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19 May 2021

Are we still haunted by hysteria?

Far from being a relic of the past, hysteria is an increasingly modern phenomenon.

By Eleanor Peake

In the late 19th century, a mysterious epidemic spread through Europe. Women across the continent were suddenly falling ill. Sufferers would fall to the floor in a fit; rolling around, screaming, sometimes biting and tearing at their clothes. When these fits occurred, doctors noted it would take four men to hold the afflicted woman down. 

Doctors could not explain this surge in violent outbursts, but they gave it a familiar name: hysteria. In 1890, a doctor in Bordeaux recorded 38 cases of this puzzling condition. Curiously, by the turn of the century, these demonic-like fits had virtually disappeared. In the years that followed, historians would note a correlation between a cultural fascination with the gothic and these unexplained episodes. As society became interested in spiritual possession and exorcism, women increasingly began to mirror these symptoms. As interest in the paranormal became less prevalent, so too did these violent episodes. 

Mass hysteria is still a medical diagnosis that Dr Suzanne O’Sullivan, a neurologist with University College Hospitals in London, sees a lot. Like other psychosomatic illnesses (a term used to describe psychological conditions that manifest as physical symptoms), it can include seizures, dizziness and the inability to walk, but there are key differences.

“Psychosomatic conditions in individuals are usually about something that has happened to them, whereas mass hysteria is actually a great deal more about society than it is about the person in whom it’s occurring,” she says.

Rather than happening in isolation, the outbreak of these symptoms usually takes place in confined social bubbles, such as boarding schools or monasteries. “Mass hysteria is not about psychological vulnerability. It’s about external pressure and how contagious we think things are within the society,” says O’Sullivan.

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While it is experienced by men, psychosomatic illness is generally more common in women. “Very often psychosomatic illnesses come to solve a problem. They tend to happen in situations where people feel trapped, or when someone is in a difficult situation from which they can’t escape,” says O’Sullivan. “Those are the kinds of environments to which women are more vulnerable.”

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Between 2003 and 2005, 400 cases of resignation syndrome were reported in Sweden. This peculiar condition, whereby patients would be unable to walk, talk or open their eyes, only affected the children of asylum seekers. Eventually, after being disabled for some time, the children would recover. But curiously, this illness was only ever reported in Sweden. Doctors struggled to find any neurological evidence of disease until O’Sullivan was called in. She looked at how, under the stress of the Swedish asylum process and an increasingly hostile political environment, these children felt trapped. As O’Sullivan details in her latest book The Sleeping Beauties, under extreme stress, the brain’s solution can be to withdraw, mimicking illness.

Why, when the mind feels trapped, does it opt for trickery? “The unconscious mind desires to be taken seriously and not ridiculed,” says the medical historian and expert on hysteria, Edward Shorter. “It will then present symptoms that always seem, to the surrounding culture, legitimate evidence of organic disease.” 

In August 2015, the US reopened its embassy in Havana, Cuba, after years of severed ties between the two states. Late the following year, a handful of diplomats living near the new embassy began to feel unwell. They reported memory problems or hearing unusual sounds, accompanied by painful pressure or vibration in their skull. The State Department was instantly concerned, gathering the embassy’s staff together so that they could be checked for signs of a possible sonic weapon attack. 

Panic consumed the embassy as more and more people reported similar ailments. By 2017, the State Department had removed non-essential staff from the Havana base. But neurologists remained perplexed. In 2018, the Journal of the American Medical Association published a report stating that diplomats in Havana experienced brain injury and hearing damage, possibly as a result of an “unknown energy source”.

[see also: Does mass hysteria explain the “sonic attacks” on US diplomats in Cuba?]

For O’Sullivan, this mysterious case is not so complicated. “Psychosomatic illnesses are neglected medically. It is dismissed because it is seen as a problem of women, and that is exactly what happened in Havana,” she says. “The doctors in that particular case rejected the diagnosis because these were mainly male diplomats, and they were seen as intelligent. But this was 100 per cent an example of mass hysteria.” 

The events in Havana do seem to fit with Shorter’s description of the brain mirroring the symptoms it thinks society will accept, presenting an illness according to a society’s symptom pool, based on our collective memory. Relations between the US and Cuba have been fraught for decades and there was an omnipresent threat of Russian espionage in 2016. It isn’t a stretch, then, to suggest the symptoms experienced by the US diplomats were psychosomatic.

Yet still, neurologists and hysteria experts remain conflicted. Shorter himself insists: “Concluding that these middle-aged male diplomats were suffering from mass hysteria goes completely against everything we know about mass hysteria.”

But by choosing to remember hysteria as an acutely gendered illness, we lose track of its all-encompassing nature. And it is particularly relevant today, in the midst of a pandemic. 

On a global scale, Covid-19 has made people suspicious of their bodies, providing the perfect conditions for mass psychosomatic illness, or hysteria, to occur. “There’s no doubt that the virus suggests people into developing psychosomatic symptoms, even if they don’t have the infection,” says Shorter. “There are also other behavioural changes, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, that are unleashed at the same time.” For Shorter, passing someone on the street to avoid spreading the virus is a good example of how people have responded to the threat of Covid-19: “It is totally unscientific. There’s no risk at all of passing the virus in the open air. But we feel less impacted by the illness if we act out these little rituals.” These slight behavioural changes are, on a much smaller scale, an example of everyday hysteria. 

I felt the full pull of this irrationality, six months into the pandemic as I self-isolated with a group of four others. After a week, paranoia began to consume us. We were quick to point out any possible signs of Covid-19 invading our bodies. By the end of the week, we felt unwell. After days of spiralling ill health, we tested negative for the virus. In disbelief, we tested again. Had we really imagined our physical condition, under the stress of self-isolation? Despite our Covid-19 symptoms, the three tests we took showed no evidence of the virus. In fact, there was nothing wrong with us at all. 

According to O’Sullivan, my personal experience is a common example of mass hysteria, brought on by external stress and an inability to escape a perceived threat. “Most of the time we don’t even think about our physical health. Especially when you’re young. But if you’re placed in a situation where you have reason to be concerned that something medically serious could happen to you, then we will start to pay attention to our bodies in this way,” she says. “I think that basically, you know, that will have caused some people to suffer symptoms of Covid without Covid. What stands to be seen is whether these stresses will have a long-term effect on people or not, as we emerge from the pandemic.”

Hysteria, then, comes in many forms. Far from being exclusively the contagion of voiceless Victorian women, it remains an emphatically modern phenomenon; one that will continue to be influenced by our culture’s understanding of physical illness and our collective empathy towards psychological stress. As lockdown measures relax, the mind’s propensity for trickery will continue to haunt us.

[see also: How life’s stresses can manifest themselves into physical symptoms]