Mass psychogenic illness, or more spooky?

Jules Evans, from the Centre for the History of the Emotions, reviews new film The Falling.

The Falling, directed by Carol Morley, is centred on an epidemic of fainting at an English girls’ school in the 60s. Two teenage girls – Lydia and Abbie –  are best buddies, but then Abbie loses her virginity to a boy, leaving Lydia feeling abandoned and jealous. Abbie tries to explain what sex is like – ‘it’s a little death…it takes you to another place’…Lydia is desperate to escape into that other place. All is not right in her world – her dad ran off, her horny brother is into the occult, and her emotionally distant mother is agoraphobic.

Lydia then faints in a class, in a rather dramatic fashion, and soon other girls are following suit. Even a young art teacher succumbs to the spell. Are the girls faking it to get attention? Is it mass hysteria? An outbreak of the libido from the unconscious? Or has the charismatic Lydia become some sort of portal or channel for occult energy from the environment?

Morley has previously explored ‘mass psychogenic illness’ (‘psychogenic’ means illnesses where there’s a mental cause for physical symptoms) in a short film called The Madness of the Dance, in which a professor of medical humanities takes us on a tour of the condition: the dancing manias of the Middle Ages [Editor's note: see also this 'Looking back' piece by John Waller], outbreaks of biting and mewing like cats among young nuns, epidemics of laughing among Tanzanian factory workers, and so on. Here’s how Fox News covered a recent case:

What’s going on in such cases? They seem to involve what psychologists call the placebo or nocebo effect – our bodies and immune systems are highly connected to our emotions and imaginations, and physical symptoms like nervous tics or compulsive laughter can spread between people through a sort of sympathy and suggestibility.

The preacher Jonathan Edwards observed this phenomenon in the mass ecstasy of the First Great Awakening in 18th century America, during which congregations fainted, screamed, sobbed, laughed and danced wildly. In his masterpiece Religious Affections, Edwards tried to discern what was genuinely spiritual in these mass ecstatic outbursts, and what was psychological or pathological. He suggested that sometimes it is more the influence of custom or imitation than a genuine visitation of the Spirit – people are following a learned script.

Similar mass ecstatic outbreaks regularly occur in charismatic churches – most recently in the Toronto Blessing of 1994. I’ve been in the middle of highly charismatic services in Wales, with people fainting and rolling on the floor, and had some experiences like that myself. Definitely, people are following a script, and the physical symptoms are triggered by their expectations (they came to get down, as it were). But there may be something more at work, too…

Such outbreaks of ecstasy can also occur outside the church, for example in raves. In the 1990s, at the same time as the Toronto Blessing, acid house and trance music spread across the UK, including to the Hacienda, where Carol Morley regularly went. I wonder if her interest in this area partly stems from that experience of ‘the madness of the dance’ – it’s certainly what got me interested in this area. Think of, say, Beatlemania, or the Jitter-Bug, or girls screaming as Elvis twitches and sings ‘well bless my soul, what’s wrong with me, I’m itching like a man in a fuzzy tree…’

Such outbreaks clearly have social determinants: they can be a reaction to overly rigid, hierarchical or depressing social conditions, a reaction to the discontents of civilisation, to the role you are expected to play – this was ably explored by Erika Bourgignon in her 1973 book, Religion, Altered States of Experience and Social Change. Humans need ways to lose themselves, to go beyond the ego and go to ‘another place’, and if their culture doesn’t give them that, nature will find a way.

But is there anything spiritual in such occurrences, or are they just regressions to primitive or infantile stages of development, as Freud would suggest?

Balancing medical and spiritual explanations

Morley tries to keep the question open and ambiguous in her film, to balance medical explanations with more spiritual explanations – that the outbreak is somehow connected with the occult, with lay-lines, with a numinous energy in nature.

But it was interesting, in an audience Q&A for the film which I attended at the London Film Festival last year, how audience members went straight to the medical explanation: this was a film ‘about’ mass psychogenic illness or mass hysteria. It reminded me of the reception of the film Shame, which my colleague Katherine Angel noted was quickly boxed off as a film ‘about’ sexual addiction.

