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Hysteria airborne & unexplained

| | in Sunday Pioneer
Hysteria airborne & unexplained

From the monkey man to the killer witch to now the braid-cutter, incidents of unexplained hysteria going viral are nothing new. SHALINI SAKSENA tries to get to the bottom of this mass fear psychosis

Mass hysteria is nothing new in India. So, when a 65-year-old Dalit woman was beaten to death by a mob led by two brothers who thought that she was the choti katua (braid cutter) in an Agra village last week, it was unfortunate but not surprising.

Maan Devi was beaten to death on suspicion that she was the braid cutting witch who had been active in the nights flying around States like Rajasthan (from where it originated), Haryana, Delhi, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh.

The incident occurred when the poor woman had gone to the fields to relieve herself in the wee hours. By mistake, she entered another house and as she was wearing a white sari, the villagers mistook her for the braid cutter and lynched her. It was only after the son got up from his sleep and couldn’t find his mother that he went searching for her and found her lying on the street. He rushed her to the nearby hospital where the doctors pronounced her dead.

Maan Devi is not an isolated case. Another mentally unsound woman was attacked by a mob in Dhamena village of Shamshabad, Uttar Pradesh. But she was luckily saved by some samaritans and handed over to the police for questioning.

In Bulandshahr, Uttar Pradesh, reports of cutting of braids surfaced in Khurja and Kakod areas. An elderly woman’s braid was chopped off in Ferozepur. Similarly, a sleeping woman in Badali village of Bijnore district woke up to find that her hair was missing. She fainted in fear and had to be hospitalised.

Similar reports poured in from Loni, Ghaziabad, Sumerpur, Hathras, Bareilly, Etawah, Etah, Chitrakut and Auraiya.

Till Maan Dei was killed, there had been several reports of braid cutting incidents but no assaults leading to death. The burgeoning incidents are symptomatic of a mass fear psychosis and hysteria which have showed up from time to time in India and on a big scale.

Back in 2001, reports of a monkey-like creature attacking people at night surfaced in Delhi. The creature, eyewitnesses said, was about four feet tall, covered in black hair, wearing a metal helmet, had metal claws, glowing red eyes and three buttons on its chest. Some people claimed that the creature was Hanuman’s avatar, others said it was Big Foot himself. Some even insisted that since it was like a robot, it could be stopped if one threw water on it. For days, the Capital was deluged with sightings. This mass hysteria led to the death of a couple of people who jumped from their terrace while running away in panic from what they believed to be the monkey man. Around 15 people came out with bite, bruises and scratch marks. The monkey man was never caught.

It was the “milk miracle” of 1995 that had the entire nation in the grip of mass hysteria.

It all started when a worshipper in Delhi made a milk offering to Lord Ganesha’s trunk. Lo and behold, the teaspoon of milk disappeared! The news of this event spread like wildfire and Hindus in North India started making a beeline to Ganesh temples to feed milk to the lord. Luckily, the hysteria died down soon enough though some temples outside India continued to report the event.

The “miracle” reappeared in 2006 in Bareilly in Uttar Pradesh. But this time not only Ganesh, but also Shiva and Durga statues were reportedly drinking milk. Scientists said this was due to a capillary action. A similar incident surfaced in 2010 but remained confined to a small area.

Delhi, over the years, has been at the centre of such incidents. In 2005, reports of a witch on a killing spree surfaced, causing a scare among Delhiites. The witches — apparently three of them — would turn up at the door and ask for onions. When the resident gave her the onions, the witch would be cut it in half and blood would drip from the onion and the person who opened the door would die instantly! And since she was a witch, there was a way to ensure she didn’t come to your doorsteps. A palm print in turmeric or henna on the door was said to keep her away. Several such prints came up in east, west and even south Delhi.

How did these witches come to Delhi? The story went that a child in Balaji Temple in Rajasthan had removed a nail that had pinned them down for centuries. They were now in the Capital, on a killing spree and claimed to have killed 100 people! Delhi wasn’t alone. The witch scare gripped Chhattisgarh too, a State known for witch-hunting.

The dictionary meaning of such mass hysteria is “a condition affecting a group of persons, characterised by excitement or anxiety, irrational behaviour or beliefs, or inexplicable symptoms of illness.”

According to Dr Pulkit Sharma, consultant clinical psychologist and spiritual therapist with Imago-Centre for Self, the mass hysteria syndrome is usually seen in members of a particular socio-cultural group and is characterised by episodes of acute anxiety, distress, irrational thinking and reasoning and abnormal movements. “It occurs in several members of the group at the same time without any known medical cause. Uneducated women are the ones most prone to this syndrome,” Sharma explains.

Also known as mass psychogenic illness (MPI), instances have been reported for hundreds of years in different socio-cultural settings. One is told that its symptoms are that of an organic disease but doesn’t have any identifiable cause. Though it has been found that acute stress, being fearful in temperament and having lack of psychological mindedness, are some triggers.

“The mass hysteria syndrome originates from the nervous system that leads to excitement and loss of control. However, it has no organic basis. For example, if we do an MRI or a blood test of the person, we will find no anomaly,” Dr Manish Borasi, consultant psychiatrist in Bhopal, says.

