Mass hysteria (sociogenic illness): India
This is a collection of articles archived for the excellence of their content.
Villages in Haryana and Delhi have been gripped by a strange fear: women's braids are being lopped off by mysterious forces. Invisible spirits, burqa-clad figures and men wielding tridents have been blamed. At least 15 cases have been reported from the Mewat region alone. But for all the whispers about ghosts, the police and administration are looking for gangs that might be involved in this weird action.
Women report feeling giddy , losing consciousness, and, on regaining their senses, discovering their chopped tresses. It's hard to imagine what shape the prosecution can take, but since scissors have been used, the Arms Act will apparently be invoked.
Mass delusions are not new; in India and around the world, people have succumbed to such contagions. From the Salem witch trials in late 17th century Massachusetts to the inexplicable laughing epidemic of Tanzanian schoolgirls in the 60s, humans have a way of making strange things `go viral'. Only last year, parts of the United States and Canada panicked about “evil clown“ sightings.
These are often called “mass sociogenic illnesses“, a symptom of underlying social stresses. Between April and May 2001, Delhi was agog with stories of a “monkey man“, a hairy , fantastical creature of disputed dimensions assaulted people with its metal claws. At least 15 people were injured, and two actually died of panic.
A police-commissioned medical report of the monkey man's victims declared the wounds self-inflicted, blamed poverty and overcrowding, and “repetitive images“ in the mass media as fanning the frenzy . Media scholar Ravi Sunda ram described it as an urban fear that broke loose of the police, media and official accounts and spun out of control.
Mass delusions aren't always an index of anxiety alone, though. In 1995, the rumour that Ganesha idols had started drinking milk spread across the nation. Scientists later attributed it to the capillary action of stone and ceramic. In August 2006, believers insisted that the seawater at Mahim creek in Mumbai and Teethal beach in Gujarat had mysteriously become sweet, a miracle attributed to Haji Maqdoom Baba. Of course, killjoy geologists pointed out that pollution, rain or the inflow of fresh river water were more likely to have altered the taste temporarily .
In the current case, the deeper story is in the beliefs and anxieties these episodes illuminate. Hair is a richly symbolic thing, across religions and cultures; some consider it dead matter without blood or sensation, an impurity, like nails. To some, it signifies fertility and power. The matted hair of the ascetic stands for an individual's break with society . The tightly braided hair of a woman stands for a certain social discipline or controlled sexuality , points out social commentator Santosh Desai, just as hair left loose is unrestrained display of a kind. “There is something abrupt about the snapping of a braid, it could signal punishment or disgrace,“ Desai said.
It's hard to tell whether this action is deeply significant or just a prank or the domino effect of one event, he cautions. But either way , don't scoff at the women worrying about their braids.As Desai points out, we are all suggestible to socially transmitted obsessions, whether it's the fear of terror attacks or illnesses or the mania around a pop star or WhatsApp rumours.