Psychic Epidemics By William Arthur Dunn



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Psychic Epidemics


William Arthur Dunn

Published 1913



The physical epidemics that have afflicted humanity throughout the past, such as the Black Death, the Plague of Lon­don, smallpox, cholera, etc., have not been more terrible in their aspect and effects than have been the psychic epidemics that have swept over whole portions of the race - obliterating for the time being nearly every trace of individual sanity among the people so affected. The worst of these psychic scourges have occurred under the cloak of religion, and perhaps no form of human degradation can equal the depths to which whole communities have been carried while such epidemics lasted. An important analogy between physical and psychic epidemics is this : that contagion originates from one individual. These psychic plagues have not been confined to religion, however, but have taken many other forms in political and financial manias.


Dr. Cutter of Yale, author of the " Psychological Phenomena of Christianity," remarks that All powers are capable of reverse action : water, fire, steam, electricity, are wonderful aids to mankind if regulated, but if they get beyond control, how great is the destruction ! A child can start a fire ; it is not so easily stopped. A revival is such a power that when once started it may sweep a community. It may arouse the passions and degrade religion to the frenzies of savages or beasts, or it may permeate the minds of men and cause a growth to the full stature of the true man. The same writer says in speaking of phenomena of contagion : The leader of a crowd is usually a despot. . . . He never sways the crowd by reason ... but trusts to the emotional contagion, which is part of the crowd mind. . . . Once the mob-self is brought to the surface it possesses a strong attractive power and a great power of assimilation. It attracts fresh individuals, breaks down their personal life and quickly assimilates them ; it affects in them a disintegration of consciousness and . . . the assimilated individual enters fully into the spirit of the mob. So great is the collective power of suggestion that a crowd will see things which do not exist, and hear sounds which are purely imaginary. Not only does this apply to the depraved, but it may be experienced by every unit in the crowd. Those who read and observe can hardly avoid noticing this phenomena in all avenues of life.


Historical Data


During the Crusades, forty thousand German children and thirty thousand French children were infected with a psychic epidemic so terrible in its fanatical zeal that nothing could restrain them. Whenever restrained from following their aim, they sickened and died. During the last of the Crusades, the women Crusaders were overpowered by a strange mania ; entirely devoid of clothing, they rushed about the streets speechless, and in frequent cases fell into ecstatic convulsions. vVhen the Crusade-epidemic was abating, a new one arose. In 1260, bands of people in Italy were seized with a veritable craze for public scourging. . . . Both men and women went in groups from town to town, and stripped to the waist, or with but a loin cloth about their bodies, they stood in public places and scourged one another. The flogging-epidemic was succeeded by the dancing mania, when large assemblies of men and women took to dancing with wild delirium in both churches and streets. The witchcraft epidemic lasted from 1484 to the middle of the eighteenth century. Table of dates during which the above psychic epidemics occurred :


Crusades 1096 to 1299

Flagellants ( flogging) 1260 to 1348

Dancing 1374 to 1470

Witchcraft 1484 to 1749


An instance of contagious phenomena is the following :


At Old Orchard Beach a crowd of several thousands was made to give up all its valuables and money ... and some of those who contributed most had simply gone to see " how it was done." At revival meetings scenes have occurred which pass description. It is only necessary to mention the " barkers " as a type. Groups of men and women, on all-fours, snarling and growling and snapping their teeth at the foot of a tree. This was called " Treeing the devil." The frenzy which swept over the French nation and known as the French Revolution, ending in a carnage of blood, is an illustration of a psychic epidemic manifesting in social life. The phenomenon presented was in many respects similar to that which accompanies frenzied fanaticism in religion. Financial and speculative frenzies are psychic disorders that act in the same manner as other forms of these national distempers.


Three historical examples will be interesting;


In 1634 the Dutch became suddenly possessed with a mania for tulips. The whole population embarked in the tulip trade, neglecting all ordinary industry. The mania to speculate in tulips obsessed the whole nation. So contagious was the epidemic that foreigners became smitten with the same frenzy and poured their money into Holland. The result was that thousands were ruined and a cry of lamentation went over the land.


In 1717 John Law infected the French nation with his scheme for trade on the western bank of the Mississippi. Three hundred thousand applications were made for shares in the company ; the eagerness to be a shareholder rose to a pitch of frenzy. People of every age and both sexes invested. Then the bubble burst, and multitudes were ruined.


In 1711 the " South Sea Bubble " - a similar mania - infected the English nation with kindred frenzy. Shares were inflated from £100 to £1000 and more, and suffering was great when the " Bubble " burst at last. In modern times the historical instances given above are being re-enacted in countless ways, although in a more divided manner. Psychic epidemics may be observed in the emotional outbreaks that occur from time to time when unreasoning crowds become infected with some mania.


We have but to recall the disturbances reported in the daily newspapers. Psychic diseases are as easily transmitted to weaklings as are the well-known physical sicknesses. The pity of it is that those infected usually imagine that they are acting from a good motive and from reason ; whereas, as a matter of fact, the so-called " motive " has been put into them by one who is himself mentally awry. Advanced physicians declare that all known physical ailments, fevers, and chronic diseases, have their exact counterpart in psychic or mental disorders, and that the psychic manifestations are but diseases on their way to the physical plane.


All good movements for the uplifting of Humanity have had their reverse manifestations in misdirected zeal or psychic disease. Just as good food, when improperly taken, leads to physical disease, so may sacred teachings be misused by those whose psychic bent outruns their spiritual aspirations. The psychic epidemics that afflict mankind evidence the presence among men of the ancient evil of humanity - namely, the animal and emotional nature, uncontrolled by the overshadowing divine nature, seeking to establish a kingdom for itself. The safeguard lies in the cultivation of the higher will - self-control.




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