Soundbite: Syndrome Syndrome


In Hystories: Hysterical Epidemics and Modern Media, Princeton University English Professor Elaine Showalter argues that phenomena such as Gulf War Syndrome, chronic fatigue syndrome, multiple personality syndrome, and belief in recovered memory, ritual satanic abuse, and alien abduction share something besides a complete lack of credible evidence. They are, she says, latter-day hysterias, psychosomatic disorders whose roots lie not in organic causes but in psychological distress.

Hystories maps out the process by which such conditions develop, gather momentum, and spread throughout a culture. "Modern forms of individual and mass hysteria have much to tell us about the anxieties and fantasies of western culture, especially in the United States and Europe," writes Showalter, who spoke with Senior Editor Nick Gillespie by telephone.

Q: What do contemporary hysterias tell us?

A: They represent an obsession with conspiracy and paranoia. That's not new [in America]–it's just been taken to a new level. I think the millenium is certainly playing a part in this. Something like alien abduction, which is a form of recovered memory, is similar to apocalyptic beliefs historians describe around the year 1000.

There's an incredible externalization of problems going on. We have this image of our society as a therapeutic culture. It's true–there's been an incredible proliferation of therapy: You know, the 12-step programs, the Recovery Channel, the friendly neighborhood hypnotherapist, and so on. But there's a much stronger hostility to the idea that the unconscious [mind] might be responsible for problems: If I'm unhappy as an adult, then my father must have molested me. If I don't fit my ideal of how I should behave, then obviously I'm a victim of a satanic cult.

Q: How do hysterias start?

A: They usually begin in a fairly small, isolated community. With chronic fatigue syndrome, it was Incline Village, Nevada. With Gulf War Syndrome, it was a single battalion. You get a lot of vague symptoms and complaints. Then you need a charismatic doctor or scientist who begins to [define] it. That gets picked up by the media, and more and more doctors hear about it and they pick up more and more patients. When it reaches some sort of critical mass, patient groups start to organize and it politicizes. At that point, sufferers begin to ask for things: They want more money, they want insurance, they want disability, they want recognition, whatever.

Q: What's the role of the media in all this?

A: They provide instantaneous information. The [Salem] witch trials were short-lived partly because communications were so bad. The town of Andover, about 30 miles away, didn't know what was going on for months. Now, it's overnight: The story's on the Internet immediately, the 5 o'clock news, the TV movie of the week. The media spread the imagery, the language, and the mythology of the hysteria. That's why symptoms tend to organize fairly quickly. If, for instance, an American sees an alien, they see "our" alien, a small, gray [creature]. That's what an American alien looks like. It doesn't look like an Israeli alien or a Dutch alien.

The media can also rebut stories. The pendulum swings the other way. I've even noticed that in some trailers for summer movies, things are moving toward parodying conspiracy theories and parodying UFOs. It's done seriously for a while, then you have Leslie Nielsen and his gang do it. It's self-correcting in that sense.