Hysteria, in particular, MASS HYSTERIA is a fascinating catalyst for a campaign. Not only is it rooted in real-life, it’s a compelling way to rope characters in. Have their family members been affected by the growing hysteria? Are they worried that they, too, will become a part of the epidemic that is supposedly ravishing the countryside? Was it the character’s misstep that triggered the hysteria that is sweeping the region?
Take a look at mass hysteria throughout time and see if you can find inspiration for your game:
The Dancing Plague of 1518
Yet, there are other times when mass hysteria has a biological cause. Take the Dancing Plague of 1518, where a village was so compelled to dance that they literally danced to death. Or, at least, that’s how it seemed in 1518. One explanation posits that it was caused by a mass psychogenic illness (MPI) in which mass hysteria results from extreme levels of psychological stress.
Stress alone is a powerful force. What events – magical or mundane – could cause such severe stress as to induce deadly hysteria?
The brain is a crazy thing, easily manipulated by fear and paranoia. In Southeast Asia, a culture-specific hysteria called koro – the irrational fear that one’s penis is shrinking – has plagued men for years. Koro dates back to the 19th century, with more than five major outbreaks in the past 50 years.
Rooted in fears of sexual inadequacy, koro sweeps male populations, spreading as more and more men become convinced that their genitals are vanishing.
What irrational obsessions can snowball into a debilitating delusion, effectively disabling a significant portion of the population? (even if it is hilarious)
The there’s the hysteria brought about by the dark powers of the mind. In the deep recesses of our collective fears, we find the perfect seeds for wide-spread panic and terror. Take the Algonquian legend of the Wendigo, a cannibalistic spirit that could possess humans, driving them to eat flesh. The name “Wendigo Psychosis” was given to people who were supposedly wracked with craving for human flesh and driven to cannibalism.
What fears exist in your culture could a demon pray upon?
June Bug Epidemic
In 1962, more than 60 dressmakers in a US textile factory fell ill complaining of dizziness, vomiting, and more. The cause of the illness was mysterious, but stories quickly spread about a bug that was biting the dressmakers and making them ill. The CDC was called in to assess the situation and it was quickly revealed that the likely cause for the rapidly-spreading disease was, in fact, a hysterical contagion.
As one or two workers fell ill, more and more workers became convinced that they, too, were sick. Did these workers actually experience symptoms? Or simply hop on the bandwagon to get some time off?
How opportunistic are your players?
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What other instances of mass hysteria could warp your game? Where will the power of suggestion take your game?