moral panic

Mass Hysteria & Moral Panic: The Dancing Plagues and #Momo


“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” - President Franklin Roosevelt

Human beings are social animals with conventions and norms. Yet sometimes we act in ways that defy logic or reason. Very often the inspiration for this is fear. In this week’s blog I’ve looked at the ‘Dancing Plagues’ of the Middle Ages and the ‘Momo Challenge’ of last month and how they illustrate the power of fear over people. In a previous blog I wrote about the importance of being accurate with psychiatric diagnosis and so I’m also going to use them as examples of the difference between mass hysteria and moral panic.

In 1374 in Aachen along the River Rhine in what is now Germany locals suddenly started dancing. They didn’t stop. They couldn’t stop. Justus Hecker, an 18th century physician researched the phenomenon and described it as:

“They formed circles hand in hand, and appearing to have lost all control over their senses, continued dancing, regardless of the bystanders, for hours together, in wild delirium, until at length they fell to the ground in a state of exhaustion. They then complained of extreme oppression, and groaned as if in the agonies of death, until they were swathed in cloths bound tightly round their waists, upon which they again recovered, and remained free from complaint until the next attack.”

The dancing spread to Liege, Utrecht, Tongres and other towns in the Netherlands and Belgium, up and down the Rhine river. It was known as St. John’s Dance or St. Vitus’ Dance as these saints were blamed for causing the ‘disease’.

In July 1518, this time in Strasbourg, a woman known as Frau Troffea started dancing and carried on for 4 to 6 days. By the end of the week 34 people had joined her and at the end of month 400 people were dancing. It didn’t stop. It seemed contagious. Local authorities initially thought that the people just needed to get the dancing out of their systems and so organised musicians to encourage dancing. It didn’t work. Dozens collapsed and died out of exhaustion.

The ‘Dancing Plagues’ continued to occur randomly throughout medieval Europe. It’s still a mystery why so many people acted in such a bizarre way. Possession was blamed but exorcisms had no effect. Doctors at the time wondered if the stars or even spider bites were to blame. Various different theories have since been put forward such as encephalitis which can cause delirium and hallucinations or poisoning of grain by the ergot fungus. None completely explain all the symptoms. There may have been an element of religious demonstration but that doesn’t explain how the dancing seemed contagious.

It may be that ‘Dancing Mania’ was due to mass hysteria.

Mass hysteria is a "conversion disorder," in which a person has physiological symptoms affecting the nervous system in the absence of a physical cause of illness, and which may appear in reaction to psychological distress.

It has been suggested that mass hysteria has 5 principles:

  1. "it is an outbreak of abnormal illness behavior that cannot be explained by physical disease"

  2. "it affects people who would not normally behave in this fashion"

  3. "it excludes symptoms deliberately provoked in groups gathered for that purpose," such as when someone intentionally gathers a group of people and convinces them that they are collectively experiencing a psychological or physiological symptom

  4. "it excludes collective manifestations used to obtain a state of satisfaction unavailable singly, such as fads, crazes, and riots"

  5. "the link between the [individuals experiencing collective obsessional behavior] must not be coincidental," meaning, for instance, that they are all part of the same close-knit community

In 1374 Europe was still recovering from the Black Death of 1347-1351. The people of Strasbourg in 1518 had suffered a famine. At a time where disease and famine were the preserve of God’s wrath perhaps the stress of potential apocalypse manifested itself in a a plague of dancing.

If you think that mass hysteria is confined to the dark pre-Renaissance ages you’d be very wrong. In 1999 26 school children in Belgium fell ill after drinking cans of Coca Cola. After this was reported in the news more students in other schools also fell ill. Coca Cola withdrew nearly 30 million cans from the market as about 100 people eventually complained of feeling unwell after drinking their product. Except when they were examined nothing organically wrong could be found and the students had drunk cans from different factories.

Professor Simon Wessely, the former president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, has written a lot about mass hysteria and is clear: mass hysteria does not make a person insane. The patient thinks they are unwell and communicate that illness. This brings us to moral panic and #Momo.


If you’ve been anywhere near social media the past month chances are you heard about Momo or ‘The Momo Challenge’. These were posts, shared widely, warning about a character called Momo who has started appearing in online videos aimed at children threatening them and encouraging them to perform acts of violence against themselves and others. It led to widespread discussion and warnings from authorities:

Except it wasn’t real. There is no evidence of Momo or any character infiltrating videos of Pepper Pig and inspiring children to hurt themselves. This obsession over an imaginary character was been traced to a solitary post in America warning about Momo. Over the following month there was an exponential growth of interest into this imaginary threat. Charities warned that the fear mongering would actually do more harm than good.

Guardian graphic. Source: Google trends. Numbers represent search interest

Guardian graphic. Source: Google trends. Numbers represent search interest

Professor Wessely defines moral panic as the “phenomenon of masses of people becoming distressed about a perceived — usually unreal or exaggerated — threat portrayed in catastrophising terms by the media“. Like mass hysteria there’s a threat. Unlike mass hysteria people don’t believe themselves to be unwell. The sociologist Stanley Cohen described four stages of moral panic in response to a perceived threat:

  1. The threat is then depicted in a simple and recognizable symbol/form by the media

  2. The portrayal of this symbol rouses public concern

  3. There is a response from authorities and policy makers

  4. The moral panic over the issue results in social changes within the community

Look at these four steps and then the graph above. #Momo illustrates moral panic perfectly. It also brilliantly illustrates how misinformation and as a result panic can be spread by social media. Moral panic is the result of fears the ‘threat’ poses to our way of life. It is therefore a powerful tool by the far right. Watch how Donald Trump and his supporters spread inaccurate information about illegal immigrants to push their border wall agenda.

The world is a scary place and as a species we instinctively fear the unknown especially when our way of life or our lives themselves are believed to be at risk. The panic at Oxford Street, London last December where gun shots were reported is believed to be due to a ‘perfect storm’ of fear over terrorism and violence. People panicked when a fight broke out. Next thing hundreds of shoppers were running and their imagination took over. What’s worse is when that fear is used to ostracise whole groups of people. The Witch Trials of Salem, on which both mass hysteria and moral panic have been blamed, is a classic example of this. For all the drama caused what the #Momo phenomenon also shows is a potential solution to fear: knowledge and a measured response.

Thanks for reading

- Jamie