Mass Panics That Look Waaaay Different In Retrospect

The world is full of terrifying things, but the human brain isn't always the best at figuring out what it should actually be afraid of. And, because we're a social species, dumb judgement calls can spread in a hurry. We're not saying that any of the following panics were proof that the victims were stupid. We're just saying that, while understandable at the time, retrospect has made them hilarious.

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4
A Possible Bioterror Follow-up To 9/11 Was Actually Seasonal Dry Skin

In the aftermath of 9/11, there was an intense fear of additional terrorist attacks against the United States. Chemical weapons were a particular concern, because countries like Iraq were famously just full of 'em. So in late 2001, when parents in 27 states started noticing rashes on their kids, they came to a very logical conclusion: biological warfare.

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At any other time, the CDC probably would have laughed their concerns off. But the 2001 anthrax attacks had also just happened and, in one case, the seven-month-old son of an ABC producer tested positive for anthrax after visiting dad at the office. The symptom that tipped off his parents was a rash.

Rashes were reported all over the bodies of students, and they lasted anywhere from a few hours to a few weeks. Was Al-Qaeda following up their destruction of a symbol of American power by irritating midwestern teenagers? Eventually, the CDC reached a conclusion: a heightened fear of terrorism made parents and teachers hyperaware of any kind of skin problem. Some of the cases could be chalked up to a minor virus called fifth disease, other kids were suffering from dry skin caused by winter weather or overheated classrooms, and some clever little bastards started rubbing themselves with sandpaper to get out of school. A few cases were likely psychogenic and, when schools started taking minor rashes less seriously, those rashes stopped spreading. Devastated students needed a whole day to think of a different excuse to get out of class.

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1899's Kissing Bug Epidemic Gave Us Fake Bug Attacks And Bad Poetry

On June 20, 1899, the Washington Post published a story about the bite of a strange new bug. Victims would wake up with "both eyes nearly closed by the swelling." Then, fever and poison-like symptoms would appear. No one had seen the bug; it only attacked at night, and the bite itself was painless. But, after a few weeks, the bug had caused deaths. In one case, the death certificate specifically stated the cause as "sting of a kissing bug."

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Between June and July there were more than sixty newspaper articles about the bites. Then it jumped from a disease to a full-blown trend. People wore bug images on jewelry, it appeared in political cartoons, and kissing bug encounters were used as legal defenses. It was so big that someone wrote a goofy poem about the insect in the middle of an ostensible epidemic.

"Swift, with undiscerning glee

Through the land he goes,

Kissing one upon the lips

Or the chin or nose...

Some of us well know they worth,

Gay philanthropist,

Some of us who but for thee,

Never would be kissed."

Remember, as far as anyone knew this was a deadly disease. It would be like writing a cutesy ode to the coronavirus or tuberculosis (oh wait, people did that too). And as the bug's fame grew, so did the bullshit stories. One "victim" claimed the bug that attacked him had "a head like a rat and two long fangs." Another said it was six inches long, like no one had heard that claim before.

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It soon became obvious that exaggerations were rampant, and in August a doctor wrote a New York Times article arguing that the epidemic was mostly manufactured. Mysterious bites had been turned into horror stories, making people worry that bites from mosquitoes or other harmless bugs would be deadly.

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There was a sliver of truth: the good doctor wrote that, since summer temperatures in the northeast were warmer than normal, the actual kissing bug could thrive. Triatoma infestans, its less Pixar-y name, can carry a parasite that causes Chagas disease, a nasty little illness that induces fever. Then, eight to 12 weeks later, chronic pain sets in, and if left untreated organ failure will ensue a mere 10 to 30 years down the line. Oh, and Chagas disease hadn't been discovered yet. While it probably explains some of the panic's credible cases, we just can't know for sure. Kissing bugs can still be a problem today, but they're not big enough that they can put a top hat and tails on before sucking you dry.

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2
A Portuguese Epidemic Was Caused By A TV Show

In May 2006, 300 Portuguese teenagers developed mysterious rashes and struggled to breathe. Freaked out parents called government officials, and an investigation was ordered into a possible attack of Super Puberty. Doctors soon realised that, outside of some seasonal allergies, most of the kids were completely fine. But the kids were convinced they were sick, and the symptoms seemed to be genuine. Was it just the most epic senior prank since we turned our lockers into beer kegs?

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It turned out the disease was linked to two things: final exams, and a new episode of the hit teen drama Morangos com Acucar (Strawberries with Sugar). The show followed sexy high school students through romantic escapades and crazy plot twists, so basically it's a Portuguese Riverdale. An episode featured a life-threatening virus sweeping through the fictional high school, and its symptoms were the same as this real-life mystery illness.

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Experts believe the TV show combined with the stress of final exams to produce anxiety attacks and paranoia. The technical term is a mass psychogenic illness, which is essentially the opposite of the placebo effect in that people think their health is getting worse despite a lack of evidence. Because parents generally don't like to believe that their kids are struggling mentally, a non-existent physical illness is blamed. Then, the idea of an illness spreads. Well, either that or it really was the most incredible senior prank ever.

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1
A Secret Soviet Chemical Weapon Was Just Bee Feces

Humanity needs to change the narrative about bees. For example, if your uncle is always making Facebook posts with Einstein's quote about how if bees disappeared we'd only have four years left to live, you can go tell him that quote is full of shit. Bees are too. So much so, in fact, that it caused a chemical weapon panic.

Like your uncle's issues, it all goes back to Vietnam. The Hmong people fought with the French against the Communists, then were recruited by the CIA for Operation We'll Totally Fare Way Better In Vietnam Than France Did. So when America lost the Vietnam War and left the country, the Hmong were in a world of shit (metaphorical at this point). Many were forced to flee to refugee camps in Thailand and, around this time, people in Vietnam and Laos noticed that on bright, sunny days a yellow substance would rain down on them. This rain would kill plants, sicken people, and generally look gross.

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After an investigation, the US concluded the rain was a Soviet chemical weapon made of fungal toxins. The Soviets were accused of giving the weapon to Hanoi to use on the Hmong and, to be fair, America would know best when it came to spotting chemical weapon attacks on Vietnamese civilians. The US accused the Soviet Union of breaking just, like, a ton of international laws, the Soviets denied every part of it, and the last thing the Cold War needed was a feud over mysterious biological warfare.

Then Matt Meselson, a Harvard biologist, analysed some yellow rain samples and found that it was non-toxic and primarily made up of hollowed-out pollen native to Southeast Asia. While pollen would be an incredibly inefficient way to deliver a chemical weapon, the area's bees loved eating it. In other words, Meselson concluded that the rain was bee shit. Precisely why the bees were producing enough feces on sunny days to emulate rain has a lengthy biological explanation that you can read about or get a summary of in a weird Bee Movie deleted scene, but the real cause of the illnesses was malnutrition, dysentery, and all the other fun side-effects of lengthy wars. Meselson's accurate but not intensely anti-Communist enough explanation prompted nasty arguments, and years of persecution understandably made the Hmong reluctant to believe it. So yeah, not everyone is going to miss the bees when they disappear.

Top Image: Fir0002/Flagstaffotos/Wikimedia Commons

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