We live in an age where terrorism is rampant, and any one of us might be the target of violent attacks at any point. Of particular worry are those of a biological or chemical origin, and this has been enough to cause a great amount of panic through the general populace. Yet, there have also been occasions where there has been an apparent attack, with victims and hospitalizations where nothing was to be found wrong at all, as if the attack was merely a figment of the imagination despite all of the chaos it has caused. Such accounts are actually quite numerous, and we are left to try and figure out what to think of these phantom attacks. Here we will look at a few of these bizarre cases and try to search for some semblance of an answer to it all.
A very strange incident unfolded in May of 2004 in downtown Vancouver, Canada. City bus 98 was doing its rounds on an otherwise normal day when it made a stop and one of the disembarking passengers casually asked the bus driver how he was. When the driver answered that his day was going just fine, the mysterious passenger was heard to ominously say “It’s won’t be for long.” It is an odd thing to say, and despite this sinister comment, the bus continued on its way, that is until the driver suddenly experienced extreme nausea several stops later and began vomiting uncontrollably. Shortly after this, other passengers began to feel ill as well, until the entire bus was experiencing similar symptoms and paramedics were called. Upon reaching the bus, two paramedics also became inexplicably nauseous, and it was soon thought that a bio-terrorist attack was going on.
In the wake of this crisis many passengers, as well as journalists who had arrived at the scene, were quarantined, and investigators in biohazard suits were brought in to examine the bus. Yet, they found nothing, not a single sign of any dangerous chemical or biological agent, with Vancouver’s chief medical officer John Blatherwick saying, “All they found was an acorn under the seat. They tested the hell out of it and found nothing.” Police nevertheless were still under the impression that some sophisticated terrorist weapon was being deployed, but despite their symptoms all of the sickened people who were examined at the hospital were also found to have nothing physically wrong with them at all. There was nothing to go on. It was utterly baffling that so many people could be experiencing such severe symptoms, yet there was nothing found to be causing it all. Was it all in their heads? If so, who was that mysterious passenger who had given that portent of things to come? It didn’t make any sense. No sign of any dangerous substance and no suspect was ever found, with Vancouver police finally closing the file on it with a big question mark and the “Toxic Bus” case remaining a mystery.
While very odd, this is not the only time such a thing has happened by a long shot, being neither the first such enigmatic case nor the last. Perhaps the most famous and dramatic such case occurred all the way back in 1944, in the sleepy Midwestern town of Mattoon, Illinois, in the United States. This was during the days of World War II, when the country was embroiled in one of the bloodiest wars in history, and even in the homeland, far from the chaotic battlefields, most people were on on edge and on high alert, the ever looming specter of an enemy attack on home soil casting an oppressive shadow over everything. After all, it had already happened with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and a relentless campaign of German U-Boat attacks off the eastern seaboard. There was also the persistent rumor that the desperate Axis powers might resort to mass attacks of chemical weapons on American soil. It was in this atmosphere of paranoia and burrowing fear that in late August, 1944, a new threat began to stalk the normally quiet town of Mattoon.
The first attack by what would go on to be known as The Mad Gasser of Mattoon allegedly occurred on the evening of August 31, 1944, when a man named Urban Raef claimed that he had been awakened during the night by a noxious odor in his room that had caused severe vomiting, shortness of breath, and general weakness all over his body. His wife had also been paralyzed by the pungent odor, unable to get her body to respond enough to even get out of bed to see if perhaps the stove gas had been left on. On that very same evening, a similar incident happened when a small girl fell ill from some strange smell, which had caused a severe coughing fit, yet the mother found that she had been paralyzed and unable to get out of bed to check on her ailing daughter.
The next day, on September 1, 1944, there would come what is perhaps the most well-known case. On this evening, a Mrs. Kearney was reportedly sleeping near a window with her youngest daughter as her her other two daughters, her sister, and her nephew slept in other rooms when she smelled a potent, sweet smell. The woman at first suspected it was merely the smell of summer flowers wafting in from outside, but the odor became steadily stronger until it was nearly overpowering, and she felt her body growing weak under its staggering might. As her legs threatened to buckle underneath her, Mrs. Kearney called out to her sister for help, who came into the room and was immediately hit by the potent sweet smell pervading the air. Fearful that it was some sort of gas attack, the sister ran to a neighbor’s home and had them call the authorities, yet when they arrived they could find no evidence of the alleged gas nor any prowler. Mrs. Kearney and her daughter are reported to have recovered from the effects of the “gas” shortly after the attack, although Mrs. Kearney continued to complain of a burning sensation in her throat.
When Mr. Kearney returned home not long after from his job as a taxi driver, he claimed that he saw a strange figure lurking outside his wife’s bedroom window. According to Mr. Kearney, it seemed to be a tall, thin man dressed in dark clothing and “a tight fitting cap,” and this odd trespasser had allegedly fled the scene into the night. Although Mr. Kearney chased the intruder, he was unable to catch whoever it was that had been skulking about, and he called police, who once again returned to search the property to no avail. The best explanation police could come up with was that it had perhaps been a would be robber attempting to steal something and being thwarted.
