In July, the city of Salem, Massachusetts, held a ceremony to honor those who were killed during the infamous Salem Witch Trials of 1692. A memorial was opened to commemorate the people who were convicted, and it stands at the assumed site of the witch hangings. July marked the 325th anniversary of the tragedy, which hasn’t been forgotten by locals or historians.
“We should not be here commemorating the heartbreaking and tragic loss of life, people who were falsely and unjustly accused of being in the snare of the devil,” said Rev. Jeffrey Barz-Snell of the First Church in Salem at the event. (“Salem Memorializes Those Killed During Witch Trials,” n.d.)
So what caused the mass hysteria in Salem, Massachusetts? And what is the catalyst for it today?
The Causes of Mass Hysteria
The Salem Witch Trials can be traced back to Betty Parris and Abigail Williams, two young girls who began to exhibit physical “fits” back in February 1692. Without any visible cause, the religious community was quick to pin the incidents on the devil. As others started to have fits, the finger-pointing and mass hysteria began.
Dr. Gary Small writes for Psychology Today that these outbreaks tend to show up among teenage girls than any other demographic. Fainting and hyperventilation are common symptoms.
“When we face uncertainty, our minds crave explanations,” Small explains. “If we have no way to account for symptoms, we feel out of control and our fear escalates. And, if we learn that our own minds may have caused these very real symptoms, we tend to feel more anxiety about what our minds might do next.”
The Science of Mass Hysteria
As Small notes, some specialists believe that the physical symptoms of mass hysteria can lead to outbreaks.
“When people get excited and scared, they may hyperventilate or start breathing too quickly; thus, exhaling too much carbon dioxide,” he says. “Low carbon dioxide levels in the body cause muscles in the extremities to spasm, which can explain the numbness, tingling and muscle twitching that some victims experience. If the carbon dioxide depletion is treated by simply breathing into a paper bag, the symptoms rapidly disappear.” (Small, n.d.)
And as for mass hysteria today? It’s still happening.
In 2012, for example, 12 teenagers from upstate New York began showing symptoms of mass hysteria at LeRoy Junior-Senior High School. Dr. Gregory Young of the New York Department of Health said communicable diseases and infections were not the cause, and neurologist Dr. Laszlo Mechtler eventually pointed to mass hysteria. (“Mass hysteria outbreak reported in N.Y. town: What does it mean?,” n.d.)
Long live sociological mysteries.