Mass Hysteria and Hypnosis

Mass hysteria is a very real thing and every once in awhile it rears its ugly head in the form of a group of young people exhibiting odd or unusual behavior. Sometimes this relates to seeing things or feeling the symptoms of illnesses or the like.

Not long ago, there were a number of cases of teens coming down with symptoms of a strange new disease that had no obvious physical cause. It was finally discovered that a popular character on a very popular teen television program had come down with a fictional disease, the symptoms of which were exactly what the kids – who were fans – were exhibiting.

Of course, one of the most obvious and most famous cases of mass hysteria would be the danse macabre which is often conflated with the St. Vitus’ Dance phenomena of a few folks being caught up with dance and unable to stop and the dancing infecting others who are caught up until you have as many as 400 people dancing and dancing unable to stop, jerking and dancing until they die. The historical accounts vary on this but it seems that while the standard accepted theory is to posit mass hysteria, there are folks who suggest it may have been Sydenhams Chorea or ergot poisoning rather mass hysteria. John Waller, a British historian of medicine and author of the book on the subject, A Time to Dance, a Time to Die, comes down on the side of mass hysteria. Personally, I suspect it’s a bit of one added to a lot of the other. Keep in mind:

“This was not the first outbreak of compulsive dancing in Europe. In fact, there had been as many as ten dancing epidemics before 1518, one in 1374 engulfing many of the towns of modern day Belgium, north-eastern France and Luxembourg.”


Mass hysteria is still alive and well and operating in various places all over the planet. Young people seem to be particularly susceptible but it certainly can infect pretty much anyone.

It seems to be mass hysteria fueling a recent bout of fainting spells in Cambodia in which a group of students and one teacher passed out in a woodsy garden en masse. Presence of noxious fumes seems to have been ruled out by the authorities aren’t looking at emotional or psychological triggers which seem likely. Instead, the official ruling is that trees in and around the area robbed the air of oxygen which causes the children to pass out:

A day after 136 students collapsed at a Kompong Cham high school while standing at attention as punishment for not showing deference to the national flag, the local police chief offered a unique explanation for the mass fainting – trees. According to the hospital’s analysis, the reason why the students fainted is [because of] the huge tree in the school compound and the farmland surrounding the school, which absorbed the oxygen,” said Heng Meng, police chief of Chamkar Leu district, adding that the punishment could not be blamed as one of the teachers “also [had difficulty breathing] and felt dizzy.” A doctor from the local hospital, Iv Then, said that based on his examination, the lack of oxygen was due to an abundance of trees, which trapped the oxygen, adding that the first four or five students fainted because they were standing under the school’s large medicinal oil tree.

Ain’t critical thinking grand? While I could see someone coming up with a theory of excess oxygen because of the trees, the oxygen-stealing-tree scenario doesn’t pan out (unless you consider that perhaps loggers and developers are looking for another excuse to deforest the area.

See for more. No, it’s not a re-enactment of the film The Happening.

Of interest to those of us who are hypnotists is a recent story out of Columbia where a high school in Mocoa, Colombia, hired hypnotist Miller Zambrano Posada to entertain a group of 590 youths for a student fun day only to have a group of kids go into communal hysteria after returning to their classroom. The Hispanically Speaking news gives this account:

Magician Miller Zambrano Posada was taken into custody after 41 students went into hypnotic trance after his show in Mocoa, Colombia. A Mocoa, Colombia high school’s “fun day,” complete with circus acts, clowns and the much awaited hypnotism act turned awry after several kids went into a mass panic attack and had to be taken to the hospital.

In what was supposed to be the highlight of this “fun day,” 590 high school students paid 700 pesos (about $0.40) to witness a few of their class mates obey several harebrained suggestions given by a hypnotist magician.

Twelve kids were called to the stage, and then four were returned to their seats; the remaining eight were put into trance by Zambrano with hand movements, deep eye contact and a monotone voice.
Zambrano made them lift their arms, walk in circles, cry like babies, laugh hysterically, bark like dogs, act like chickens and whatnot. Students laughed and clapped at the end of the show and when Zambrano left the stage, the students were ushered back to their classrooms.

Suddenly, as the students walked back, several students developed bizarre symptoms. Police at the scene reported some of the students were crying, others dived into the ground for no reason, others hit their chest with their palms. One girl went as far as to scream that she was seeing the devil, and before too long a larger group of kids went into a mass panic attack.