Although it was still unclear at this point just what was going on, the media went with the strange story with sensationalistic aplomb, splashing ominous headlines across papers that said things like “Anesthetic Prowler on the Loose!” In the midst of this media frenzy, more reports came forward in the following days from people who had apparently been assailed by the same mysterious intruder, with the description of a tall man dressed in dark clothes and cap remaining consistent across the board. Some reports made mention of the attacker carrying what is known as a “flit gun,” which is an apparatus used for spraying pesticide. The smell of the gas itself ranged from a flowery sweet smell, to an odor like perfume, to an unpleasant, musky scent. The symptoms varied as well. In most of these cases, the victims complained of a sickly odor and numerous negative physical effects including nausea, weakness, throat, lip, and eye irritation, swelling, muscle spasms, and partial paralysis, yet authorities were never able to find any evidence of an intruder or of anything broken or stolen in the targeted homes. However, in one of these cases, the mysterious phantom attacker finally left behind some evidence.
On September 5, at around 10 PM, a Carl and Beulah Cordes returned home to find a strange white cloth lying upon their porch near a screen door. Mrs. Cordes allegedly picked up the cloth and noticed an odd odor emanating from it. When she held it briefly to her nose to give it a whiff, she promptly began to vomit uncontrollably as her face began to swell up and her throat began to burn as if it were on fire. At the same time, her legs wobbled and she felt as if she had no control over her limbs. She was taken to a hospital and these symptoms lasted for several hours afterwards. When the police arrived at the home they were able to find a well-worn key lying upon the sidewalk nearby, as well as a nearly empty tube of lipstick, although it is unclear what relation these two items have to the cloth, if any. An analysis of the cloth found no sign of chemicals on it, but Mrs. Cordes was adamant that there had been, and she was convinced it had been left out to knock out their dog in order to gain entry into the house. Although a man was found wandering about near the home around the time of the incident who told police that he was lost, he was soon ruled out as a potential suspect and set free.
For the next week similar reports would pour in of people being purportedly attacked by some sort of mysterious gas and of seeing the fleeting phantom attacker wearing dark clothing. Some of the reports were rather harrowing, such as the case of a Mrs. Leonard Burrell, who claimed that she watched as the phantom attacker broke into her room and proceed to spray her with the pungent gas. In order to deal with the threat and help to curb the profound panic that was starting to overtake Mattoon, state police were called in, as well as the FBI, yet no suspects were ever apprehended, although further evidence of the phantom attacker was forthcoming in the form of footprints that were often found outside of windows.
Despite these footprints, there was no real concrete evidence of the perpetrator or his mysterious chemical agent, and there was additionally no clear motive for the attacks, as no one had died and nothing had been stolen. The only thing known was that whoever it was had the disturbing ability to appear from the shadows, carry out their mysterious gas attacks, and then melt back into the night without a trace. Joining the police were droves of hunters and amateur armed vigilantes who patrolled the streets on the look out for the phantom gas-wielding intruder but no sign turned up. Additionally, doctors who examined the many people brought in for treatment for the gas attacks were not able to find any concrete cause for the symptoms; the mystery substance involved just as seemingly ghostly as the attacker itself. The assailant was by now known as The Mad Gasser, and around two dozen such attacks were reported until on September 12th they suddenly just stopped. Although the local populace was convinced that their town had been held under siege by a gas spewing madman or even a ghost, authorities would chalk the whole incident up to frayed nerves from the war and mass hysteria, with not a shred of evidence that any dangerous materials had ever been present, let alone a phantom prowler. What was going on here?
In more recent years, in 1999 there was a very well-covered incident that happened in Belgium, when 33 students at a secondary school fell ill with symptoms including nausea, stomach pain, dizziness, and breathing difficulties after drinking cans of Coca Cola. The very next day, around 80 other children at other schools in the area showed the same symptoms after drinking containers of Coca Cola, and it turned into a major media circus, with talk of some sort of terrorist attack tainting the soft drinks. Before long, the Poison Control Center was receiving countless calls of people having the same symptoms after drinking the poisoned cola, and a 9-day ban on Coca Cola was issued across the country while experts could try to figure out what was going on and who the culprit was. Their findings? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Not a single dangerous substance could be found in any can of the soft drinks, and those who were hospitalized had no trace of anything known that could be causing their symptoms.
