Photo: A quien no le fascina el terror?? from Óscar flickr photo stream

When people experience anxiety and become hyper-vigilant, mass psychogenic phenomena may become more common. The Gatwick drone drama of Christmas 2018 is a candidate.

On the day that drones were spotted flying over Gatwick airport, we all wondered what was going on. A terrorist incident? Environmentalist direct action? An extortion racket? Or, for want of a better term, were the drone sightings ‘imaginary’? When that last explanation came to mind, I was sure that I had read something years ago about generalised anxiety having the potential to cause group outbreaks of imaginary/psychosomatic symptoms.

In scientific circles, the phenomenon is known as ‘mass psychogenic illness’ (MPI). And the thing I was thinking of was a 2006 paper titled ‘Mass Hysteria Revisited’ by psychologists Balaratnasingam and Jancaconcerning the kinds of MPI outbreaks that involve symptoms relating to a real, rumoured or imaginary ‘trigger’. In many ways, these kinds of events are the ‘classic’ MPI. A relatively recent British example was the 2015 nausea outbreak among school students in Yorkshire.

In their publication, Balaratnasingam and Jancaare concerned that an increase in acts of terrorism and, crucially, the fear and anxiety associated with terrorism may be leading to an increase in MPI outbreaks. Indeed, they seemed to foresee one aspect of the 2018 Salisbury poisoning, where twenty-one people (or was it forty people?) went to hospital, although it turned out that only three were suffering from actual poisoning:

 “Instances of mass psychogenic response have occurred throughout history, and across population groups; however, the present-day threat of terrorism and biological warfare is expected to enhance societal vulnerability to epidemics of such events”

While the multiple exhibition of symptoms by people believing they have been contaminated is not the same as several dozen reports of flying objects, the latter might well be an example of a closely-related phenomenon commonly referred to as ‘mass hallucination’. In cases of ‘mass hallucination’, many people, often in the same location, sometimes simultaneously, sometimes serially, report seeing a particular and noteworthy phenomenon.

The phenomenona person sees can be something directly associated with the see-er, such as a malevolent entity which is intent on attacking them. Famous examples include the ‘Spring-heeled Jack‘ panic that gripped Victorian England and the ‘Chupacabras‘ phenomenon in contemporary Central America. In another variant, a benign, revered or protective entity is seen. Striking examples of this form are the ‘Angel of Mons‘ visions that were reported by retreating British soldiers in 1915 or the ‘Virgin of Fátima‘ apparitions in rural Portugal. In other cases, the ‘thing’ that figures in multiple reports has a more general, less immediate relationship with each individual see-er. Regularly occurring, close-to-home examples of this type are the perennial sightings of large wild cats reported from across the UK (see British Big Cats Society for a believer’s view and journalist George Monbiot for a more sceptical approach).

If the Gatwick (and later Heathrow?) drone reports are an example of this kind of thing, the case appears to lie somewhere between the ‘immediate threat to me’ and the ‘of more general interest’ categories. While the people who saw, for example, ‘Spring-heeled Jack’ felt immediately threatened on a one-to-one basis, those reporting seeing the drone presumably felt at risk in a slightly less personal way. If the drone see-ers did feel that the whole airport was ‘under lethal attack’ by aircraft and their lives were in imminent danger, this wasn’t evident in the otherwise quite sensationalist news coverage on the day. Rather, the general idea was that, while a drone could possibly pose a deadly threat to an individual plane, it could certainly cause significant inconvenience to hundreds if not thousands of people, by disrupting their travel plans. Thankfully, the first of these (a truly terrible prospect) did not occur. It was the second which actually came to pass. Possibly significantly, that is the one that doesn’t require a real drone. It only needs individuals and systems to act on reports – not proven reports. In both the Gatwick and Heathrow cases the airport authorities, perfectly reasonably and properly, opted to ‘err on the safe side’.

In terms of being an event related to “the present-day threat of terrorism and biological warfare”, the Gatwick incident clearly qualifies. Public transport users throughout the world are repeatedly exhorted to be vigilant while travelling and are encouraged to report swiftly any suspicions to law enforcement or transport personnel.

In the UK this cultural development is strikingly visible in the shape of the “See it, Say it, Sorted” advertising campaign, which (in spite of widespread criticisms for its linguistic failings and its taint of xenophobia) continues to assail rail passengers at every opportunity. Most, if not all, of the Gatwick ‘drone sighting reporters’ would have encountered “See it, Say it, Sorted” posters, stickers and repeated audio announcements in the hours and minutes running up to the events. It’s quite possible that, with the added ingredient of the ‘normal’ stress of a crowded airport at Christmas time, the call to be vigilant was rather over-successful. People “saw” and people, “said”. What they will make of no-one “sorting” remains to be seen. Of course, it could be that there was nothing to “sort”.