1989 Santa Monica Illness That Struck 247 Called Mass Hysteria


Santa Monica, reputed bastion of enlightenment and reason, has a new distinction as the latest in a long line of locales believed to have fallen prey to an episode of mass hysteria.

That is the diagnosis of a group of UCLA psychiatrists who investigated an April, 1989, incident in which 247 student performers became ill at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, triggering one of the largest evacuations in the city’s history.

The researchers, reporting their findings today in the American Journal of Psychiatry, unearthed no environmental culprit. Instead, they say the mysterious incident bore the telltale signs of a classic case of “group psychogenic illness.”

“These kinds of outbreaks go back to the Middle Ages, when there were outbreaks of unusual behaviors in isolated groups, like in nunneries,” said Dr. Gary Small, one author. “There was a cat-mewing incident--the nuns mewed like cats. More common were the dancing manias.”


In Santa Monica, the researchers said, the tip-offs included the following:

* The most common symptoms included headache, dizziness, abdominal pain and nausea--sensations that are common and easy to over-interpret. Another was hyperventilation, which can result from breathing deeply to overcome a temporary shortness of breath.

* The mysterious affliction hit girls more than boys--a pattern observed by researchers in other cases of mass hysteria. Small said such patterns may be traceable to social and cultural, or even biological, differences between the sexes.

* Children who watched a friend become sick were the most likely to develop symptoms. Also vulnerable were children with chronic medical problems, such as asthma. A child’s “patient status” may make him more susceptible to hysterical symptoms, the researchers said.

They also ventured that the sensitivity of many Santa Monica residents to environmental issues may have fueled the hysteria, heightening anxiety and the tendency to suspect a physical, rather than psychological, cause.

Some parents, however, were less than impressed.

“It was definitely not hysterical,” said Sharon Taub, a West Los Angeles accountant whose 11-year-old daughter became sick and was taken to a hospital emergency room. “There definitely was an odor, a strange odor in the auditorium.”

Taub was particularly incensed by the observation about the girls.

“That assumption--that ‘we know how teen-age girls get'--really upset me,” said Taub, who suffered symptoms, too, and was treated by an allergist. ". . . I don’t believe that is true of these young women. That (assumption) happens to women all the time.”

The incident occurred during the 40th annual “Stairway-of-the-Stars” program put on by the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District. About 2,000 spectators and 600 members of the district’s bands, choruses and orchestras had gathered in the auditorium.

The performance was interrupted soon after it began as students began to fall ill. Soprano girls were the most severely affected--16 fainted. In all, 19 students were taken to emergency rooms.

Medical tests turned up nothing abnormal. Nor did city officials find any problem with air quality in the auditorium. The guardrails had been touched up with paint that morning, but officials said the paint was harmless and could have left nothing more than an innocuous, lingering odor.

Small, an associate professor of psychiatry who has published articles on two similar incidents, said he hears of one or two cases every year in the United States, mostly in schools. They usually occur under conditions of psychological stress, such as performance anxiety, or physical stress, he said.

The students’ physical complaints, he hastened to point out, were quite real.

“When people hear that this is something with a psychological cause, they think that means you don’t believe they’re experiencing the symptoms,” he said. While symptoms are always subjective, he said, “the symptoms are very real.”

“With greater concern about the environment, these are difficult outbreaks to assess,” Small said. “There may well be some contamination. The question is how much of the headache or other symptom has to do with this contamination and how much is a social contagion.”

Neil Smelser, professor of sociology at UC Berkeley who has published a book on “collective outbursts,” said an epidemic of reports of windshield-pitting in Seattle after World War II was traced ultimately to heightened concerns about Soviet bomb testing.

In two other cases, the town of Matoon, Ill., experienced a wave of reports that an anesthetist was “rendering women unconscious in their homes,” and a Southern textile mill was hit with a bout of sneezing and choking that came to be known as the June bug epidemic.