The following year, in 2000, a school in Tennessee was locked down after a teacher smelled a gaseous odor in her classroom that caused an estimated 150 students to experience nausea and fits and convulsions. Authorities and experts rushed to the scene and could find nothing to explain any of it. By all appearances there was nothing wrong with the place, and no sign at all of any hazardous gas. A similar scene went down the year after that, when in 2001 a man walked through a subway station in the U.S. state of Maryland spraying an unknown substance from a bottle. Almost immediately dozens of people were hospitalized for nausea, stomach pain, headaches, and sore throats, and police were notified. So what was the toxic spray? Nothing more than normal, harmless window cleaner, it turns out. There was no insidious chemical agent and nothing to explain the symptoms experienced by all of those people. In fact, nothing was found to be wrong with them at all.
In 2005, the Virgin Blue terminal at the Tullamarine airport in Melbourne had a crisis when a news reporter collapsed and security guards and other airport employees also came down with dizziness and respiratory problems. There was also reported to be a strange smell permeating the air like a gas, the entire terminal was quickly evacuated and over 60 flights cancelled in response to this obvious terrorist attack, and in the meantime 47 people were hospitalized with symptoms of a gas attack. Emergency biohazard responders were brought in, and in the end they found not a single thing out of the ordinary. The air was fine, no toxic material was present, and the terminal was soon after opened for business as usual after having stranded around 14,000 passengers.
More recent still, and probably one of the most well-known cases of all, occurred from 2016 in the country of Cuba, where numerous Canadian embassy staff and American diplomats started reporting potent headaches, dizziness, nosebleeds, and even convulsions. Many of these people were hospitalized and were found to have all of the symptoms of a concussion, but without having anything noticeably physically wrong with them. The story soon got out and rumors began making the rounds that these people had been the victims of some sort of “sonic attack” utilizing advanced technology to target them without being traceable. Oddly, American diplomats in China would soon after begin complaining of similar effects, and it became a major scare, with secret sonic weapons being talked about all over the place. It was all explained away as a sort of mass hysteria, but those who have experienced it say otherwise, with one former embassy official stating:
I know this is real and I’m going through this. And that language is very destructive and devastating. You’re talking about people who’ve been through military coups, states of emergency, cyclones, who have evacuated huge numbers of people in crisis … It’s the most resilient group you could have.
What has come to be called “The Havana Syndrome” has never had any satisfactory answer and remains unexplained. So what are we dealing with in these cases? Are these instances of some sort of extremely advanced method of attack that we simply lack the means to detect? Is it some other force from beyond our understanding? Or is it something else? One explanation put forward for such cases, and indeed others throughout history, is that we are dealing with a kind of infectious mass hysteria fueled by the social stresses and concerns of the day. The official term for it is “Mass Psychogenic Illness” (MPI), which is more or less a mass hysteria, but what does this imply and how does it work? Let’s take a look.
The whole thing more or less revolves around a sequence of psychosomatic symptoms, that is symptoms produced purely by the mind, basically a placebo effect of sorts, which can be extremely potent and very real for those who experience them. It is not particularly well-understood, since our comprehension of the processes of the brain is still surprisingly scant, but it basically deals with the brain creating avenues to deal with stress that it would otherwise have no outlet for venting off, and the brain is well documented as being able to create very real symptoms via imagination alone. In many of the cases we have looked at, the root is some very real intangible threat, in this case terrorism, and when one person experiences a panic and symptoms, this spreads to others, who can feel it all as being very real indeed, and one Dr. Richard Mathias has said of this:
Nausea, vomiting, all of those kinds of things are associated with this. Somebody starts to get sick and then it rapidly spreads to other people. (It’s) quite a classic presentation for this sort of thing.
While there is a stigma that such patients are somehow “faking it” this seems to be far from the truth, with the brain making these symptoms very real for those who experience them, and these symptoms can run quite the range, including headaches, dizziness or light-headedness, nausea, abdominal pains, cough, fatigue, drowsiness or weakness, nosebleeds, and a sore or burning throat, none of them with any plausible organic basis. These stresses worm their way into the brain and make a situation that is all to real for the victim, regardless of their standing or profession, with UCLA neurologist Robert Baloh saying, “The human brain is flawed, it is easily fooled. Everyone is susceptible.” Such cases have been recorded throughout history, and according to experts on the matter it is all rooted in our psyche. As one sociologist, Robert Bartholomew, has said:
Preventing future episodes is problematic as outbreaks are always morphing to take new forms. Only the form changes to reflect social and cultural conventions. In the past, episodes were driven by the fear of witches and demons; today it is toxic odors and terrorists. It is the equivalent of someone waking up in the middle of the night to a noise in the attic, and immediately assuming it is ghost, rather than calling the plumber.
So are we dealing with merely the workings of the mind? Are our own imaginations conjuring up these symptoms and sicknesses? Or is this all indicative of something else entirely? Could there be anything more to it all? If so, what could that possibly be? Many of the people in these cases have adamantly refused such a simple explanation, and we are left wondering what the true origins could be. For now, there is no complete, pat answer, and the mystery of these phantom attacks remains.