Mass Hysteria in Schools: A Worldwide History Since 1566

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Bartholomew, Robert E. (2014). Mass Hysteria in Schools: A Worldwide History Since 1566. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.  This study explores outbreaks of collective twitching, shaking, demonic possession and general illness in schools in a variety of countries and time periods. The authors survey the rich, colorful history of mass hysteria and kindred phenomena in schools, from outbreaks of demonic possession during witchcraft scares to twitching and shaking epidemics that became common in nineteenth century European schools, to more contemporary incidents of collapsing bands, itching frenzies, ghost panics and ‘mystery’ illnesses. 

Sociologist Robert Bartholomew and British historian Bob Rickard trace mysterious outbreaks of strange behavior and illness in students through the centuries. From the possessed children who went into trance states and began to bark like dogs and cats in 16th and 17th century Holland, to an outbreak of Tourette’s-like symptoms among schoolgirls in Western New York during 2011-12, the book provides a comprehensive treatment gleaned from scholarly journals and press reports.  While many episodes are from the United States, separate chapters detail accounts from Europe, Asia, Africa, Latin America and Oceania.  While some may take issue with the term “mass hysteria” and consider its use derogatory to females, it remains entrenched in the scientific lexicon.  While 99% of reports involve a preponderance of females, this state of affairs may reflect the social conditioning of females and not necessarily any innate predisposition.  This book constitutes the definitive study of the subject.

The authors conclude that these seemingly strange classroom outbreaks are not tales of sickness but of distress; they are not tales of chaos and disarray but of rebellion; they are not tales of irrationality but logical responses to unique circumstances and world-views.  When we look only at the behaviors and forget about their context and meaning, we grow vulnerable to mistaking the exotic as strange; the unfamiliar as bizarre, and folk beliefs as superstitions.  We must remember that there are ghosts, students do become possessed by spirits, and terrorists have attacked American schools.  That is to say, for the students, teachers and parents in these community soap operas, the events were real.  Events happen in specific social and cultural contexts that those involved cannot see.  Far from being abnormal or dysfunctional, school scares, panics, and hysterias are collective coping mechanisms and ways of making sense of the world.  As such, these episodes of distress afford us insights into students and their capacity to adapt and cope with change.  Ultimately, they are tales of the indomitable human spirit; clever and creative in its response to repression, fear, uncertainty and injustice.      


“…a valuable resource for educators, parents and students who seek a rational explanation for outbreaks of bizarre behaviors and illness symptoms in school settings and their impact on the rest of society.”

- Dr Glenn Dawes, Faculty of Arts Education and Social Sciences, James Cook University