The Christchurch Civic Creche Case

News Reports - Main Index

2005 Index 1 (Jan-Mar)


NZ Listener
Vol 197 No 3373
January 1 2005

The Bluffers Guide to Mass Hysteria

Mass hysteria? Basically, it's a collective delusional fear - witches, the devil, the end of the world - typically affecting small, tight-knit communities but sometimes involv­ing an entire populace.

Examples? Salem, the US village where at least 20 people and two dogs were executed for practising witchcraft, is the classic case, and the Nigerian vanishing genitalia epidemic of 1990 is a more recent instance.

And in New Zealand? Many cite the outbreak of satanic, ritualistic and paedophilic accusations, of which Peter Ellis was a victim, as an example of this phenomenon, but the best local instance was the great Unidentified Flying Dirigible panic of 1908-09.

The flying what? Dirigible. Zeppelin, or airship, a craft associated with the Kaiser regime, then the international bogey du jour.

What happened? Despite no such craft operating in New Zealand at that time, hundreds of people began seeing vast, glowing dirigibles at night, at first in deepest Southland, but the panic really started with the celebrated Balclutha incident.

Things happen in Balclutha? Yes, the Clutha Free Press reported on the "phantom airship", a huge illuminated object moving at great speed, where­upon sightings of the UFD moved northward to Oamaru.

Surely people were sceptical? This from the Otago Daily Times reporter: "All those scholars who saw the ship were interrogated singly and independently and were asked to draw an impression of what they had seen. The result was six drawings, the degree of resemblance and unanimity of which was nothing short of dumbfounding to all sceptics."

What happened next? Eyewitness accounts of the glowing craft spread to Gore, Marlborough, Hawke's Bay, Wanganui, Palmerston North, Waihi, Thames and Dargaville. Pretty soon, Unidentified Flying Dirigibles were seen in Melbourne, and Goulburn, NSW, but apart from one more visit to Gore, sightings of the phantom airship in New Zealand ceased.

Could they have been UFOs? (Long silence.)