Mass hysteria presenting as a psychogenic movement disorder: A report with movie documentation by Van Gehuchten

Santiago GIMENEZ-ROLDAN1 and Geneviève AUBERT2
1Department of Neurology, Hospital General Universitario Gregorio Marañón, Madrid, Spain; 2Department of Neurology, Cliniques Universitaires Saint-Luc, Université Catholique de Louvain, Bruxelles, Belgium

Contemporary collective illnesses in Western countries is usually expressed as anxiety related to fear of HIV-infection among health-system personnel, “Pokemon contagion” versus photosensitive epilepsy, or concern on potential chemical and biological terrorist attacks. Outbreaks of bizarre motor behaviour nowadays are mostly restricted to some cultural groups in developing countries. The report of an episode of mass hysteria by Arthur Van Gehuchten (1861-1914) with movie documentation is a unique opportunity to study changing patterns of mass hysteria. Following the appearance of bizarre muscular jerks and walking unsteadiness in a 15-year old orphangirl, thirteen other female teenagers developed similar symptoms in the ensuing 2-3 weeks. Proximal and axial jerks, occasionally stimulus-sensitive, caused severe difficulty in walking. The attending physicians first suggested food poisoning, which was discarded afterwards. Later on they proposed a trip to the seashore which resulted incomplete resolution of the symptoms in a matter of hours. Although Van Gehutchen suggested hysterical chorea and hysterical tachycardia, the current label would probably be psychogenic myoclonus. Rather than “epidemic hysteria”, this outbreak should be better viewed nowadays as an unfashionable way of expressing collective exaggerated emotions.

Session XIII -- Movement Disorders
Tuesday, 29 June 2004, 2:00 pm

Ninth Annual Meeting of the International Society for the History of the Neurosciences (ISHN)

Montreal, Quebec, Canada