by Robert E. Bartholomew
With the exception of the 1938 Martian panic triggered by the Orson Welles radio dramatization of War of the Worlds, Mattoon, Illinois, probably holds the distinction of hosting the most widely discussed twentieth-century mass delusion in the United Statesat least among those who specialize in studying such phenomena. During August 1944, numerous Mattoon residents claimed to have been attacked by a mysterious gasser who temporarily made his victims ill. In recent years a few authors have even claimed that the mad gasser of Mattoon was either a paranormal entity or involved a real prowler or gasser who sparked the incident. However, these claims have been made without a full understanding of the context of the episode, and basic theories of social psychology. In this way, the Mattoon gasser incident resembles mass sightings of imaginary airships over the state of Illinois during 1897.1 To persons unaware of basic social psychology and the context of the airship wave, it may seem perfectly logical that the airships were actually flying saucers misperceived by a populous influenced by the popular media, and expecting to see airships. In fact, many UFO researchers hold this position.A Thumbnail Sketch of the Mattoon Gasser
Virtually every student of collective behavior classes has heard of the Mattoon episode, which is easily the most widely cited case of mass hysteria over the past fifty years. Shortly after it first appeared as an article in a 1945 issue of the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, the case quickly became recognized as a classic. It has been cited in the vast majority of introductory social psychology and sociology textbooks that contain discussions of collective behavior, and most books devoted solely to collective behavior.2
It was near midnight on Thursday, August 31, 1944, when Mattoon police received a phone call from a woman and her daughter who claimed that they had been attacked by a figure lurking in the shadows near their home. After they opened a bedroom window, the house was reportedly sprayed with a sweet-smelling sickish gas that left them nauseated and dizzy. The mother also said she experienced a slight, temporary paralysis in her legs. Police investigated but found no evidence of the intruder. Two hours later police again rushed to the house after the woman's husband, upon returning home, saw a suspicious man running from near the window where the original incident had occurred. Again police found nothing unremarkable.
On September 2, the editors of the Mattoon Daily Journal-Gazette published the headlines: "Anesthetic Prowler on Loose." After reading the story, two Mattoon families contacted police with similar accounts of being gassed in their homes just before the incident. Over the next several days, police were inundated with numerous gassing claims, which tailed off and ceased altogether after September 12.3 During the first two weeks of September, Mattoon police received a total of 25 separate reports involving 27 females and two males claiming to have been sprayed with the enigmatic incapacitating gas by someone who became widely referred to as "the phantom anesthetist" and "the mad gasser of Mattoon." Johnson described the series of reports as an episode of mass hysteria, noting that 93 per cent of the "victims" were females of low socioeconomic status who were uncritical in evaluating the situation, and concluding that they were exhibiting hysterical conversion reactions. The transient symptoms reported by those "gassed" were limited to nausea, vomiting, dry mouth, palpitations, difficulty walking, and in one instance, a burning sensation in the mouth. These symptoms can be accounted for by anxiety generated by "gasser" publicity, while a series of early cases involved the redefinition of mundane physical reactions that would have ordinarily gone unnoticed, but were subsequently attributed to the phantom anesthetist. Johnson provides two examples of this latter process.4
Illinois Sociologist David L. Miller re-examined the original Mattoon Daily Journal-Gazette press reports and uncovered some interesting findings. Miller said that several newsmen who came to cover the episode reported headaches that they believed had been caused by the gasser, yet they were not counted as victims because of their gender. Miller also found that during several "attacks," husbands were accompanying their wives, and while both described suffering from the effects of the gas, only wives were counted as victims, casting suspicion on the presence of epidemic hysteria. Why is this important? Because Johnson confirmed the presence of conversion disorder (epidemic hysteria) by observing that most victims were female (females are supposedly more prone to experiencing hysteria, but this claim remains contentious among most sociologists and feminists, for reasons too detailed to go into here). Miller also noted that in the light of these points, the media initially defined women as the perceived targets, which may have contributed to a self-fulfilling prophesy. Consequently, following the initial sensational case and subsequent police search for the gasser which received spectacular newspaper coverage, residents, especially women, may have reinterpreted mundane occurrences such as nocturnal shadows, chemical odors from numerous local factories, and anxiety states.Mass Delusion or Mass Hysteria?
