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‘Polar Hysteria’ May Have Caused the Dyatlov Pass Incident

There have been so many theories – logical, evidence-based, conspiracy and otherwise – about the strange disappearances which have come to be known as the Dyatlov Pass Incident that it’s becoming almost mandatory that when another one pops up, the first question to ask is, “Have we heard this one before?” The latest one comes from a large news agency in Russia and has to do with a mysterious yet well-known condition among indigenous people known as “polar hysteria.” Have you heard this before?

“Once I was visiting my daughter, who taught at the largest university in the Arctic Circle – the Murmansk Arctic State University, where they told me about a strange disease. The disease manifests itself in the fact that people are temporarily disconnected from the real perception of the environment – they hear voices, sounds, see angels or beautiful female faces, and at the same time repeat movements. There is evidence of a sudden departure to the north of entire camps of northern peoples, leaving burning centers and crying babies.”

Vasily Mekhonoshin, who describes himself as a researcher but doesn’t say what his specialty is (we’ll assume for this article that it’s the Dyatlov incident), wrote a letter to the editorial board of the Russian news agency ura.ru describing his theory about the sudden and yet unexplained deaths of Igor Dyatlov and seven other skier/hikers in February 1959 in the northern Ural Mountains of the former Soviet Union. He calls it “meryachka” which is the word used by the Pormors – descendants of settlers from Novgorod. The Saamis (formerly known as Laplanders) call it Emerik while the Yakuts (who live in the Republic of Sakha) call it the “shaman’s navy” (this sounds more like a mistranslation by Google). North American Inuits call it pibloktoq and the American Psychiatric Association calls it Arctic or Polar Hysteria. So, why does Vasily Mekhonoshin call it the cause of the demise of the Dyatlov group?

“Witnesses noted that people covered by the “meryachka” tend to move north, become insensitive to pain and cold, some tear their clothes on, and if someone tries to stop them, they become aggressive and resist with inhuman force. The condition can last a long time, at the end convulsions and sobs can be observed, and then deep sleep. A person comes to himself unexpectedly and does not remember any of this.”

Hmm. That sounds like some of the strange behavior indicated by the state of the campsite. Mekhonoshin surmises that the cold and sensory deprivation experienced by the hikers had put them in this zombie state of polar hysteria, causing them to leave camp in a violent disarray, tear off their clothes and move to the northeast before waking up confused, partially naked and unable to return – ultimately freezing to death.

Are there any holes in Mekhonoshin ‘s polar hysteria theory? The condition was unknown outside of northern indigenous cultures until Western explorers encountered them. After studying people showing the strange symptoms, scientists tended toward polar hysteria being an Arctic cultural disorder caused by the lack of sun, extreme cold, isolation and the desolated state of northern villages. Further, they saw it more in women than men (hence the term ‘hysteria’) and attributed that to more women being left alone while the men left to hunt, fish or explore.

Polar hysteria?

If that’s the case, the Dyatlov group is disqualified on a number of counts. The hikers were mostly men and not indigenous but Russian university students living in dorms, not isolated villages. They were also exposed to the extreme cold for a relatively short period, not the mind-numbing months of arctic winters. Finally, psychologists suggest that there are few observed victim of polar hysteria and most of the early accounts are by male explorers of female natives. Finally, the cultures practiced shamanism and unfamiliar ceremonies that may have confused outsiders. In other words, there’s plenty of doubt that ‘polar hysteria’ is a real condition.

That diagnosis won’t stop people like Vasily Mekhonoshin and other trying to solve the mystery of the Dyatlov Pass Incident. He gets credit for one thing … I haven’t heard that one before.

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Paul Seaburn is the editor at Mysterious Universe and its most prolific writer. He’s written for TV shows such as "The Tonight Show", "Politically Incorrect" and an award-winning children’s program. He's been published in “The New York Times" and "Huffington Post” and has co-authored numerous collections of trivia, puzzles and humor. His “What in the World!” podcast is a fun look at the latest weird and paranormal news, strange sports stories and odd trivia. Paul likes to add a bit of humor to each MU post he crafts. After all, the mysterious doesn't always have to be serious.
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