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6 of the best mass scares in history

We take a look at some of the best mass panics, hysteria and hoaxes in history.

MISERY LOVES COMPANY – and so does hysteria.

We’ve all experienced the phenomenon of other people intensifying our emotions or beliefs. Funny things seem funnier with a friend around, seeing someone cry sets you off, and righteous anger often sparks a mob.

But what about panic? Mass scares on a large scale have happened commonly throughout history. One person’s fears or ideas resonate – and suddenly hysteria descends or strange beliefs take hold.

Here are some of the best mass scares in history.

1. Dancing Plague of 1518

Also referred to as the Dancing Epidemic, this 1518  incident was a case of mass dancing mania that took place in Strasbourg. The outbreak began in July, with a woman dancing  in a street – which she continued to do for between four to six days.

Within a week, 34 others had joined. Within a month, there were 400 dancing. Some of these people eventually died from exhaustion, stroke and heart attacks.

Image: via Wikimedia Commons

Local physicians ruled out astrological or supernatural causes and declared that the dancing mania was a result of “hot blood”. Of course, in retrospect, it seems clear that this was a case of mass hysteria.

2. Halifax Slasher

The Halifax Slasher was an alleged attacker in a series of assaults in Halifax, England in 1938. The week-long scare started after two women claimed to have been attacked by a mysterious man with a mallet and “bright buckles” on his shoes. Further reports surfaced from others alleging attacks, and Scotland Yard were called in due to the severity of the situation.

Image: via Halifax Slasher

After more reports, one “victim” admitted that he had inflicted the slasher damage on himself. The others eventually made similar confessions and Scotland Yard concluded that there had been no real “Halifax Slasher” attacks whatsoever.

Five of the people involved in this mass scare were arrested, with four being sent to prison.

3. Mary Toft

Mary Toft was an English woman who caused quite a panic in the medical world in the early 1700s by tricking doctors into believing she had given birth to rabbits. Yes, rabbits.

Image: via Wikimedia Commons

Mary fooled many prominent doctors  - and she was referred to so many that she was eventually seen by the surgeon to the Royal Household of George I, who concluded that her case was genuine.

After Mary revealed she had been making the whole thing up, there was egg on the faces of the many distinguished medics who had confirmed her rabbit pregnancy. The medical profession was mocked by social satirists and critics and several careers were ruined. Mary was arrested and accused of fraud, but eventually released and allowed to return home with no charge.

4. Strawberries with Sugar virus

A hugely popular TV drama sparked mass panic in Portugal among teenagers in 2006. Characters in the programme, entitled Strawberries with Sugar, contracted a life-threatening virus.

300 or more students across 14 different schools reported similar symptoms to the fictional TV virus – including rashes, laboured breathing and dizziness.

Image: via Viki

The Portuguese National Institute for Medical Emergency eventually dismissed the supposed outbreak as mass hysteria.

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5. 2006 Mumbai sweet seawater incident

In Mumbai in 2006, residents claimed that water at Mahim Creek had suddenly turned sweet. Within mere hours, residents of Gujarat began to claim the seawater at Teethal beach had also turned sweet.

Rafiq Maqbool/AP/Press Association Images

This unusual claim sparked a mass scare, in which people came in their thousands to the two locations to taste the seawater. When the tide changed, the people said the sweetness went away and the panic died down.

6. The War of the Worlds

The most infamous mass panic of all wasn’t intentional. With his 1938 radio broadcast of the adapted drama The War of the Worlds, Orson Welles didn’t mean to alarm anyone.

However, many listeners who tuned into the alien invasion themed programme took it for a real news report rather than fiction. There was widespread panic and outrage after the broadcast, with the public feeling that they had been deliberately deceived.

Image: via Sceptical Teacher

But what if Orson Welles had been telling the truth? In recent years, we’ve all seen TV footage of massive tsunamis, terrorist attacks and global flu epidemics. What if we reporters told us zombies were real? And they actually were?

That’s the premise of forthcoming blockbuster World War Z, a story of a United Nations employee (played by Brad Pitt) who travels the globe trying to find a cure for the zombie pandemic. And it’s not fiction for Brad this time. World War Z hits cinemas on June 21, 2013. Check out the trailer below.

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