegations of bewitchment, resulting in at least 200 arrests, the execution of 20 people and two dogs.

Conversion disorder is an extraordinary condition that can mimic virtually any illness and is colored by a person's beliefs and the Zeitgeist. The result is a strange assortment of reactions depending on the context, culture and era. The array of responses is remarkable and is limited only by plausibility. In 1566 at a Catholic orphanage school in Amsterdam, Holland, over two dozen girls and boys were afflicted with strange fits and compulsions: violent spasms would seize their arms and legs for up to an hour at a time. The children entered trance-like states and behaved like cats, walking on all fours, and occasionally spoke an unintelligible language. (3)

In 1673, a group of children in Hoorn, Holland, began to scream, shout and bark like dogs. The trigger for these and kindred episodes of the period, was religious discipline in response to the fear of witchcraft. Similar outbreaks were common in strict medieval European convents, where there are numerous accounts of nuns being stricken by convulsions and behaving like animals. In 1491 at Cambrai, France, a group of Sisters began to scamper through the fields barking like dogs. (4) At a French convent they would meow like cats for hours each day. (5) At Xante, Spain, in 1690, nuns "bleated like sheep, tore off their veils, [and] had convulsions in church." (6) During this period, people who were believed to have been possessed, commonly took on the personae of animals that were believed to have been familiars of the Devil.

During the 19th century, clusters of twitching, convulsions, and trance states began to appear in the strictest European schools and reflected the new practice of "mental discipline." This educational fad held that the brain could be trained like a muscle through repetition. Students were forced to endure torturous memorization and handwriting drills. During one episode, pupils sobbed uncontrollably, followed by outbursts of nervous, convulsive laughing. …

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