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7 Mysterious Mass Illnesses That Defied Explanation

Mass sociogenic illness—also known as mass hysteria, epidemic hysteria or hysterical contagion—occurs when symptoms without a clear medical cause spread among members of a community. “Think of it as the placebo effect in reverse,” says Dr. Robert Bartholomew, an honorary senior lecturer in the Department of Psychological Medicine at Auckland University.

For centuries, human societies have sought to identify the cause of mass hysteria. The Salem Witch Trials accused women of witchcraft. During the height of World War II anxiety, the inhabitants of Mattoon, Illinois, feared a rogue agent wielding poisonous gas. “Mass hysterias and social panics are barometers of the time and reflect our collective fears,” says Bartholomew. The imagined causes behind these real symptoms reveal the anxieties of each era. Here are seven such cases throughout history.

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