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‘There was an explosion, and I had to close my eyes’: how TV left 12,000 children needing a doctor | Television

Twenty-five years ago, at precisely 6.51pm on 16 December 1997, hundreds of children across Japan experienced seizures. In total, 685 – 310 boys and 375 girls – were taken by ambulance to hospital. Within two days, 12,000 children had reported symptoms of illness. The common factor in this sudden mass outbreak was an unlikely culprit: an episode of the Pokémon cartoon series.

The instalment in question, Dennō Senshi Porygon (Electric Soldier Porygon), was the 38th in the Pokémon anime’s first season – and initially, at least, it sparked a medical mystery. Twenty minutes into the cartoon, an explosion took place, illustrated by an animation technique known as paka paka, which broadcast alternating red and blue flashing lights at a rate of 12Hz for six seconds. Instantly, hundreds of children experienced photosensitive epileptic seizures – accounting for some, but far from all, of the hospitalisations.

Ten-year-old Takuya Sato said: “Towards the end of the programme there was an explosion, and I had to close my eyes because of an enormous yellow light like a camera flash.” A 15-year-old girl from Nagoya reported: “As I was watching blue and red lights flashing on the screen, I felt my body becoming tense. I do not remember what happened afterwards.”

The phenomenon, headlined “Pokémon Shock” by Japanese media, became big news – it was reported around the world. The cartoon’s producers were questioned by police, while the ministry of health, labour and welfare held an emergency meeting. The share price of Nintendo, the company behind the Pokémon games, dropped by 3.2%.

To medical experts, the figure of 12,000 children requiring medical treatment made no sense. The programme had been watched by 4.6 million households. About one in 5,000 people has photosensitive epilepsy: 0.02%. But 0.02% of 4.6 million would mean 920 people were affected – this figure was more than 10 times that amount.

The mystery persisted for four years, until it piqued the attention of Benjamin Radford, a research fellow at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry in the US, and co-host of the podcast Squaring the Strange. “The investigation had just stalled, the mystery sort of faded away without an explanation,” he says. “I wanted to see if I could solve the case.”

Along with Robert Bartholomew, a medical sociologist, he set about examining the timeline of events, and unearthed a key detail. “What people missed was that it wasn’t just a one-night event but instead unfolded over several days, and the contagion occurred in schools and over the news media.”

‘There was an explosion, and I had to close my eyes’: how TV left 12,000 children needing a doctor | Television
Orson Welles rehearsing The War of the Worlds in 1938. Photograph: World History Archive/Alamy

What Radford and Bartholomew discovered was that the vast majority of affected children had become ill after hearing about the programme’s effects. Although the cartoon’s transmission on 16 December did indeed cause hundreds of children to experience symptoms resulting from photosensitive epilepsy, something else was at play in the subsequent cases. The next day, in playgrounds and classrooms, in news bulletins and at breakfast tables, all the talk was of Pokémon Shock. At which point, more children began to feel unwell. This was exacerbated when, astonishingly, some news shows actually screened the offending clip. But this time, the symptoms (headaches, dizziness, vomiting) were, says Radford, “much more characteristic of mass sociogenic illness [MSI] than photosensitive epilepsy”.

MSI, also known as mass psychogenic illness (MPI), and more colloquially as mass hysteria, is a well-documented phenomenon with cases spread throughout history, from meowing nuns and dancing epidemics in the middle ages to an outbreak of uncontrollable laughter in Tanzania in 1962. According to Radford: “MSI is complex and often misunderstood, but basically it’s when anxiety manifests itself in 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 are real – the victims are not faking or making them up – but the cause is misattributed.” The condition is perhaps best understood as the placebo effect in reverse. People can make themselves ill from nothing more than an idea.

The Pokémon Shock event wasn’t the only case of a broadcast programme triggering an outbreak of MSI. In May 2006, the Padre António Vieira secondary school in Lisbon reported 22 cases of an unknown virus spreading rapidly in its halls. Students complained of difficulty breathing, rashes, dizziness and fainting. The school shut down as news of the virus spread. Before long, it had affected more than 300 students in 15 Portuguese schools, many of which closed.

Doctors were baffled, and could find no evidence of the virus, beyond the students’ symptoms. One medic, Dr Mario Almeida, said at the time: “I know of no disease which is so selective that it only attacks schoolchildren.”

Then the strange truth began to emerge. Just before the outbreak, the popular teen soap Morangos com Açúcar (Strawberries with Sugar) had aired a storyline in which a terrible disease had struck a school. While working on an experiment with a virus (not a noted part of the high-school syllabus, one imagines) a character inadvertently released it and students were immediately struck down, the sickness spreading mercilessly through the fictional school of Colegio Da Barra.

Back in the real world, with the end of the academic year approaching, and many students stressed about exams, the story simply had a more dramatic effect on its young audience than had been intended.

A girl hiding behind a chair
The spoof Ghostwatch documentary from 1992. Photograph: BBC

It is not only schoolchildren who are susceptible, however. On 31 October 1992, a Halloween broadcast caused mass panic across the UK. Ghostwatch adopted many of the tropes of Orson Welles’ The War of the Worlds – a radio drama that caused mass panic in the US when it aped a news report of a Martian invasion. Ghostwatch involved a supposedly live factual broadcast (actually recorded and scripted) of events as they took a terrifyingly sinister turn. Featuring familiar faces including Michael Parkinson, Sarah Greene, Mike Smith and Craig Charles, the programme purported to be an investigation into paranormal activity in a house in Northolt, west London.

The show began slowly, before ramping up the tension with a series of ever more chilling incidents, culminating in Greene, reporting live from the house, being dragged through a cellar door. The in-studio paranormal expert reported that the poltergeist, nicknamed Mr Pipes, was using the broadcast to create a nationwide séance circle, invading the public’s homes. The show concluded with Pipes taking over the studio, and the crew all fleeing, leaving Parkinson wandering around, seemingly possessed by the spirit.

In the immediate aftermath, more than 30,000 terrified or angry callers – including Parkinson’s elderly mother – bombarded the BBC’s switchboard. The following day’s newspapers featured heavy criticism of the show. Six cases of children aged 10-14 exhibiting symptoms of PTSD were recorded, and the BBC was later criticised by the Broadcasting Standards Commission for involving children’s presenters Greene and Smith, whose presence “took some parents off-guard in deciding whether their children could continue to view”.

The cases of Ghostwatch and The War of the Worlds may not exactly meet the textbook definition of mass sociogenic illness, as they do not involve people developing symptoms. But, says Radford, they are in the same ballpark. “The panics were not, strictly speaking, MSI, but they are related. That is, there was an element of social contagion, where fears were legitimised and compounded in the context of uncertainty. Many people, quite sincerely, reported seeing and experiencing all sorts of strange phenomena that simply were not happening. Like mass hysteria, these are classic examples of when mundane events were reinterpreted as extraordinary within a certain context.”

Most people assume they would react differently in such circumstances. For them, Radford has this salutary message: “It’s important to recognise that the people affected weren’t stupid, very gullible, or crazy – any of us might react in the same way.” In other words, we are all capable of succumbing to MSI. Bear that in mind next time you are deciding what to watch. Countryfile all round, then?

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