Hair-raising stuff: Mass hysteria is killing people in India

Arthur Miller’s 1953 play The Crucible is a dramatized and partially fictive story of the Salem witch trials that took place in the Massachusetts Bay Colony during 1692/3. But how is some play that you were forced to study at GCSE related to anything going on today, I hear you (rightfully) ask?

Well, the play serves as an allegory for McCarthyism, which takes its name from U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy, and has its origins in the period in the United States known as the Second Red Scare – in this period the United States government ostracized people for being communists. McCarthyism has subsequently become a term used to refer to the practice of making accusations of subversion or treason without proper regard for evidence.

In the McCarthy era, suspicions were often given credence despite inconclusive or questionable evidence, and the level of threat posed by a person’s associations with communism or communist persons was often greatly exaggerated. The playwright Arthur Miller was one of those questioned and convicted after he refused to identify others present at meetings he had attended. Many of those taken in for questioning lost their jobs and/or were blacklisted, and hundreds were imprisoned.

One of the catalysts for McCarthyism was mass hysteria – a phenomenon that transmits collective illusions of threats, whether real or imaginary, through a population in society as a result of rumours and fear (memory acknowledgment). Mass hysteria feeds on fear, and in the years 1947-1956 fear of Communist Russia was severe. With this in mind, it’s easy to see how Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible is an allegory for McCarthy era America; the manipulative character Abigail uses mass hysteria as a weapon which she can use to further her own selfish goals. In the play, neighbours suddenly turn on each other and accuse people they’ve known for years of practicing witchcraft and devil-worship – and Abigail’s plan to get Elizabeth Proctor out of the way of her affair with John Proctor falls into place.

The history lesson is all very well and good, I hear you say, but what has it got to do with the world today?

Well, the psychological phenomenon of mass hysteria is still alive and kicking, especially if the recent hair ‘thefts’ in India are anything to go by. Over 50 women in the northern Indian states of Haryana and Rajasthan have reported that they have had their hair chopped off while they were unconscious. Various women have described their attacker, with the descriptions of the figure ranging from an old man, to a cat that took the form of a woman. But what connects these bizarre cases? The police are currently investigating the complaints, although there have been no clues found at the crime scenes, and the medical tests of the victims have revealed nothing abnormal.

Several academics and commentators have described the events as a case of mass hysteria, similar to incidents in 2001 when people reported being attacked by a “monkey man” in Delhi, and in 2006, when thousands started travelling to a popular beach in Mumbai after hearing rumours that the sea water had miraculously turned sweet – claims that turned out to be false. Rationalist Sanal Edamaruku told the BBC that he believed that these cases were a classic example of “mass hysteria”. “There is no miracle or supernatural force behind all this. Women who have reported these cases must be going through some internal psychological conflict,” he says. “When they hear about such incidents, they end up replicating it – sometimes even subconsciously.”

Arthur Miller’s moralising play uses the Salem witch hunts as a vehicle to warn against pointing fingers without sufficient evidence, but this literary warning against scapegoating is clearly not a useful instructional text in the deeply superstitious communities where these ‘thefts’ are taking place. In India there are large areas of the country where belief in witchcraft and devils is still common, a fact epitomized by the death of one 65-year-old woman, who was beaten by a mob who believed her to be a witch responsible for the recent ‘hair thefts’.

In the wake of such tragic loss of life it becomes increasingly clear that the authorities in India have an important role to play in mitigating the effects of these hysterical outbursts. Gurgaon police spokesperson Ravinder Kumar recently announced that police from different districts are working together to “make some sense” of these incidents. “Only the victims say that they have seen or felt the presence of attackers. We will get to the bottom of these cases, but until then, I urge people to not believe in rumours,” he says.

Whilst plea not to participate in rumour-spreading is certainly admirable, the idea that police in the various states are talking about these ‘hair thefts’ as if they are genuine crimes is perhaps only adding fuel to the fire. If authorities in India were more vocal about acknowledging the phenomenon of mass hysteria, and educating people about the reasons why individuals might be inclined to consciously or unconsciously claim to have been affected (such as insecurity, need for attention etc.) by similar crimes, it seems likely that they would see a significant reduction in the number of people filing police reports, finding themselves with more time to deal with the genuine crimes taking place across the country.

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