Everybody Freak Out: Strange and Uncanny Outbreaks of Shared Insanity

Sometimes, it's easy to feel like you're losing your grip on reality — especially when everybody else around you is losing theirs, as well. History is full of weird incidents of mass hysteria, where insanity from person to person, or took over a whole community at once. Here are the most uncanny incidents of shared insanity.

The War of Worlds (October 30, 1938)


The Halloween episode of the American radio drama anthology series Mercury Theatre featured an adaptation of The War of the Worlds, directed by Orson Welles, and based on H.G. Wells' novel with the same title.


Some listeners heard only a part of the broadcast and took it to be a real news broadcast — causing a wave of mass hysteria across tens of thousands of radio listeners. There were traffic jams, phone lines and electricity went out, and some families fled their homes to hide in nearby parks.

You can listen the whole radio drama here.

(via New York Times/ Oct 31, 1938, Daily News/Oct 31, 1938 and Mutantville)

The Biting Nuns of Germany and the Meowing Nun of France (15th century)


(via Observations on the Principal Medical Institutions and Practice of France, Italy, and Germany with Notices Of The Universities, And Cases From Hospital Practice, by Edwin Lee, 1837/Google Books and The Epidemics Of The Middle Ages, by Justus Friedrich Carl Hecker, 1844/Medical Heritage Library)

The Dancing Plague of 1518, Strasbourg, France, then part of the Holy Roman Empire (July 1518)


A woman named Frau Troffea just began to dance in the street, for no reason. After a few days, more than 30 others had been joined in, and within a month there were around 400 dancing people. This dance lasted for days without rest, so many of those people died of heart attacks, strokes or exhaustion.

(via Wikimedia Commons/Pieter Brueghel the Younger: Dance at Molenbeek)

The Salem witch trials in colonial Massachusetts (between February 1692 and May 1693)


A nine year old girl, Betty Parris, and her eleven year-old cousin Abigail Williams began to have fits described as "beyond the power of Epileptic Fits or natural disease to effect" – they screamed, crawled, threw some things and uttered strange sounds. Later, other young girls began to exhibit similar behaviors. Over 150 people were arrested and imprisoned. 19 of them were hanged, one was crushed to death, and more than ten accused witches died in prison.

(via Library Of Congress/litograph by Joseph E. Baker)

The Halifax Slasher, Halifax, England (between November 16 and December 1, 1938)


Two woman, Mary Gledhill and Gertrude Watts, claimed to have been attacked by a man with a mallet and "bright buckles" on his shoes. Five days later another woman reported the same. Scotland Yard helped the Halifax Police to investigate the cases, but they couldn't find anything. The reports came from nearby cities over the next days, but the so-called attacks turned out to be an incident of mass hysteria. Five people were charged and four were sent to prison with public mischief offenses.

(via Alan Burnett)

The June bug epidemic in a North Carolina textile factory (1962)


Sixty-two employees at the same factory reported some odd symptoms included dizziness, vomiting, numbness and nausea. Some researchers believed that an insect caused these illnesses, but nobody could find the bug in question, and there weren't any bites on workers.

(via George Freston/Getty Images)

Tanganyika Laughter Epidemic, Kashasha, Tanganyika, now Tanzania (started on January 30, 1962)

One girl told a simple joke to another in a small boarding school, and the laughter started to spread — until 95 of the 159 pupils were affected by uncontrollable laughter. Symptoms lasted from a few hours to 16 days. It spread to other nearby villages: 14 schools were shut down and thousands of young adults or schoolchildren were affected in the next few months.


West Bank fainting epidemic, Arrabah, West Bank (March 21, 1983- April 3, 1983)


943 Palestinian teenage girls and a few of IDF (Israel Defense Forces) Women Soldiers fainted or nauseated. Some people though that Israel used gases to sterilize those women, but later the investigators concluded that the early cases may have been caused by the inhalation of gases, but the others were only results of mass hysteria.

(Illustration by AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)

A male-only case in San Diego military barracks, California (September 1988)


More than 1,800 men were evacuated, because of a suspected exposure to toxic gases. 1000 of them developed at least one new symptom, 375 were evacuated by ambulance, and eight people were hospitalized. The soldiers coughed, had chest pain, shortness of breath, headache, sore throat, light-headedness or dizziness. Nearly all recovered after 24 hours.

(via SteelMaster Buildings)

Mysterious illness at Warren County High School, McMinnville, Tennessee (November 1998)


A teacher reported smelling gasoline in the classroom and feeling sick. Some of her students also became sick and hospitalized. The symptoms including headaches, vomiting, nausea, dizziness and drowsiness. The school was closed and tested, but nothing was found. After it reopened, more people fell ill. 186 students and teachers were hospitalized, but everybody survived.

(via Lisa F. Young/Shutterstock)

Monkey-Man of Delhi, Delhi, India (May 2001)


Was that a big monkey with a dark coat of hair, or a monkey monster with glowing red eyes, a metal helmet and metal claws? Or was it the Hindu god Hanuman? Nobody knows, but fifteen people suffered bruises, bites and scratches, a pregnant woman fell down the stairs after her neighbours shouted that they had seen the monster, and a 4 ft (120 cm) tall Hindu sadhu was beaten up by a mob.

(via Wolverton Mountain)

Mumbai Sweet Seawater Incident, Mumbai, India (August 18-19, 2006)


About 8pm somebody claimed that the seawater at Mahim Creek, one of the most polluted creeks in India had turned sweet, not far from the shrine of the famous Muslim Scholar named Haji Maqdoom Baba. And then at midnight, some others claimed that seawater at Teethal beach had turned sweet as well. The local goverment warned people not to drink the water, because that could cause waterborne diseases, but thousands of people started to collect it. On the next morning people admitted that the water was less sweet, and at 2pm, everybody agreed the water had "turned salty again."

(Photo: Mahim Creek, via John Marx)

Penises are Being Stolen in villages in the Central African Republic, 2013


A common fear since the Middle Ages — but still alive in Africa, according to anthropologist Louisa Lombard:

"Elaborate greetings are the norm, I’ve found, when one enters a Central African village. So it was a surprise when I noticed that many people weren’t shaking hands the morning I arrived in Tiringoulou, a town of about 2,000 people in one of the remotest corners of the Central African Republic, in March 2010. I soon found out the reason: the day before, a traveler passing through town on a Sudanese merchant truck had, with a simple handshake, removed two men’s penises.

As best I could reconstruct from witness accounts, the stranger had stopped to purchase a cup of tea at the market. After handing over his money, he clasped the vendor’s hand. The tea seller felt an electric tingling course through his body and immediately sensed that his penis had shrunk to a size smaller than that of a baby’s. His yells quickly drew a crowd. Somehow in the fray a second man fell victim as well.


Reports of genital theft have spread like an epidemic across West and Central Africa over the past two decades, in tandem with what appears to be a general resurgence of witchcraft on the continent."


(Image via Shutterstock.com)

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