Mass hysteria is the spontaneous manifestation of a particular behaviour by many people. There are numerous historical examples: Middle Age nuns at a convent in France spontaneously began to meow like cats; at another convent, nuns began biting one another. In 13th-century Germany, spontaneous dancing broke out and entire city populations danced until exhausted. But perhaps the best-known mass hysteria was the Salem Witch Trials, where people, seized by visions, accused others of bewitching them. Many were executed.
But hysteria episodes are not only historical. They have occurred in modern times as well. Remember the daycare panic of the 1980s, when daycare workers were accused of horrible crimes against children, including satanic abuse. Many falsely accused spent years in jail. Lives were ruined. The strangest thing about that mass hysteria is that it spanned continents. It started in California, but then moved through Canada, Europe, and even New Zealand, before it burned itself out.
Obviously, those caught up in mass hysteria do not realize at the time that they are not seeing things clearly.
Could it be that some of us are even now victims of self-induced mass hysterias?
For example, what are we to make of the insistence that a man who chooses to live as a woman actually becomes a woman? To most of the world this claim is nonsensical. It is neither scientific nor factual. A woman has XX chromosomes, while a man has XY. Case closed. But to others, a man actually becomes a woman simply by stating that s/he is one. In the future, will this strange thinking be considered a mass hysteria?
Or what about the odd response that most Western nations took to the COVID-19 pandemic?
For reasons that remain unclear, most Western countries decided to copy communist China’s lockdown strategy, which was a radical approach that had hitherto been rejected by all Western scientists and emergency planners. The misery we see playing out in China, as they finally abandon it, is absolute proof of its absurdity. Yet even today, many still insist that we were right to lock down. And some say that we should do it again! Is this an example of a mass hysteria?
And are the most extreme of today’s anti-fossil fuel exponents caught up in some version of a mass hysteria? I’m not referring to people with legitimate concerns about global warming and the need to find cost-effective, non-polluting energy. I mean those who insist that everyone must give up all fossil fuels by a date they invent. Will history judge this to be a hysteria?
But perhaps the strangest ongoing episode of mass hysteria might be playing out in Canada. That is the claim that 215 indigenous children were secretly killed at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School and then covertly buried at night, with the forced help of children “as young as six.”
If true, this would easily be the biggest crime in Canadian history. The very idea that the nuns and priests running the school would be responsible for the deaths of 215 children, and then force other children to bury their comrades, never made sense. For one thing, there was not one single historical record of any indigenous parent in Kamloops—or anywhere else—reporting that their child had disappeared after attending Kamloops IRS. But more to the point, there was never any factual reason to believe that the nuns and priests who operated the school were the ghouls that the accusation demanded.
But then the strange accusations multiplied. Other indigenous leaders chimed in, with claims that there were “thousands, tens of thousands” of such intentionally killed and secretly buried residential school students all over the country. The prime minister ordered flags to be flown at half mast for months, hundreds of millions of dollars were committed to search for these phantom children, and a cabinet minister, Marc Miller, called anyone who even dared to question these bizarre claims a “ghoul.”
The country went into a panic. A new national holiday honouring these “missing children” (who were never missing) was declared.
But there was never any credible evidence to support any of these claims. The only information that could even be loosely termed “scientific” was an embargoed report by a junior archaeologist that she had detected 215 “soil disturbances” that might be graves. It now appears that it is much more likely that those soil disturbances are clay pipes from a 1924 septic field.
We do know that the bizarre stories of priests killing and secretly burying indigenous children have gained more prominence since the 1990s, when a defrocked minister began spreading conspiracy theories. But how is it that ordinary, sensible Canadians seemed willing to accept these same preposterous, and deeply anti-Catholic, stories?
Will future historians see this strange episode as some kind of mass hysteria?
Brian Giesbrecht, retired judge, is a senior fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy