Humans are hard-wired to function in groups. But it's a double-edged sword -- it takes a lot of us to build a city, but as anyone who has ever witnessed a riot can attest, people's ability to act like idiots also multiplies in crowds.
And this phenomenon can manifest itself in really weird and even fatal ways. That's how we wound up with bizarre stories like ...
5The June Bug Disease
In 1962, some workers in an American textile factory came down with a mysterious infection that caused numbness, dizziness and vomiting. Basically, it had all the symptoms of a bad flu. But workers said it was no flu -- the sickness was the result of a sudden infestation of mysterious venomous insects. If you got bitten, you got sick.
"The only cure is a 30 percent raise and an additional 10 personal days per employee."
You can imagine the effect this news had on the factory floor -- the moment people heard that venomous bugs were crawling everywhere (and that there could be one IN YOUR HAIR RIGHT NOW), they freaked the hell out. But they were powerless to stop the plague -- soon, a whopping 62 employees were sickened by "the June bug disease," and a bunch of them even had to be hospitalized due to the attacks from these weaponized insects.
There was only one problem: No such bug was ever discovered in the factory, or anywhere else. They never existed. The venomous June bug was completely fictional.
If this thing has any poison, we're pretty sure it ends up smeared on the outside of your light bulbs.
What Really Happened?
In reality, the workers of the factory succumbed to a phenomenon known as hysterical contagion. It's a neat little trick of the mind that causes the body to react physically to things like stress and peer pressure, often manifesting in the form of nausea and other symptoms of illness.
And it's shockingly common. In 2006, 300 students in 14 separate schools in Portugal came down with similar symptoms after an episode of a popular teen soap opera called Strawberries With Sugar featured a plot about a mysterious and deadly virus outbreak (don't all teen soaps rehash that trope sooner or later?).
"Ebola will eat all our pretty faces! Yaaaaay!"
Or you may have heard about the notorious Pokemon epilepsy scare, in which blinking lights in an episode of the cartoon triggered nausea and vomiting in hundreds of Japanese kids. The original reported cases might have been real, but in the end, the number of kids reporting attacks was many times greater than the actual portion of the population that has sensitivity to flashing lights. At some point, healthy kids started convincing themselves they were having the seizures.
"Y-y-yeah, th-this is how J-j-japan enjoys th-things. You w-wouldn't understand."
Of course, it would be different if we were talking about symptoms like, say, blood shooting from your eyes -- it's hard for your body to spontaneously cause that due to peer pressure. But we all know that certain symptoms can be caused by a fear or stress reaction -- nausea, headaches, dizziness, hives -- and if the thing you're scared of supposedly causes those symptoms, you've got all of the makings of a very imaginary yet real disease. And it gets weirder ...
4The Fort Worth Perfume Panic
In 2009, a strange smell began wafting through a Fort Worth call center that someone quickly recognized as a poisonous carbon monoxide leak. Soon, people started dropping like flies from chest pains, headaches, dizziness and breathing difficulties. The building was evacuated, and at the end of the day, 34 people were hospitalized and another 110 treated at the scene.
The only problem was there was no gas leak to be found, and there were no abnormal traces of carbon monoxide in the air. Also, carbon monoxide is odorless.
Skunks will maul you to death if you're not prepared.
Eventually, someone worked out that the strange odor that people were complaining about was ... perfume.
Someone had applied their Chanel No. 5 a little generously that morning, and the resulting Fort Worth perfume panic claimed over a hundred victims.
Other symptoms included soft focus and bizarre voice-overs.
What Really Happened?
Apparently, there is such a thing as contagious fear, and it works like this: If something smells suspicious and someone speculates that the smell might be, say, poisonous gas, everyone freaks the hell out. And not just in the average "Oh shit, did I leave the oven on?" way, but their mind actually lures the body to join in the panic train. This can and often does lead to actual physical symptoms.
"Jane gets a whole week off of work? I wish I had stage 3 syphilis."
In the case of Fort Worth, the whole incident was eventually traced back to two employees who started complaining about a co-worker's perfume being so strong that it made them dizzy. Someone overheard and made a slight misinterpretation of the statement, and the whole building got to experience an exciting crisis situation firsthand. Although we suspect they won't be telling this one to their grandchildren.
"You great-great-great grandfather may have served in World War II, but that is nothing compared to this."