15 July 2014


Robert E. Bartholomew with Bob Rickard. Mass Hysteria in Schools: A Worldwide History Since 1566. McFarland, 2014.

It’s not impossible that an episode of mass-hysteria might have sparked a major Middle-Eastern conflict. Fortunately that didn’t happen, but for a while it was a definite threat. In 1983 schoolgirls at a Palestinian school in the Israeli West Bank began to complain of headaches and blurred vision. They said their symptoms began when they started to smell a sulphurous odour which leaked into their classrooms. The school was evacuated.
A few days later the same symptoms were reported in girls’ schools in neighbouring towns. Soon the schools were flooded with paramedics, concerned parents and journalists eager to interview victims of the ‘poison gas’ which was immediately claimed as the culprit. In the heated political atmosphere this soon became evidence of Jewish extremists, or even Israeli state attacks.

In the following days the initial spark for the panic was traced to a blocked latrine at the original school which was spreading the foul odour. None of the children in that or the subsequent cases were found to have suffered from any form of poisoning, and the Israeli officials investigating the case pronounced it as an outbreak of psychosomatic ‘mass-hysteria’

This diagnosis was vigorously challenged by the Palestinian authorities, and the UN was petitioned, asking them to stop the “genocide” which was deemed to be happening. Fortunately a thorough investigation by independent scientists helped to calm the situation, which had been exacerbated by local press reports of ‘toxic gases’ and the tense political atmosphere of the region where attacks from one side or the other were a constant fear.

Bartholomew and Rickard trace the records for such hysterical outbreaks in schools back to 1566 when children at a Catholic orphanage in Amsterdam began to have strange seizures where their limbs would be paralysed, or would lash out at random; some would suddenly start meowing like cats. A century later at an orphanage in Hoorn, north of Amsterdam, the children started barking like dogs. At this time, of course witchcraft beliefs were still current, and these outbursts were put down to possession by demons, rather than being provoked by the cruel conditions and enclosed environment of the orphanages.

Throughout the nineteenth century such outbreaks spread in many schools across Europe, seemingly as a way of allowing children to break free of the strict and repetitive educational system of the time. Bartholomew and Rickard find a similar pattern of behaviour more recently in the strict Islamic girls’ colleges of Malaysia, where the pupils are subjected to a very tightly controlled educational environment, with little opportunity for recreation and socialising. Outbreaks of hysteria, fainting, paralysis etc., seem to be ways in which the students, forbidden from directly criticising the system, can pressure the school and civic authorities to ameliorate some of its worst features. The hysteria is blamed on the jinns which are widely believed in locally, rather than the girls themselves.

In all these examples, and similar outbreaks in East Africa - where schools have been disrupted by uncontrollable laughter outbreaks - Fiji, and Latin America, the problem is traced to the pressures, educational, sexual and religious, of mostly adolescent girls.

However, these types of outbreaks are not restricted to authoritarian educational systems. Even in the more relaxed environment of modern European and US schools such outbreaks continue. A number of mass hysteria events in American schools in the 1950s and 1960s seem to be traceable to the racial and sexual tensions of the era; including such phenomena as a mass outbreak of phantom pregnancies in one school, even amongst girls who were virgins at the time!

Elsewhere these mass phenomena can largely be put down to panics spread socially through the wider community - fears about the environment and ‘chemicals’ in food seem to have lead to children collapsing from the alleged effects of drinking ‘contaminated’ Coca-Cola in Belgium, or suffering from post-7/11 trauma in the US. The book also touches on the ‘Satanic Panic’ which spread through the US and Europe in the 1980s which was promoted by a variety of social concerns.

Other triggers for these outbreaks seem to be simply the strain and tension of being involved in pressurised situations such as sports events, competitions and ceremonies.

Some of these cases are of particular interest in that they seem to demonstrate a text-book example of the way authorities should not respond to such events. A case which may be familiar to some British readers took place in Kirkby-in-Ashfield in Nottinghamshire in 1980. Here at a town carnival, over 200 children involved in a marching bands competion collapsed in just two hours and were taken to local hospitals.

How 'The Sun' treated the Kirkby-in-Ashfield event

It was a hot July day, many of the children were dressed in elaborate costumes. They had been rehearsing for the event for weeks beforehand, there was a great deal of local rivalry, and on the morning many of the children were already tense and nervous, and had been waiting nervously for hours for the event to start. When some fainted it became an epidemic across the field where the competition was taking place. Soon the area began filling with police, paramedics and ambulances.

The general chaos was inflamed by contradictory announcements about food poisoning and gas-leaks. Later, chemical spraying and fumes from a local factory were blamed. In the days following the children all recovered with no lasting effects from their ordeal, but by now the belief that some specific agent was behind the outbreak had taken hold in the wider community, and reassurances that the incident was due to panic rather than poisoning were not accepted. The phrase ‘mass hysteria’ was seen as an insult and a suggestion of mental incapacity. Even today some local people are still convinced that the real culprits are being ‘covered up’.

Of course, once you get into the fields of ‘cover-ups’ it is impossible to disprove them, because any investigation which concludes that there is no cover-up itself becomes part of the cover-up. A realisation which has wider implications than school panics.

This is a fascinating, very readable and well-researched book, which has a great deal to tell us about the dangerous consequences that ‘vision and belief’ can have when they are not examined from a broad perspective, even to the extent of almost triggering a war! -- John Rimmer.

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