10 Strangest Mass Hysterias

Kissing Bug Scare (1899)
This illustration shows a kissing bug attacking a caterpillar. DeAgostini/Getty Images

Kissing bugs, a subfamily of assassin bugs, feed on the blood of mammals, including humans. Often entering homes and outhouses, they like to bite the thinner skin of a victim's face or lips, which make for an easier snack. When kissing bugs bite, they can be quite painful, and some carry disease [source: University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee].

In 1899, a kissing bug epidemic exploded in the northeastern U.S. More than 60 newspaper articles from around the nation breathlessly reported accounts of people waking up with swollen eyelids and lips. Although swelling subsided usually in two or three days, the papers noted a few cases of death from these bugs. Residents of cities from Boston to Atlanta became terrified of all flying insects and began sending bug specimens to entomologists, asking whether their specimen was a deadly kissing bug [Garcia et al.].

When entomologists examined these bugs, they found a variety of insects, ranging from houseflies to beetles to bees. Leland Howard, entomology chief for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, referred to this scare as a "newspaper epidemic, for every insect bite where the biter was not at once recognized was attributed to the popular and somewhat mysterious creature" [source: Bartholomew and Evans].The panic apparently subsided when newspapers stopped covering it.