The Primitive Mind and Modern Man

Indexed in: Scopus, EBSCO

This book is in the field of cultural anthropology and transcultural psychology, and is intended for college courses in anthropology and psychology, and general readership. The book focuses on ...
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Mass Hysteria, Mass Possession

Pp. 230-235 (6)

John Alan Cohan


Outbreaks of mass hysteria are not uncommon in primitive and modern cultures alike. A group of people will exhibit bizarre behavior, including seizures, tremors, running amok, comatose-like trance or possession states, or other sudden hysterical symptoms with no identifiable medical cause. Western psychiatrists call this Mass Psychogenic Illness. Mass hysteria usually starts with a single individual, and this quickly spreads to others, particularly in close settings such as schools, nunneries, or factories, particularly if individuals are subject to intense anxiety of stress. Sometimes these states are voluntarily elicited in religious or healing ceremonies, with incessant drumming, excitement and suggestibility as one person after another falls into a trance or possession state. Sometimes the outbreak will pertain to a collective fear that is entirely false, for example a collective delusion that there is a poisonous gas in the air-and many people will fall victim to symptoms of toxic poisoning despite the fact that there is nothing in the air. A mass dancing mania emerged following the Black Plague epidemic of the 14th century. People would hop, dance, clap hands and jump about in a frenzy, often naked. How hysteria spreads from the initial case to a group is deeply mysterious. Perhaps hysteria can be contagious much in the same way as a violent mood can spread in a mob and lead to a riot, or there is some sort of decoupling of an individual’s personality in the context of group dynamics.


Western State Law School USA.