The possibility that this is also a film ‘about’ spiritual energy was completely ignored – although Peter Bradshaw’s review of the film in The Guardian was open to that possibility.

As Steve Taylor notes in this excellent essay, most traditional cultures have some concept of spiritual energy – it is called shakti or prana or kundalini in Hindu culture, chi in Chinese culture, mana in Australasian cultures, pneuma or the Logos in ancient Greek culture, wyrdin pagan culture, spiritus in Christianity.

There’s a common idea in every culture (except the modern secular west) that nature is infused with spiritual energy, and we can tap into it and access its power, either consciously – through worship or meditation or drugs or sex or magic – or unconsciously and accidentally, through spiritual experiences, near-death trauma, or sudden epidemics like dancing manias.

We seem to access this energy via altered states of consciousness, or what William James called ‘the subliminal self’. It also sometimes involves certain places – pilgrimage sites, particular mountains or fields. And this energy can apparently spread from consciousness to consciousness, as it did in the Great Awakenings of American Christianity.

The modern, secular, mechanistic culture of the West defined itself against this idea, and debunked successive traces of it – whether that be Descartes’ ‘animal spirits’, the elan vital of Vitalism, Mesmer’s ‘vital fluid’, or the entire ‘spiritual energy’ industry of the New Age. That ‘exorcism of spirits‘ from secular culture was not altogether a bad thing, because the concept was often used as a means to exploit or control the gullible. You must pay / obey this person, because they have incredible ‘spiritual energy’ and you can only access it through them – an old but powerful lie.

And yet we’re still haunted by the ancient idea of spiritual energy – Freud called it the libido, Max Weber called it charisma, William James spoke of ‘energy’ that can be accessed through spiritual or subliminal experiences, while today’s much more cautious psychologists still reach for terms like ‘mental capital’, ‘pool of attentional resources’ or ‘psychic energy’.

No one has ever found this energy or empirically measured it, so it’s easy to dismiss it as woo-woo, a vestige of the animist past we have thankfully left behind. But I’d suggest that most people engaged in some sort of spiritual or psychedelic practice have had some experience of accessing this power, and know that it can be both positive and healing, and also terrifying and disorientating.

It’s interesting that the author of the last mainstream book to explore dancing manias – the sociologist Barbara Ehrenreich – recently ‘came out’ about having had a life-changing experience of numinous energy in nature when she was a teenager (she was immediately put on the Skeptic blacklist as a result).

Personally, I am inclined to believe this energy exists in nature and is connected to our consciousness, and that we can align ourselves with it through spiritual practice. But I may very well be wrong. We should simply admit that we don’t yet know – as the psychologist Mihaly Cziksentmihayli recently noted, psychology doesn’t even have a working understanding of ordinary consciousness yet, let alone altered states of consciousness.

What is certainly the case is that some film-makers are exploring this shadowy area in interesting films – I have written a piece about ‘the art of trance’ in the films of David Lynch, Fellini, Kubrick and others. Peter Weir explores it beautifully in Picnic at Hanging Rock, which is all about the dark numinous power of nature. In recent British cinema, films by Ben Oakley and Pawel Pawlikowski explore this dreamy terrain.

Morley’s film explores this zone too. It’s not just about mass psychogenic illness…it’s possibly bit more spooky than that.

Jules Evans has been Policy Director for the Centre for the History of the Emotions at Queen Mary, University of London, since 2011. He is co-editor, with Thomas Dixon, of the History of Emotions Blog, to which he regularly contributes himself. A version of this review was originally published there and is reproduced here with kind permission.

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Comments

Well done to Jules Evans for going public with his interest in spirituality and spiritual energy. This is a potentially career-breaking area of interest - does anyone remember Carl Sargent? I think it is a shame that it is an area of interest that is so marginalised in psychology. It seems to me to be one of a number of big but interesting questions that we collectively avoid.

I certainly won't have much to say on this topic until after I have retired from academia, despite having lived for several years in the spiritual community and eco-village of Findhorn in Scotland. In fact, that's enough for now, I think...