Strangely enough, only one of the 36 girls and 5 boys affected, had shared the stage with the hypnotist, who was put in police custody as parents, students and a few teachers were accusing him of witchcraft.
Doctor William Orlando Galarza, director of the José María Hernández hospital where the kids were taken, said that to different degrees, all children presented symptoms of collective hypnosis.

Most kids have been released from the hospital and only one had to be readmitted.

The mortified Zambrano told police that he has been doing this very act for many years in different places, and it is the first time something like this happened.


Note that despite headlines, only one of the children affected was actually formally hypnotized. While certainly the hypnotist’s setlist sounds like one that is asking for trouble (performing for kids and including a gag that causes the volunteers to cry is usually frowned upon – personally, I avoid the crying gag as I see no reason to take a risk of abreaction). Abreactions are extremely rare but it seems a good idea to minimize the possibility in the gag choice.

The visions of demonic influences that some children reported seems that the hysteria has more to do with religious beliefs and priming than with the actual hypnosis show – particularly since the reactions (which are certainly in line with ecstatic or evangelical spiritual practices rather than hypnosis shows) occurred on the way back to class and no where near the venue of the actual show.

It seems much more likely that while it appears from reports that the hypnotist could have had a tighter more controlled set list, he is not directly at cause for the reactions of the students – particularly since most of them, that is the vast majority, did not participate in the show. It seems more likely this is a case of a primed hysteric outbreak where all the conditions for a mass hysteric reaction are in place and the hypnosis was simply the trigger due to religious or cultural pre-misconceptions and a primed imaginative experience. Interestingly, a religious leader could have inspired the exact same response and the tone of the news or investigation would likely have been very different.

Here’s a video report of the story:

Note, that no hypnosis is shown in the video.

The children were given prompt medical care and screening including hydration and epilepsy control (for the kids who were having what appeared to be seizures – something that no reputable hypnosis show would induce but occurs frequently in certain spiritual settings such as apostolic revivals common to the area). The hypnotist was taken into custody but I doubt that anyone will be able to connect the case to negligence, although one never knows, critical thinking and investigation being what they are (of course, if he is negligent, there isn’t enough information in the news stories to determine it as the implication in a number of blogs seems to be that since he’s a hypnotist he must be doing something unholy or diabolical – albeit a few news sources do just stick to the facts at hand, albeit often with a slant to sell pages).

A total of 42 Colombian students taking part in a hypnotism show at a school in the southwestern city of Mocoa were unable to come out of a trance and suffered an attack of mass hysteria, school officials told Efe on Friday.

The principal of the Mocoa City Educational Institution, Daniel Mora, said that “30 or 40 minutes after the end of the show, which also included clowns and jugglers, the students were back in their classrooms, when suddenly they all started yelling at the same time.”

The institution’s psychologist was immediately called and the school welcomed the support of some 10 psychologists and psychiatrists dispatched by public health authorities to help the children.

In a preliminary diagnosis, the psychologists decided that what they were seeing was a mass-hysteria syndrome, so the students were taken to the nearby Jose Maria Hernandez Hospital.

There “they were given first aid, hydration and epilepsy control,” hospital deputy director Monica Guerrero told Efe, adding that it was unnecessary to prescribe any medical treatment for them.

“Of the 42 children, 36 of those attended were either unconscious, showed signs of nervousness or, in two cases, had symptoms of epilepsy,” Guerrero said.

She also said that once they were admitted they were put under the care of the hospital’s psychology department, which diagnosed “collective neurosis induced by the hypnosis event.”

All those affected were gradually released on the same day, while the supposed magician, Miller Zambrano Posada, was taken into custody pending possible charges.


Note that some news sources are reporting 75 kids while others say 41 and others 30 as being affected (Huffington Post gives both the 75 and 41 numbers). There is also confusion as to if the students who had negative reactions came from one class who went back to their classroom or they were randomly spread out among the 590 who attended. Yes, the vast vast vast majority of folks in attendance had NO ill effects and those who did had their response thirty to forty-five minutes after the hypnosis act was finished. The assumption is that it is the hypnotist’s suggestions that caused the issue but there were magicians, clowns, and jugglers as well.

It does seem clear that this is a case of mass hysteria . . . but the hypnosis connection once again brings hypnotists into a bad light simply via guilt by association. This sort of thing is extremely rare . . . so rare that it never happens to most professional hypnotists within their career and if it were to happen on premises, a competent hypnotist would be able to interrupt the response, assuming it has anything at all to do with the experience of the show. Certainly, folks who studied their basic hypnosis skills with me know the magick words that stop abreactions in their track.

All the best,

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