Before continuing, it is necessary to clarify between the terms mass hysteria and collective delusion. These are two separate entities that are often used interchangeably by scientists and the public at-large. Mass hysteria (also referred to as epidemic hysteria, contagious hysteria and mass psychogenic illness) involves the spontaneous, pathological spread of conversion symptoms. "Hysteria" is an ambiguous terms that has been used to describe no less than ten distinct individual behavioral abnormalities, including psychogenic pain disorder, the histrionic personality, and types of psychosis.5 It involves the impairment or loss of sensory or motor function which has no organic basis.6 The more modern name for hysteria is "conversion disorder," a term widely used by physicians, psychiatrists, psychoanalysts, and psychologists. An example would be a marine who is deeply opposed to killing, whose arm becomes temporarily paralyzed when attempting to fire a gun in a war setting. "Epidemic hysteria" refers to the rapid spread of conversion symptoms within a particular collection of people.
In contrast, collective delusions are typically nonpathological and involve such normal processes as the rapid spread of false but plausible beliefs (rumors), conformity to group norms, and human perceptual fallibility. On occasion, participants in collective delusions may exhibit individual or epidemic conversion symptoms. Many social scientists do not include various imitative behaviors within charismatic religious groups as mass hysteria or conversion as it did not originate in an organized, ritualized or institutionalized manner.
Given the influential role of the Mattoon news media, it may be that victims were redefining mundane processes as gasser-related, such as a panic attack, chemical smell, ones leg "falling asleep," and various ambiguous physical consequences of anxiety such as nausea, insomnia, shortness of breath, shakiness, dry mouth, dizziness, etc.
It should also be emphasized that psychiatrists and medical practitioners typically use the word delusion to describe a persistent pathological belief associated with serious mental disturbance, usually psychosis. I use the term collective or mass delusion to describe the spontaneous, temporary spread of false beliefs in a given population. This is the way that most sociologists and social psychologists employ the term.7Why It Conforms to the Mass Hysteria/Mass Delusion Literature
Based on a review of the literature on epidemic hysteria and collective delusions, there are several key factors involved in triggering episodes. These include the presence of ambiguity, anxiety, the spread of rumors and false beliefs, and a redefinition of the potential threat from general and distant to specific and imminent. Exacerbating factors include the pivotal role of the mass media influence in spreading fears, the fallibility of human perception and memory reconstruction, recent geo-political events, and insufficient reassurances from authority figures such as community leaders or the representative of a local skeptics group (hopefully!), and institutions of social control such as the police and military.The Importance of Context
In my mind, the only mystery surrounding the mad gasser of Mattoon episode is the relatively minor question of whether it was a case of epidemic hysteria or mass delusion. Were the symptoms expressed by pseudo-victims the result of anxiety and a redefinition of mundane processes exacerbated by the mass media, or were they experiencing conversion reactions?
Could the case of the Mattoon episode have been initially triggered by a real prowler or phantom gasser, or could it have been caused by a paranormal entity as some have suggested? Theories involving a real prowler or gasser are highly speculative and made in ignorance of basic theories of social psychology (specifically, conformity dynamics, reality-testing, perceptual and memory fallibility), and a knowledge of the scientific literature on epidemic hysteria and collective delusions. And, of course, suggestions of the existence of a paranormal ghost-like entity gassing residents suffers from many drawbacks, not the least of which is the absence of credible, replicable evidence for the existence of a single paranormal event; thus they remain unproven.8 The mad gasser case may seem unique in the annals of mass behavior, but in reality it is just one in a long series of epidemic hysterias and mass delusions occurring during the twentieth century which coincide with heightened awareness of environmental pollution and chemical warfare concerns triggered by imaginary or exaggerated contamination threats. These are an especially common theme in epidemic hysteria cases.
