The incident prompted the Japanese government to hold an emergency meeting, and opened up the opportunity for scientists to learn about one of the strangest diseases on the planet.
25 years ago, at exactly 6:51 p.m. on December 16, 1997, hundreds of children across Japan had a seizure. A total of 685 children, including 310 boys and 375 girls, were taken to the hospital by ambulance. Within two days, 12,000 children reported symptoms of illness. The cause of this sudden and mass outbreak was an unlikely culprit: an episode in the Pokémon animated series.
That episode was Dennō Senshi Porygon (Electric Soldier Porygon), which was the 38th installment in the first season of the Pokémon animated series. Twenty minutes after the animation began showing, an explosion occurred in the film, exemplified by an animation technique known as paka paka, emitting red and blue flashing lights alternating with 12Hz for six seconds. Immediately, hundreds of children had seizures due to photosensitivity, also known as photosensitive epilepsy.
The point is, this is only a fraction, but not all, of the hospitalizations.
Pokémon Shock has affected about 12,000 people
Takuya Sato, 10, said: “At the end of the show, there was an explosion and I had to close my eyes because of the huge yellow light like a camera flash.”
A 15-year-old girl from Nagoya said: “When I saw the blue and red lights flashing on the screen, I felt my body tense up. I can’t remember what happened after that.”
This phenomenon, which was titled “Pokémon Shock” by the Japanese media, became big news not only in the country but was reported around the world. The cartoon producers were questioned by police, while the country’s Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare held an emergency meeting. Share price of Nintendo, the company behind the Pokémon game, immediately fell 3.2%.
For health professionals, the number 12,000 children needing medical treatment means nothing. That program was watched by 4.6 million households. About 5,000 people, one person has photosensitive epilepsy, the rate is 0.02%. But the number of children reporting symptoms seems to be out of proportion.
That mystery persisted for four years, until it caught the attention of Benjamin Radford, a researcher at the U.S. Committee to Investigate Skeptical Information.
“The investigation has stalled, the mystery disappears without explanation,” he said. “I wanted to see if I could solve this case.”
Together with Robert Bartholomew, a medical sociologist, he began examining the timeline of events and discovered an important detail. “What people missed is that it didn’t happen overnight, it went on for days, and the spread happened in schools and in the media,” he said.
A picture capturing the MSI phenomenon in history
Radford and Bartholomew’s finding was that most of the children affected fell ill after hearing about the harm the episode brought. Although the December 16 broadcast of the cartoon episode did indeed cause hundreds of children to experience symptoms of light-sensitive epilepsy, something else happened in the cases. next. The next day, in the playgrounds and classrooms, in the news and on the breakfast table, it was all about Pokémon Shock. At that point, many children begin to feel unwell. This was further aggravated when some news programs actually replayed the impactful clip. But this time, according to Radford, the reported symptoms (headache, dizziness, vomiting) were “more characteristic of mass sociogenic illness (MSI) than photosensitive epilepsy.” .
MSI, also known as mass psychogenic illness (MPI), or more colloquially as mass hysteria, is a well-documented phenomenon with many notable cases in history. . Take, for example, the epidemic of dancing in the middle ages to the outbreak of uncontrollable laughter in Tanzania in 1962.
“MSI is complex and often misunderstood, but essentially, it is when anxiety manifests itself as physical symptoms that can be spread through social contact. It is often found in closed social units such as factories and schools, where there is a strong social hierarchy. The symptoms were real – the victims weren’t faking it or making it up – but the cause was misattributed,” Radford said. This condition is thought to most closely resemble the reverse placebo effect. That is, people can make themselves sick with just one thought.
The Pokémon Shock event isn’t the only one caused by a TV show. In May 2006, Padre António Vieira High School in Lisbon reported 22 cases of an unknown and rapidly spreading virus in the school hall. Students complain of shortness of breath, rash, dizziness and fainting. Schools closed as news of the virus spread. Before long, it affected more than 300 students at 15 schools in Portugal, many of which had to close.
Doctors were baffled and could find no evidence of the virus, other than the student’s symptoms. Dr. Mario Almeida, a doctor, said at the time: “I don’t know of any disease that is so selective that it only attacks students.”
Then a strange truth began to emerge. Just before the outbreak of the epidemic, the popular teen drama Morangos com Açúcar (roughly translated as Sugary Strawberries) aired a plot in which a terrible disease struck a school. In the film, when performing an experiment with a virus, a character accidentally releases it and the students are immediately knocked down, the disease spreads mercilessly throughout the fictional school named Colegio Da Barra.
Back in the real world, with the school year coming to an end and many students stressing over exams, the story simply had a stronger impact on younger audiences than expected.
A scene from the documentary Ghostwatch
However, it is not only students who are susceptible to the disease. On October 31, 1992, a Halloween broadcast caused panic across the UK.
At that time, the British news agency broadcast the live program Ghostwatch. The content of the program is about the journey to decipher supernatural phenomena in a low-income neighborhood in North London.
90 minutes long, the program started slowly and then gradually pushed up the tension with a series of chilling details such as floating balls, unusual sounds, moving furniture, wailing cats… The climax… is the scene where the entire crew of the show suddenly ran away from the scene, panicking to announce that they had unknowingly released cruel ghosts all over England.
Soon after, more than 30,000 people in a state of fear or anger attacked the British news agency’s switchboard. The next day’s newspapers heavily criticized the program. Six cases of children aged 10-14 years with symptoms of PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) were documented.
Although the show team later clarified that Ghostwatch was written and filmed weeks in advance, its documentary style and reality TV-like performance led many viewers to believe the events of the series. TV events are real.
In fact, instances of Ghostwatch or Pokémon Shock may not exactly meet textbook definitions of MSI, as they are not associated with people developing symptoms. But, from Radford’s point of view, they are the same.
“Strictly speaking, the panic is not MSI, but they are related. That is, there is an element of social contagion, where fear is legitimized and compounded in the context of uncertainty. Many people report seeing and experiencing all sorts of strange phenomena that simply didn’t happen,” he said.
Most people assume they would react differently under such circumstances. But if you look back at the historical cases, you can easily see that the people affected were not stupid, gullible or crazy. That is, any of us would probably react the same way. In other words, we are all likely to succumb to MSI. So keep that in mind the next time you decide what you want to see.
Refer to TheGuardian