Mass hysteria is when a large number of people become convinced of a popular delusion. It can be something sinister, like that Jews are poisoning wells as people thought during the plague, or something ridiculous, like that witches are stealing people’s penises. Here are five of the weirdest episodes of mass hysteria in history.
Popobawa, which translates to “bat wing”, is the name given to a creature that people in Tanzania believe has been attacking people for decades. The story goes that men wake up late at night to the sound of leathery wings flapping through the room. They slowly open their eyes thinking a bat must have gotten int. Instead they see this guy:
Terrified, the men believe that this monster is going to kill them only to find that there is something else on his mind. According to “witnesses”, the Popobawa’s inclinations run less to eating flesh than to partaking of it. That’s right, the Popobawa is believed to be motivated by a penchant for buggery.
Reports of the Popobawa go back to the 1970’s. It is said that the origins of the Popobawa lie with a local Imam who decided to get his revenge on some impolite neighbors by enlisting the help of a Jinn, which is a devil or spirit in the Islamic tradition, and apparently ended up being a sexually aggressive bat in this case.
Popobawa sightings continued for decades before reaching their height in 1995, when a wave of reported encounters with the amorous monster had the city of Dar Es Salaam in a state of crisis. People believed that the creature targeted people who were skeptical of its existence.
Majka Hamad was one such skeptic who reported having his own experience: “It was just like a dream but then I was thinking it was this Popobawa and he had come to do something terrible to me, something sexual.”
As the reports of attacks continued, men took to sleeping in groups around bonfires, hoping that there was safety in numbers.
While discounting the creature’s existence was said to entice it, reciting verses from the Koran and slathering pig fat over your body was said to repel it.
Attacks seemed to dwindle by the end of the year, though there are still occasional reports of Popobawa attacks, which interestingly seem to fluctuate with the tide of national elections.
So as ugly as elections get in America, at least nobody has to worry about getting raped by a giant bat.
Knock on wood.
The Mad Gasser Of Mattoon
In 1944, in Mattoon, Illinois, a man named Urban Raef was in bed one night when he noticed an unusual smell. Feeling weak and nauseated, he assumed that his stove was leaking gas and asked his wife to see if the pilot light was out. At that point, his wife found she was too weak to move. The next morning, having regained the use of their legs, they reported the event to the local police, who told them they were most likely imagining it. But then a few days later, another woman reported a similar experience: strange odor, nausea, weak limbs, and a burning sensation on the lips.
Over the next few weeks, hundreds of people reported having been the victim of a mysterious gas leak in their homes. People even began to claim they saw a mysterious man with some kind of gas dispensing apparatus lurking around their homes.
Some alleged that an escaped mental patient was behind the gas attacks. Though seeing as dozens of people were reporting attacks all across town every night, unless this guy was a wizard this can probably be chalked up to some overactive imaginations.
Or maybe it was wizards.
Koro is classified as a culture-specific mental disorder. Essentially it’s the conviction that your penis is retracting into your body like the head of a scared turtle. People suffering from it employ a variety of methods to prevent it, like repeatedly stretching the penis out or even finding something to anchor it to.
Koro has a long history, it was mentioned in ancient Chinese medical texts as being caused by “a concentration of coldness in the liver”, a diagnosis that the modern medical community has been suspiciously quick to dismiss.
And paranoia about genital retraction has even erupted into episodes of full-scale panic in several countries over the years.
In China, people believe that Koro can even kill you, which explains why so many people were worried when, in 1967, a rumor began in Singapore that a number of pigs injected with a swine flu vaccine had died from Koro and that eating pig meat could spread the condition. Men walked around clamps on their genitals and 97 people were admitted to the hospital with the conviction that they were dying from penis retraction.
Similar events have happened in Thailand and India, as well as numerous places in Africa, where witches are often believed to be the culprits after casting dick-shrinking spells.
And before you make fun of people in other cultures for believing in something so ridiculous, remember that in the Middle Ages it was a commonly held belief in Europe that witches liked to “deprive men of their virile member.” After stealing the members, witches were said to enchant them so that they moved around on their own like a hairy caterpillar and ate corn.
The Dancing Plague
In July 1518, in the sleepy region of Alsace in the then Holy Roman Empire, a certain woman named Mrs. Troffea began dancing in the streets of the city of Strasburg. Within the next few days over thirty people had joined her, dancing without food or water until they collapsed.
By the end of the month, 400 people were filling the city square with flailing limbs and probably some pretty alarming body odor by this point. Over the course of the next few weeks, around 15 people a day were collapsing from heat stroke or heart attacks, having literally danced themselves to death.
The city fathers, having ruled out the influence of the stars or vengeful witches, decided that these people could only be cured by more dancing. So they hired musicians and encouraged the dancers to continue.
Finally deciding that telling people to keep dancing was a bad way to put an end to a dancing plague, the city turned to religion. According to contemporary accounts, after priests offered a series of blessings, the dancing stopped. Presumably, this lead to a few decades where dancing was banned until a young man from another city taught everyone to cut loose.
The London Monster
In 1788, a London woman came forward with an unusual story. According to her account, a man had approached her late at night when she was walking alone and proceeded to stab her buttocks several times with a needle. Word of this attack spread throughout the city and soon more women were reporting similar attacks. Over the next two years, the people of London were gripped with terror at being attacked by “the London Monster” as the assailant came to be known.
Withing a few weeks, good old-fashioned vigilantism ruled and people were beaten up in the streets on suspicion of being the monster. Women took to wearing copper pots over their petticoats and men wore “Not the Monster” pins to avoid mob justice. Pickpockets even took advantage of the panic. They would clean out a victim’s pockets and then shout “Look, the monster”, making their escape while the crowd was giving the poor man a solid beating to go with his robbery.
Another rumor began that only pretty, rich women were targets, so it became something of a fashion trend for a woman to be able to claim she had been attacked, which led to several women inflicting injuries on themselves in order to get recognition. It was sort of like “Oh, my dearest Marjorie, you say you haven’t been assaulted? How fortunate you are to be so plain and bereft of suitors.”
It was basically the 18th-century version of the humblebrag.
The number of victims rose and the police, desperate to make an arrest, settled on a drifter named Rhynwick Williams. Despite Rhynwick having solid alibis for most of the alleged attacks, he was convicted of “the destruction of clothing,” which for some reason technically carried the death penalty at the time. Luckily for Williams, once the hysteria died down a bit he got a new trial and was only sentenced to six years.
Historians are divided on whether the Monster actually existed. Some say the culprit was likely someone with piquerism, which is a fetish for poking people with sharp objects. Others say none of the attacks occurred at all, but many agree that most reported attacks were fabrications.
Either way, it’s proof that you don’t want to be a shiftless drifter during an episode of mass hysteria. Which is probably good advice to remember, since if this list proves anything, it’s that everyone can start losing their minds at the drop of a hat.
Last modified: November 18, 2016