The majority of epidemic hysteria reports during the present century share a single overwhelming triggeran unusual smell or odor being detected prior to the incident, in both enclosed groups9 and in community wide settings.10 This is the context in which the seemingly bizarre episode of the Mattoon gasser should be understood. The form only seems bizarre to those who are unfamiliar with the basic underlying elements, which are all too familiar.
[Robert E. Bartholomew is a Sociologist at James Cook University in Queensland, Australia. A frequent contributor to The Skeptical Inquirer, he is author of UFOs & Alien Contact: Two Centuries of Mystery (Prometheus, 1998), with Notre Dame Psychology Professor George Howard. It is a study of historical UFO waves, mass delusions, and abductee claims.]
"The Illinois UFO Mania of 1897: Why We Should be Leery of Modern-Day UFO Reports," The REALL News, March 1998, Vol. 6, #3.
Johnson, D.M. (1945), The "Phantom Anesthetist" of Mattoon: A Field Study of Mass Hysteria, Journal of Abnormal Psychology 40:175-186.
Miller, D.L. (1985), Introduction to Collective Behavior, Belmont, CA: Wadsworth. Without providing a specific source, Miller (p. 100) reports that there were occasional claims of gassings after that date.
Johnson, "The 'Phantom Anesthetist' of Mattoon," p. 176.
Kendell, R.E., & Zealley, A.K. (eds) (1993), Companion to Psychiatric Studies (fourth ed.), Churchill Livingstone: London.
Alloy, L.B., Acocella, J., and Bootzin, R. (1996), Abnormal Psychology: Current Perspectives (seventh edition), New York: McGraw-Hill, p. 584.
Bartholomew, R.E. (1997), "Collective Delusions: A Skeptic's Guide," Skeptical Inquirer, 21(3):29-33.
For an excellent discussion of paranormal phenomena from the standpoint of mainstream science, see: Zusne, L., and Jones, W.H. (1982). Anomalistic Psychology, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates; Alcock, J.E. (1981). Parapsychology: Science or Magic? A Psychological Perspective, Toronto: Pergamon Press. Both books are reader friendly and require no prior knowledge on the subject.
For a handful of many examples, see: Stahl, S., and Lebedun, M. (1974), "Mystery Gas: An Analysis of Mass Hysteria," Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 1974;15:44-50; Selden, B.S. (1989), "Adolescent Epidemic Hysteria Presenting as a Mass Casualty, Toxic Exposure Incident," Annals of Emergency Medicine, 18(8):892-895; Rockney, R.M., and Lemke, T. (1992), "Casualties from a Junior High School during the Persian Gulf War: Toxic Poisoning or Mass Hysteria?," Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics 13:339-342.
Colligan, M.J., and Murphy, L.R. (1982), "A Review of Mass Psychogenic Illness in Work Setting," pp. 33-52. In Mass Psychogenic Illness: A Social Psychological Analysis, M. Colligan, J. Pennebaker, and L. Murphy (eds.), New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. Modan B., Tirosh M., Weissenberg E., Acker C., Swartz T., Coston C., Donagi A., Revach M., Vettorazzi G. (1983), "The Arjenyattah Epidemic," Lancet, ii:1472-1476; Goldsmith, M.F. (1989), "Physicians with Georgia on their Minds," Journal of the American Medical Association, 262:603-604; McLeod, W.R. (1975), "Merphos Poisoning or Mass Panic?," Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 9:225-229; Christophers, A.J. (1982), "Civil Emergency Butyl Mercaptan Poisoning in the Parnell Civil Defence Emergency: Fact or Fiction," New Zealand Medical Journal, 95:277-278.