through the 1800s, it wasn't uncommon for groups of cloistered nuns to go into strange, unexplained fits of bizarre behavior - cursing, exposing themselves and the like - that was interpreted as demonic possession. These episodes often ended with accusations of witchcrafts and beheadings.
Today, researchers call these events "mass hysteria" and no longer attribute
them to supernatural forces. Yet the phenomenon of "mass hysteria" is alive and well, they say.
For instance, a paper in the August issue of the
journal Archives of Neurology described a group of about 10 students at a small North Carolina high school who recently experienced odd fits similar to seizures or panic attacks. Yet the attacks had features uncharacteristic of seizures: for instance, students recovered too slowly, and attacks subsided when the students were far apart, as during holidays.
The events were deeply upsetting to the school community and in one case contributed to the divorce of the parents of an affected student, wrote the researchers, with Wake Forest University School of Medicine, N.C. Brain scans revealed the students' symptoms were real, the researchers said, and although the explanation remains elusive, clinicians and the public need to be aware of the phenomenon in order to reduce strain on communities and the number of incorrect diagnoses.