About Hysteria

Historian Paul Johnson, in his History of the American People, characterizes certain events as hysteria. In re-reading Johnson’s narrative, I became curious about his choice of this particular word to explain certain peculiar events in American history.

The concept of hysteria, when used colloquially, means an ungovernable emotional excess and refers to a usually temporary state of mind or emotion, and its attending excessive behaviors. In the 1800’s, hysteria was a medical term that described a then-diagnosable physical illness. In the 1900’s, the meaning of this word morphed into that of a mental illness and was notably used in that context by Sigmund Freud and Jean-Martin Charcot. Today, it is rarely used in the medical and psychological professions and has become a colloquial term that describes various manifestations of emotional imbalance. It is a word often applied, correctly or incorrectly, to situations such as a stock market panic causing wild index fluctuations; intense fads, scares, mass confusion; and other somewhat unexplainable and even wholly irrational human behaviors.



“The Salem trials, then, can be seen as an example of the propensity of the American people to be convulsed by spasms of self-righteous rage against enemies, real or imaginary, of their society and way of living. Hence the parallels later drawn between Salem in 1692 and the ‘Red Scare’ of 1919-20, Senator McCarthy’s hunt for Communists in the early 1950s, the Watergate hysteria of 1973-74, and the Irangate hunt of the 1980s. … The real lesson of the affair, a contemporary historian may conclude, is not the strength of irrationality but the misuse of science. … Perhaps the best insight into the emotional mechanism which got the Salem trials going can be provided by examining some of the many cases of child-abuse hysteria, and cases in which children were alleged to have been abused by Satanist rings, occurring in both the United States and Britain in the 1980s and 1990s. The way in which children can be encouraged, by prosecuting authorities, to ‘remember’ imaginary events is common to both types of case. The Salem of the 1690s is not so far from us as we like to think.” (p.83)

“In 1847, John D. Fox, a Methodist farmer who had been ‘touched’ by the Second Awakening, moved into a Charles Adams house in Hydesville, New York, and the two youngest daughters quickly established contact with a Rapper, at the command ‘Here, Mr. Splitfoot, do as I do.’ Less than two centuries before, this kind of girlish joke-hysteria might have led to witch-hunting as at Salem in the 1690s. In mid-i9th-century America, already keen on sensation and media-infested, it led to the two girls being signed up by the circus-impresario P. T. Barnum (18 10-91) and Horace Greeley (181 1-72), the great editor of the New York Tribune. So, Spiritualism was born.” (p. 299)



“In the United States, the Depression, coming after nearly seventy years of dramatic economic expansion which had made it the richest and most powerful country on earth, abruptly reduced half the population to penury. There was an atmosphere of hysteria in parts of the United States during the middle years of the decade, not least in Washington, marked by outbreaks of that intellectual disease to which Americans are prone: conspiracy-theory. In this atmosphere, comparatively minor figures were able to exercise disproportionate influence.” (p. 773-74)

“Truman … commissioned a study of ‘hysteria and witch-hunting’ in American history, which concluded there was a permanent undercurrent of ‘hate and intolerance’ in America which periodically produced outbreaks such as McCarthyism. This in turn created an academic sub-branch of sociology, leading to a 1954 Columbia University seminar on McCarthyism, during which the historian Richard Hofstadter, using Theodor Adorno’s 1950 tract The Authoritarian Personality, explained the phenomenon as a projection onto society of the groundless fears of ‘pseudo-conservatives.’ This was later expressed in a famous essay by Hofstadter, ‘The Paranoid Style in American Politics’ (1964), which proved hugely influential and became the official liberal explanation of McCarthyism, thus generating even more confusion than the Senator’s original accusations.” (p. 835)



“On October 12 Cox won a legal battle to secure the right of access to the tapes recording all Nixon’s White House conversations. Nixon determined to fire Cox, and did so, though not without considerable obstruction from the Department of Justice. It was at this point that the hysteria usually associated with American witch-hunts took over, and all reason, balance, and consideration for the national interest was abandoned. It was an ugly moment in America’s story and one which future historians, who will have no personal knowledge of any of the individuals concerned and whose emotions will not be engaged either way, are likely to judge a dark hour in the history of a republic which prides itself in its love of order and its patient submission to the rule of law.” (p. 904)

This is not a quote from Johnson’s book, but my own personal reflection. Think what you wish of our world, as mostly good, mostly bad, or downright ugly. The words that I would use to describe the feelings the news provokes in me are strange, unexpected, unsettling. I am not sure as to the proper attribution of the word hysteria to any one event, but I certainly have seen it used in print and online to describe various situations in my lifetime. My view is that there is nothing new in human behavior and human reactions, but that the advent of the Internet and its ability to instantly distribute information across the globe may have something to do with my feelings about the present times. It is possible, as Johnson maintains, that these strange, unsettling, and unexpected events have occurred throughout history but, prior to the Internet, were far less widely reported. What we didn’t know didn’t hurt us, so to speak. A client told me the other day, “I had no idea there were so many strange situations in the world. Now, I just turn on my phone and there they are, in all their gory details!” Amen to that.