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What is Mass Hysteria?

Upon the emergence of reports on Havana Syndrome, there was widespread speculation that the only plausible explanation was some form of mass or epidemic hysteria. According to Merriam-Webster, mass hysteria is characterized by behavior exhibiting overwhelming or unmanageable fear or emotional excess. Alternatively, some view mass hysteria as an anxiety-induced phenomenon where large groups exhibit similar behaviors.


Numerous incidents throughout history, including the infamous War of the Worlds radio depiction in 1938 and The Great Fear during the French Revolution in 1789, have been categorized as instances of mass hysteria due to their significant historical impact.


In 1938, Orson Welles, a radio personality, gave a depiction of H.G. Wells’ 40 year old science fiction novel “The War of the Worlds”. The novel describes aliens originating from Mars that launch an invasion on Great Britain during the 20th century. They overpower the British army with their superior weaponry but ultimately surrender after being vulnerable to Earthly diseases. This resulted in mass stampedes, an increase in mental health problems, and angry listeners. Although Welles announced in a CBS press conference that it was not his intention, numerous individuals held the belief that his portrayal of the novel was based on real events. As a result, some individuals went as far as contacting local police stations, newspapers, and radio stations.


The Great Fear in 1789 during the French Revolution presented a slightly similar effect as the previous example. During this era, panic and riots ensued among peasants due to widespread rumors regarding a conspiracy by the King to overthrow the Third Estate. The origins of this unrest can be traced back to the preceding drought of 1788. There were many speculations that the country was going to starve and the population would burn out. Storms and floods destroyed most of the harvest and France was running short on grains. During the riots, the peasants began attacking the estates to find and destroy documents on feudal privileges. The revolts went on until August of 1789.


Each incident of mass hysteria has a catalyst, and these occurrences are primarily driven by cause-and-effect relationships. In the case of The Great Fear, the cause was the drought of 1788, which instilled fear of famine among the population. Consequently, the peasants responded by revolting against the existing circumstances.


In regards to Havana Syndrome, it is challenging to concur with the idea of mass hysteria as numerous U.S. embassy staff members came forward with identical unexplained symptoms. These individuals had no incentive or motive to report these symptoms, as there were no rewards associated with doing so. Dr. James Giordano told SPYSCAPE’s True Spies: Havana Syndrome Special Podcast that “These were individuals in Cuba who had been on the job for decades. These are individuals who were used to being in risk or harms way. These were individuals who had no secondary gain involved. They certainly did not want to be relieved of their duty for medical causes, for other postings, and they had long histories of being on the job and performing effectively.”

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