Thursday, July 26, 2012

mass hysteria

I heard a piece on the radio recently about the Mad Gasser of Mattoon, and it reminded me of an incident in my own life that happened in childhood. In 1933 in Virginia and in 1944 in Illinois, two towns were gripped by a phantom terror known as the Mad Gasser. Sometimes described as a male, other times a female, the gasser would be seen with a funnel pumping a foul-smelling gas into people's homes. This has been ascribed as an incident of mass hysteria because no gasser was ever caught and evidence of a gasser was circumstantial at best.

Is the story of the Mad Gasser a product of its times? The incidents in 1933 were soon enough after World War I, in which gas warfare first came into public consciousness, that it could have had an effect on the public psyche of a small town. And did the residents of Mattoon, IL, know about the gassing genocide of the Jews occurring in Nazi Germany at the time of their hysteria? Both times, 1933 and 1944, were crisis eras in American history. The first incident of the Mad Gasser our country was in the throes of the Great Depression. In the second incident we were involved in World War II.

But mass hysteria is evident in all times and eras. As recent as last year, 12 teenage girls in Buffalo, New York exhibited similar Tourette's like symptoms, including vocal tics and involuntary jerking of their heads. No known attributable cause has been found for the incident.

Could this form of mass hysteria be a reflection of our current culture's interest in mental health maladies, including increasing awareness of autism and Tourette's? Or could it just be teenagers trying to get attention? This phenomena exists in all ages and times.

For more information about the Buffalo case, see:

The Mad Gasser:

When I was a kid, I came home from school one Friday and when I walked in the house I smelled a sweet, but foul smell so putrid and cloying I couldn't stay in the house without getting sick. I could even smell it in the garage, but it was faint enough there to be tolerable. My parents couldn't smell it and thought I was making up the smell to get attention. I pleaded with them not to make me stay in the house, and I spent the night in the garage. The next morning all traces of the mysterious smell were gone. I've never smelled anything like it, before or since. The only way I can describe it is a cross between rotten flesh and a mosquito repellent the city used to spray from huge vats off the back of trucks. I have many theories about the smell, from some type of residue from the mosquito sprayings to a demonic presence only the childhood me could detect. I never did figure out why my parents smelled no trace of the odor.

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