There is a typical profile of people who give into mass hysteria. “Woman and children are more prone to it — three to four times more than men. This is because this group tends to have a low IQ score. These people are extraversion (a personality trait) and have a belief system. Lord Ganesh drinking milk is a typical example of this. There is a system in Hindus to offer milk to Gods. The fact that one person offered milk and the statue ‘drank it’ led popular believe that this was actually possible. It is a strong belief system that leads to such mass hysteria,” Borasi explains.

The reason why it spreads from one village to another and from city to city is because you have people with similar traits. When one person believes it and shares it with others, it spreads since they are all connected with the same system that binds them in caste, creed and religion.

“Oral communication is a major cause of such hysteria. Social media today is also a contributor for fast dissemination of information from place to place,” Borasi tells you. Research in mass hysteria is an ongoing process and it will take time for a conclusion for its causes is arrived at.

“But yes, people with similar traits fall prey to such rumours. While this is not a disease, what should be done is to separate such people as fast as possible and do a physical examination. Generally such people hyperventilate and therefore, need to be put under observation. To put them on medication would be incorrect. Though it is not part of The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-V) which was developed and is maintained by the American Psychiatric Association, the DSM-IV does mention mass hysteria as a disorder and is linked to a diagnostic category,” Borasi says.

Culture plays a decisive role and is a social phenomenon that affects healthy individuals as well.

The US sociologist Robert Bartholomew, author of several books on mass hysteria, includingThe Martians Have Landed: A History of Media-Driven Panics and Hoaxes, was quoted as saying that mass hysteria symptoms typically include smelling gas, seeing strange objects, acting like animals and fainting. Mass hysteria is a short-term event that may or may not have a specific cause. According to Bartholomew, people can start having real symptoms just from stories they hear, and sometimes, there is no real explanation for why hysteria happens; it just happens.

Like the Muhnochwa (face scrather) scare in 2002 in Uttar Pradesh’s Mirzapur district. The locals said that a flying object — with red or green light — sent shock waves through anyone who came in contact with it. Not only this, the victims had injury marks similar to nail scratches on the face. Though people said that the object was shaped like a hawk or a doll — others said it was a prank played by a few through a remote controlled device.

Then there was the Mumbai’s sweet seawater in 2006. That year, Mumbaikars claimed that the water in the otherwise polluted Mahim Creek, in which industrial waste is dumped every day, had turned sweet. As news spread, a few residents in Gujarat said that the water at Teethal beach had turned sweet as well. Fearing an epidemic, authorities warned people to not drink this water. But this didn’t stop people from collecting it in bottles despite the rubbish and waste floating in it.

In March 5, 2012, residents of Irla’s Rebello Chawl in Mumbai’s suburb Andheri found water drops trickling down a crucifix. Sharada Parmar, 62, was the first to spot this ‘miracle.’ News spreads like wildfire and within hours, hundreds of people thronged the narrow lanes to witness droplets of water trickling to Jesus’ feet. A rationalist investigated and examined the area around the statue. After much deliberation, he concluded that the trickling water was no miracle but only the result of a drain clog. The clogging had pushed up the water level due to which the statue started dripping by capillary action.

Not to be left behind was Kerala. In 2015, a man dressed in black was out attacking women and children. There were reports that this man had spring in his shoes so that he could jump high. The news spread on social media creating panic. So much so that some even attacked people wearing black mistaking them for ‘the black man’.

Then the ‘vampire’ flew into Tamil Nadu, keeping villagers inside homes. Villagers in Gundalapatti and Mottangurichi were mystified by the sudden death of their cattle and blamed the blood-sucking vampire for it. Apparently, the rumours were started by bootleggers who wanted to keep the villagers inside at night and carry out their activities easily.

There is a reason why Indians are more prone to such incidents. “Their strong belief, interest and amusement around supernatural phenomenon; susceptibility to collectivist influence because individuation (sense of ‘I’ distinct from others) is discouraged and lack of psychological mindedness makes them read too much into a benign events,” Sharma explains.

And how does this behaviour spread? “Whenever there is an unusual happening or an isolated incident, there is uncertainty in the mind of the people. To deal with this uncertainty, one or more members of the group come up with bizarre explanations. People already scared, feel even more anxious with this explanation and this causes intense panic. In a state of panic, a person experiences alarming physiological and psychological reactions. People start misinterpreting things around them in a bizarre and fearful light. Each stage escalates the fear and irrationality,” Sharma tells you.

Indian Rationalist Association president Sanal Edamaruku, who has debunked many theories like the one back in 2012 — water dripping from Jesus’ feet — tells you these kinds of stories keep surfacing.

“There are many reasons for this. There are no witches involved. Stories of a cat coming in, turning into a woman and cutting off people’s hair are nothing but visual hallucination. There are some people who are even cutting their own hair and dumping them in the dustbin and then calling in the police,” Sanal asserts.

He also says that those who insist that they have seen braids being cut have a defence mechanism in place that is repetitive in nature. “This leads to the person believing that everything unreasonable is actually happening. To educate people, there is a need to take a scientific route and tell them that there is no bhoot or witch who is doing this,” Sanal adds.

Usually, when in a society there is some conflict or fear without an outlet, such incidents get concocted.

“In such a situation, the person does things that are not normal. This is his way to deal with the psychological conflict that he or she is facing and behave accordingly. It is mind controlled. Since the society has a strong belief system, it has a great impact on some who are conflicted mentally. There have been instances where people have done strange things and started believing in it to such an extent that they genuinely felt that someone else was doing it,” Sanal explains.




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