Hysteria Source Analysis

Hysteria Source Analysis

The sources I have chosen provide information on all forms of mass media, hysteria and its psychology and of accounts of historical importance. My primary sources are valuable materials comprised of firsthand accounts and manuscripts which provide the writer’s opinion and perspective. I will use the sources at my disposal to develop a basic answer for my research question: how does mass media perpetrate epidemic hysteria?

To begin, I cite an event which occurred in 2006 in a Maryland elementary school, just before the commencement of statewide standardized tests. Within a mobile classroom, several students complained of severe itching and were sent to the school nurse for evaluation. The nurse could not identify any cause for skin irritation and sent the students back to their class. For most of the cases, the nurse found that the itching subsided while the students waited to see her. However, by the end of the day, eighteen students, including twelve from the mobile classroom presented to the nurse with complaints of itching. This led to staff relocating students to the main school building. For the next three days, air in the school was tested for irritants and nothing of interest was found. The media was also present after the second day of the itching outbreak. They conducted interviews with both students and faculty members. The presence of the media led to a noticeable rise in cases of the mysterious skin irritation (Fig. 1; Halvorson, et al., 2008). Health officials deemed the incident a case of mass psychogenic response, a form of mass hysteria where large groups of people suffer identical symptoms without cause.

Figure 1. Numbers of student visits to school health office across an 8 day period.

It is clear that the presence of the media aggravated the situation, causing the most prominent spike in nurse visits for the entire incident.
Upon searching my sources for primary materials, I found that I only had one at my disposal; which is the one above. However, I found an interesting article written about the ‘Mad Gasser of Mattoon’. The incident began in Mattoon, Illinois, 1944 with a woman claiming she has been sprayed by someone with gas through her bedroom window and suffered respiratory attacks and lower body paralysis. Upon the arrival of the police, the symptoms abated and the assailant had disappeared. Soon, other sightings appeared and the police were mobilized to capture the elusive ‘gasser’. The Mattoon city paper was seen as being very reliable to the inhabitants of the small town; therefore, the headline “Mad Gasser on Loose” was widely accepted. People armed themselves with shotguns and waited on their doorsteps for him, often claiming they caught glimpses of him or heard him pump his spray gun. There were dozens of reports of attacks and sightings, over seven within one day. Before long, the ‘phantom anesthetist’ had been reported in newspapers all of the U.S. Even service members, oversees called their families back home, frantic for their safety. After less than a month the sightings dwindled until they ended all together. The heralding of the event in the newspapers led to a much higher level of hysteria than would have occurred had only the police been involved.
Both sources lead me to conclude that media has the effect of spreading hysteria by making the culprit of such behavior more widely known. The more people who believe they are in grave danger from some mysterious entity; the more potential there is for hysteria to occur.

So What?

Mass hysteria, its effects and its instigators are of great concern to public health professionals and to the community as a whole. Adams (1911) believed that hysteria would inherently target and harm innocent people and bring out the worst and most primal behavior in those involved, out of fear and lack of understanding. He cites an event where a leprous man was run from city to city, seeking refuge but being met by disdain, loathing and fear. He eventually died a miserable death from exposure. This illustrates how unthinking fear in large groups of people can have tragic consequences, even when the instigating factor is a single, lone man with a disease. Adams writes that hysteria is most prevalent in densely packed environments, something he wrote about in the early 20th Century; now 82% of America’s population lives in urban environments. Based upon his assumptions about hysterical behavior, the potential for a catastrophe is present, but greater now than at any other time in history. With the strong history of hysteria in America, it is safe to assume that a single event could spawn widespread chaos, and it is therefore important that public health officials be prepared. Further research into the potential instigators and ramifications of hysteria is imperative for the ongoing protection of the public, in our increasingly dense society.

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