Examples of Mass Hysteria: Understanding the Power of Collective Fear

examples of mass hysteria

June 3, 2023


Mass hysteria is when a group of individuals experiences irrational and contagious anxiety or fear, often resulting in widespread panic and irrational behaviour. Throughout history, numerous examples of mass hysteria have showcased the powerful influence of collective fear on human psychology. This post will explore some notable instances of mass hysteria, delving into the causes, consequences, and fascinating insights these episodes provide into the human mind.


Examples of Mass Hysteria

Mass hysteria has manifested in various forms and contexts, leaving a lasting impact on communities and societies. Let’s examine some fascinating examples:

 The Salem Witch Trials (1692)

One of the most infamous episodes of mass hysteria occurred during the Salem Witch Trials in colonial Massachusetts. The community was gripped by a fervour of witchcraft accusations and trials, resulting in the execution of twenty individuals. Fear, religious fervency, and societal tensions combined to create an environment of hysteria, leading to tragic consequences.

 The Dancing Plague of 1518

In the town of Strasbourg, a bizarre event unfolded in 1518. A woman named Frau Troffea started dancing in the streets uncontrollably and without rest. Strangely, her dancing soon became contagious, spreading to around 400 people who joined in the frenetic dance. This extraordinary incident, known as the Dancing Plague, highlights how mass hysteria can manifest physically and perplex both contemporaries and modern researchers.

 The War of the Worlds Radio Broadcast Panic (1938)

Orson Welles’ radio adaptation of H.G. Wells’ “War of the Worlds” caused panic and mass hysteria when it aired on October 30, 1938. Listeners who tuned in after the program began mistook the fictional alien invasion for real news, resulting in widespread fear, chaos, and a flood of emergency calls. This event demonstrates how the power of media, combined with fear-inducing storytelling, can lead to collective anxiety.

The Satanic Ritual Abuse Panic (1980s-1990s)

During the 1980s and 1990s, the United States witnessed widespread panic over allegations of satanic ritual abuse, particularly in daycare centres. Despite a lack of substantial evidence, the fear of secret cults conducting horrific rituals on children gripped communities across the country. This case illustrates how moral panic and societal anxieties can give rise to mass hysteria, with severe consequences for those wrongly accused.

 The Tanganyika Laughter Epidemic (1962)

In 1962, a boarding school in Tanganyika (now Tanzania) experienced a bizarre outbreak of laughter that spread throughout the students, eventually affecting neighbouring villages. The uncontrollable laughter, which lasted for months, disrupted daily life and forced the school’s closure. This incident highlights how contagious behaviour, combined with stress and anxiety, can trigger mass hysteria even in isolated communities.

 The Pokemon Panic (1997)

The popularity of the Pokemon franchise reached a fever pitch in 1997 when reports emerged of children experiencing seizures while watching an animated series episode. This led to mass hysteria, with parents and media outlets expressing concerns over the safety of the franchise. The incident shed light on the power of suggestion and how fear can rapidly spread through a concerned community.


The Mad Gasser of Mattoon (1944)

In the small town of Mattoon, Illinois, residents reported experiencing symptoms such as nausea, difficulty breathing, and paralysis. The culprit was believed to be a mysterious “Mad Gasser” who was allegedly releasing toxic gases into people’s homes. The reports spread fear throughout the community, leading to widespread panic and numerous false accusations.


The McMartin Preschool Trial (1980s)

The McMartin Preschool Trial was one of American history’s longest and costliest trials. It began with allegations of child abuse at a preschool in California. As the investigation progressed, the accusations grew increasingly bizarre, involving claims of satanic rituals, underground tunnels, and animal sacrifices. The trial highlighted how mass hysteria and suggestive interviewing techniques can lead to false accusations and widespread fear.

The Great Clown Panic (2016)

In 2016, a wave of clown sightings and reports of clown-related threats swept across the United States and other parts of the world. People reported encounters with individuals dressed as clowns, sometimes engaging in menacing behaviour. The phenomenon quickly gained media attention, causing fear and panic in many communities. The clown sightings were essentially harmless pranks, but the hysteria surrounding them resulted in school lockdowns, arrests, and heightened security measures.


The Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 Disappearance (2014)

When Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 disappeared in March 2014, it sparked intense speculation and conspiracy theories. As news coverage and social media discussions proliferated, various explanations emerged, ranging from terrorism to extraterrestrial involvement. The incident generated a climate of fear and uncertainty, leading to widespread public speculation and the amplification of unsubstantiated claims.


The Chupacabra Sightings (1990s)

In the 1990s, reports of mysterious creature sightings emerged in Puerto Rico and later spread to other parts of the Americas. Described as a vampiric creature that attacked and killed livestock, the Chupacabra became the subject of intense media attention and widespread belief. The phenomenon led to fear, mass hysteria, and even vigilantism as communities sought to protect themselves from the perceived threat.


The Phantom Killer of Texarkana (1946)

In 1946, the small town of Texarkana, straddling the Texas-Arkansas border, experienced brutal attacks by an unknown assailant known as the “Phantom Killer.” The media coverage of the attacks and the search for the culprit created a climate of fear and paranoia in the community. Residents took extreme measures to protect themselves, such as purchasing firearms and staying indoors, leading to mass hysteria.

These examples demonstrate the diverse ways mass hysteria can arise, whether due to societal tensions, media influence, fear of the unknown, or a combination of factors.


The examples of mass hysteria throughout history are potent reminders of collective fear and panic’s influence on individuals and communities. Whether fueled by societal tensions, religious fervour, or modern media, mass hysteria can cause widespread chaos and tragic consequences. Understanding the psychological and social factors contributing to mass hysteria is crucial in managing and mitigating its effects. By fostering critical thinking, promoting accurate information, and addressing the underlying fears and anxieties, we can navigate the challenges of collective fear more effectively.

Remember, while mass hysteria may seem like a past phenomenon, it continues to be a relevant and intriguing aspect of human behaviour. By exploring these historical examples and studying their causes and implications, we can gain valuable insights into the power of collective fear and the intricacies of the human mind.


Random Reflections

As a financial site, how about exploring some serendipitous ideas that have the potential to enhance your financial outlook?

A winning investment strategy encompasses a potent fusion of mass psychology and technical analysis. By delving into the collective behaviour of market participants, one can glean invaluable insights into the market’s pulse. Market psychology plays a pivotal role in identifying trends, and once these trends are discerned, navigating the path ahead becomes comparatively straightforward. Additionally, incorporating the fundamental tenets of contrarian investing can propel your trading acumen to new heights, especially when synergistically combined with the crowd’s wisdom and astute technical analysis.


Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What are some common triggers of mass hysteria? Various factors, including fear of the unknown, social and cultural anxieties, religious beliefs, media influence, and instances of perceived danger or threat, can trigger mass hysteria.

Can mass hysteria occur in modern society? Yes, mass hysteria can still happen in contemporary society. Although advancements in science and technology have improved our understanding of the world, the human mind is susceptible to collective fear and panic. With the advent of social media and instant communication, accurate and false information can spread rapidly, amplifying the potential for mass hysteria.

What role does the media play in fueling mass hysteria? The media significantly influences the spread and intensity of mass hysteria. Sensationalized reporting, exaggerated claims, and the rapid dissemination of information can fuel panic and anxiety. In the age of digital media, misinformation and conspiracy theories can quickly gain traction, contributing to the escalation of mass hysteria.

Are there any psychological explanations for mass hysteria?

Psychologists have proposed various theories to explain the occurrence of mass hysteria. One popular explanation is the power of suggestion and conformity. When individuals observe others experiencing symptoms or displaying fearful behaviour, they may unconsciously mimic those actions, leading to a contagious spread of anxiety. Releasing stress and tension through physical symptoms can provide temporary relief, further reinforcing the collective hysteria.

How does mass hysteria come to an end? Mass hysteria typically subsides when the underlying fears or triggers are addressed or evidence emerges to debunk the perceived threat. Calming the community through accurate information, reassurance, and psychological support can help alleviate collective anxiety. However, the duration of mass hysteria can vary depending on the circumstances and social and cultural impact level.

Can mass hysteria be prevented? While entirely preventing mass hysteria may be challenging, awareness, education, and critical thinking skills can mitigate its effects. Promoting media literacy and teaching individuals to evaluate information critically can help prevent the rapid spread of misinformation and minimize the potential for mass panic.


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