12/22/2010 03:30 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Future of American Mass Hysteria

The history of mankind is marked by episodes of mass hysteria. Spurred on by fear of the Black Death, the Flagellants marched across Medieval Europe, whipping themselves in penitential frenzy with the hope that an angry God might spare them. Throughout the Middle Ages, innocent women were burned at the stake when fear eclipsed the light of reason. There were epidemics of contagious, uncontrollable dancing in Germany and Italy. Many danced themselves to exhaustion and death. Some episodes of mass hysteria were murderous, while others were simply absurd. Yet all have revealed the vulnerability of the human mind to the social forces that can take root during difficult times and drive us into behaviors we think ourselves incapable of performing. We, in America, fancy ourselves too modern and sophisticated for such behavior. But we are wrong. Anxiety, misperception and contagious fear, lie at the bottom of mass hysteria. When and wherever these human frailties arise, there is risk of mass hysteria. It could happen here. A lesson can be taken from Singapore.

Singapore is one of the most successful countries in the world, with a vigorous economy, and a healthy, well educated population. Yet, a most peculiar episode of mass hysteria occurred there 43 years ago. Singapore had been the victim of very difficult times. In World War II, Singapore suffered terribly under Japanese occupation. More than 50,000 innocent Chinese were rounded up and slaughtered. After the war, the country began a long and difficult process of becoming independent from England. A step toward independence came when Singapore was allowed to join the Federation of Malaysia. However, conflicts between Malay Muslims and ethnic Chinese grew into racial riots. Dozens of people were killed. Muslim Malaysia decided it had no place for mostly Chinese, Singapore and, in 1965, Singapore was forced out of the federation to go it alone. Unemployment was high, and the country had few natural resources. Along with the conflict with Malaysia and a struggling economy, Singapore was threatened by war with Islamic Indonesia. In March of 1965, a terrorist bomb exploded and killed three innocent people in Singapore. As in the United States today, there was fear of Islamic terrorism. The people were afraid.

In the Spring of 1967 swine fever broke out in Malaysia. Soon the disease spread south to Singapore. Pork was a staple in the diet of the Chinese people. A crisis was looming. Then rumors began to fly. Some Chinese suspected the Muslims had something to do with it. After all, Muslims do not eat pork and would not have been affected by the outbreak that was threatening the Chinese community. Then came rumors that a pig vaccinated for swine fever had died of Koro.

Koro is the belief that the penis can shrink away, and if it retracts all the way up into the abdomen, the victim will die. Fear began to spread among the Chinese of Singapore. It was feared that the Koro that killed the pig might kill them as well. As is almost always the case in mass hysteria, Koro had its basis in the culture of the victims. The ancient texts of Chinese medicine spoke of Koro, and how the condition was often fatal. Even in China, reports of individuals with complaints of a shrinking penis were rare. But, now and then, when times are stressful, epidemics of Koro affecting hundreds or thousands of men have broken out in China. This is what occurred in the Chinese community of Singapore.

Hundreds of men rushed to the hospitals of the island with the terrifying belief that their penises were shrinking. Each feared that if his penis shrank away completely, he would die. Some came with lucky red strings tightly wrapped around their penises to prevent the lethal disappearance. Others had clamps holding their wayward organs in place. Most often it was a firm grasp of a hand, their own or a frightened family member's, that prevented the shrinking penis from slipping away and taking their life with it. Oddly enough, about a dozen women also fell victim to the panic.

The government of Singapore and the country's medical association sprang into action and made public announcements. They explained that pork was safe, and that no one was going to die from shrinkage of the penis. Slowly, the numbers of frantic visits to the hospital decreased. Between the start of the epidemic on October 29 and its end on November 30, a total of 469 patients were treated for Koro. After reaching the hospital, they were easily calmed and dissuaded from their erroneous fears. No one was ill. No one was dying. It was mass hysteria. After a month, the epidemic ended and did not return.

The sudden emergence of a Koro epidemic was inexplicable. Yet as puzzling as the event itself was the fact that all who fell victim to the epidemic were perfectly normal people. The victims were not crazy. They were swept away by a tide of fear and anxiety. All that is necessary to trigger mass hysteria, whether in Singapore or Terre Haute, Indiana, is a deeply held, shared belief; anxiety and turmoil in society; and a frightening event to set off the madness.

Though we snicker at the Singapore penis panic, we in America have no basis to be smug. America is no stranger to madness, fanaticism and mass hysteria. Though different in the content of the shared delusion, there have been many such events in this country no less absurd than the Koro epidemic. The Salem Witch Trials, the Spanish American War, The War of the Worlds radio panic of 1938, and the lesser known Phantom Anesthetist of Mattoon scare and Seattle Windshield Pitting Delusion have all borne witness to the fact that no degree of fear, paranoia and hysteria are foreign to the American consciousnesses. The horrors of the mass suicides at Jonestown and of the Heaven's Gate members only emphasize the fact that there are no bases to believe that mass hysteria of terrifying dimensions couldn't happen again, today, right here in River City.

End times prophecies, fear of witches, and belief in endless battles between God and Satan retain all the power they had in colonial times of New England. The chauvinism of the Spanish American War remains pristine. The political consciousness of the United States was built on the noble idea that men must defend their right to be free. However, a consequence of this notion can be the mildly paranoid stance that enemies of freedom are at all times everywhere. There are paramilitary religious groups who believe Armageddon is around the corner. They have identified the forces of Satan and are ticking away like time bombs. The Marshall Applewhites and Heaven's Gate cults are still here. Alien worlds are calling them to better places with the promise of freedom from the heartaches of human existence. What deep, primal fear will be unleashed in them, and in us, when life is finally discovered on Mars or other nearby planets? What might have happened if the great recession of 2008 had been even deeper? What chaos might have been triggered had the H1N1 flu been more deadly? What if December of 2012, believed by some to be the Mayan calendar's end of the world, is marked by earthquakes like the ones that recently struck Haiti and Chile? What kind of madness can we expect to play out? Within the answers to these questions, and in the story of the Singapore Koro epidemic, lies the future of American mass hysteria.

The complete story of the 1967 Singapore Koro Epidemic is told in Dr. Mendelson's new book, "The Great Singapore Penis Panic and the Future of American Mass Hysteria".