Women and Mass Hysteria

Some of the most infamous episodes of mass hysteria have women at the center of the episodes, and even the word ‘hysteria’ has a history of being associated with a woman’s health.

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Hysteria patients being treated with hypnosis

Through out history reasons for women acting overly emotional, erratic, sexually deviant, or any other pattern of acting outside social norms were explained as a symptom of Hysteria. The word ‘hysteria’ comes from a Greek word relating to the womb and the associated disorder can be traced all the way back to Ancient Greece where they believed that a woman acting hysterical was because the womb would travel around the body, putting pressure on the nervous system which in turn caused women to exhibit irrational behavior. Female Hysteria is no longer considered a medical condition but episodes of mass hysteria still persist as a real social phenomenon.

Episodes of mass hysteria have baffled the minds of many through out the years. It is a phenomenon where a collective group of people in a society share delusions of threats and may manifest itself by the display of psychosomatic symptoms. One theory for why mass hysteria occurs is that it may be a way to cope with sudden stress or when the psychological needs of a group are not being met by a society’s strict standard of living. It is a theory to think about when reading the following list of women and mass hysteria :

The French Cat Nuns of the Middle Ages. When one nun in a convent started meowing and soon all the other nuns followed suite. Everyday the nuns acted like acts for hours, with no explanation.

All Girls School in 17th Century France. In Lille, France 50 female students believed that devils were flying around their heads and confessed to acts of witchcraft.

Dancing Plague of 1518. It started in July in Strasbourg by Mrs. Troffea when she began dancing uncontrollably in the streets. Within a month over 400 dancers, mostly women, had joined the nonstop dancing. People eventually died of a heart attack, stroke, or

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The Dancing Plague

exhaustion as they were unable to stop dancing.

The Tanganyika Laughing Epidemic. At a mission run boarding school for girls in Tanzania in 1962, girls started uncontrollably laughing. The epidemic spread to 95 of the 159 students at the school leading for the school to be shut down and the girls sent back to their families.

The Twitching Leg in Louisiana. In 1939, Bellevue Louisiana a girl developed a leg twitch at her homecoming dance. Over the next several weeks the twitching got worse and spread to her friends.

LeRoy, New York. Episodes of women and mass hysteria aren’t all in the past. In 2011, 12 high school girls in New York started exhibiting Tourette like symptoms. Toxins and other explanations where tested but all of them were ruled out.

Of course the most infamous episode of Mass Hysteria and women was The Salem Witch Trials of the 17th Century. Between February 1692 and May 1693 the town of Salem and the surrounding  areas in Colonial Massachusetts experienced an episode of mass hysteria that resulted in twenty people being executed for the crime of witchcraft. The trials took place in several towns but the most infamous hearings were conducted by the Court of Oyer and Terminer  in Salem Town.

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Map of Salem, 1692

It all started with the daughter of Samuel Parris, minister of Salem Village,  9-year-old Elizabeth Parris and his 11-year-old niece, Abigail Williams. The two girls began having fits, including violent contortions and uncontrollable outbursts of screaming. After a local doctor, William Griggs, diagnosed bewitchment, other young girls in the community began to exhibit similar symptoms. In late February, arrest warrants were issued for three women that the girls had accused of bewitching them: the Parris’ slave, Tituba, Sarah Good, a homeless beggar, and the elderly Sarah Osborn.

There are many theories as to what caused the hysteria ranging from Ergot poisoning to PTSD to Lyme disease to psychological projection and scapegoating. Though there is no denying the  symptoms displayed by the afflicted girls in Salem: excessive weeping, violent screams, scratching, hallucinations are similar to those seen in classic cases of hysteria, or  psychosomatic disorder. In which a psychological state are known to influence physical health.

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Salem Witch Trials

Living in the strict Puritan society where their needs as children and young women were not met effected the girls. The Puritan society repressed children and teenagers with idea that damnation was imminent and the devil was everywhere. The girls might have suffered hysteria as a way to subconsciously cope with their desire for freedom and possible guilt for not living up to their strict societies standard.  The restricted society and the very real fear of witchcraft may have worked together to create the psychosomatic episodes that occurred in the girls of Salem in 1692.


Melissa Jones, Social Media Coordinator
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