mass hysteria

Photo by Richard Masoner

It was a Wednesday night and I was on the ground, rolling and gasping for air, laughter coming in wave after wave, cramping all my muscles and pushing tears out of the corners of my eyes. I was lost to the world, convulsing in heavy, wheezing laughs. But I hadn’t heard a good joke nor was I tickled; I was “laughing in the Spirit” and this hysteric guffaw continued for over a half hour straight without breaks.

I was only 13 years old and on a mission trip in rural Appalachia with my (very) non-Charismatic church youth group. I was the only student who had a lot of previous experience with the “gifts of the Holy Spirit”, and the last thing I expected was that these gifts would occur during a Presbyterian prayer meeting. Most of the other attendees were just as shocked as I was. In fact, one girl thought my giggle fit was aimed in a mocking way at other children experiencing emotional times of worship. I couldn’t talk plainly enough to answer her, so she grabbed a glass full of milk and poured it on my head. It didn’t help.

I’m not sure if this group fit was suggested, or if one emotional, weeping child led to someone falling over, which lead to speaking in tongues, dancing, and my personal experience with holy laughter. I may have helped the situation along by telling people that it was God’s Spirit leading us and that speaking in tongues and being slain in the Spirit was great.

Was it a chain reaction? Wanting to fit in? Mass hysteria? Supernatural? How can we know?

One thing’s for sure–the grownup leaders at this prayer meeting lost control over every aspect, and it went much too far. By the next day stories of demon visitations, prophesying, and salvation were filtering all around the camp.

Want to see this “Spirit” in action?

The following clip was edited to show the humor in a pentecostal worship service, but it reminded me so much of the contagious nature of those social situations. Just watch as people fall down as if drunk after hearing the pastor speak about the apostles appearing drunk in Acts 2.

It may be my intuition, but I can look at the faces of many of those audience members and see them thinking about what they’re doing: fake laughter, self-propelled shakes,  flailing, and so forth. This is the kind of behavior that makes me shudder and groan nowadays. See for yourself:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EWfLdYIpARQ

(hat tip to @achura)

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16 thoughts on “Mass Hysteria”

Munaq · July 15, 2009 at 12:33 am

That is more sad than funny…

Adam · July 15, 2009 at 1:05 am

It's creepy. I have a friend who used to go to a church alot like this… I don't understand the point…

Rooker · July 15, 2009 at 2:31 am

"so she grabbed a glass full of milk and poured it on my head. It didn’t help."

/me wipes root beer off the monitor.

grimmlock · July 15, 2009 at 10:25 pm

if these stuffy christians act like this when they are really drunk, then they are definitely people i don’t want to hang around with. what someone they perceive as a man in “power” tells them to do and nothing more.

it follows along the same lines as the milgram experiment.

Xtine · July 16, 2009 at 3:41 am

I used to have laugh attacks… and realize now that they were an expression of extreme stress… and a wacked out kundalini. I always had them in secular surroundings, and mostly during my tween years. Didn't realize that if I had had them at church, which I nearly did Quite a few times, that they were a sign of the spirit.

More like a sign of how much stress the human body-mind "spirit" can be put under. Speaking in tongues definitely comes into play here too.

Interesting story. You definitely shed a new light on this for me.

    godlessgirl · July 18, 2009 at 8:23 pm

    I wonder about stress as a cause for laugh attacks. I'd have to admit I don't see the correlation in my own experience above, but it does come out of an extreme emotional state, so maybe that's a sort of stress?

amemur · July 17, 2009 at 10:01 pm

I didn't finish watching it because it was a little bit disturbing to me. Although I think that it could be explained in relation to some sort of empathetic behavior? People, when they're not thinking, behave pretty much as the next person. It seems like they want to be involved no matter how foolish their behavior might look.

godlessgirl · July 18, 2009 at 8:20 pm

I think our desire to be accepted and affirmed ultimately drives any desire for a so-called religious/spiritual experience. Notice that people don't desire things that would make them an outcast.

    amemur · July 18, 2009 at 10:32 pm

    True. We behave pretty much as the people we want to be with… or at least (in my case) we manage to maintain a low profile so people we have to interact with wouldn't harass us. I imagine a lot of stress in being in the middle of a row where everybody is falling and you just don't want to be the one standing because of your fear of others taking offense.

      godlessgirl · July 18, 2009 at 11:23 pm

      You reminded me of another experience (this time at a youth conference) where all the kids around me were visibly emotional about a sermon we'd just heard. I didn't feel anything, so I honestly thought something was wrong with me. Ugh.

        Perigee-syzygy · October 29, 2010 at 7:26 pm

        I know that feeling too well! Ah, so many hours standing there while music played, waiting for my body to emotionally respond or physically react, because of course, only those who could shake and cry violently were the most spiritual and closest to god;) I share your ‘ugh’.

          Godless Girl · October 31, 2010 at 7:29 pm

          If I didn’t feel anything, I though something was wrong between me and god. Damn guilt.

Mergence · November 11, 2010 at 3:05 pm

Interestingly the affected people in the video all seem to be adolescents or there about. And female. It would impress me more as a stand-alone phenomenom if an arthritic 80-year-old man would take up the sport. Is the Holy Spirit that picky? I’m associating this with data on poltergeist manifestations . . . often thought to be discharges of energy that is of enigmatic but not categorically supernatural origin.

kundalini yoga · March 25, 2013 at 7:37 am

Its such as you learn my mind! You seem to grasp a lot about this, like you wrote the book in it or something. I think that you just could do with a few percent to power the message house a bit, however instead of that, this is fantastic blog. An excellent read. I will definitely be back.

Waking the Tiger Part 2 - Shaking & Trembling | Perigee-Syzygy · November 3, 2010 at 7:58 pm

[…] visions, speak in tongues, get healed… complete chaos. Yet I am unable to dismiss it all as mass hysteria or emotional manipulation (although that probably explains 60% of what I witnessed over the years). People’s lives […]

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