What it Wasn't - Or How I Learned to Stop Dismissively Categorizing Potentially Paranormal Events as Mass Hysteria

May 16, 2022, 01:58 AM

Often when one hears about some group of people claiming to experience a highly strange event or similarly acting out in bizarre and irrational manners, it's easy and common to dismiss the episode as a case of "mass hysteria." Phenomena like the audience reaction to Orson Welles' War of the Worlds radio broadcast, "The Dancing Plague of 1518," the "Windshield-Pitting Mystery of 1954," and "The Mad Gasser of Mattoon" are considered by much of the public to be examples of mass hysteria. In the late 1930s and decades after, some sociologists used occurrences like those to help model their theory of "Social Contagion." Like the idea that one or several people claim to experience something unusual, others hear about it and start to see the same thing. Soon it all spirals into an epidemic of vast numbers of people all testifying to the same weirdness with no real, mystical cause. But is the potentially antiquated term of mass hysteria or even its modern descendant "mass psychogenic illness" accurate or helpful? When explaining how some collectives of people can declare to see the same impossible thing, or how communities usually react in predictable patterns when faced with the Fortean, are they all just "hysterical" or "ill?" Are these events all the same? With the Enfield Monster, sociologist David L. Miller used the incident as a case study for what seems a more suitable way to think about many of the stories we cover, not as contagion or hysteria, but as "Collective Action and Behavior." We may never know what these cryptic creatures and mysterious happenings genuinely are, but at least we can better understand how people react to them and each other when they show up. Regarding the experiencers, we can know what it wasn't. These are important considerations because, after all, what is the value to humans if a paranormal event occurs and no one is around to witness it?

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