THE ONE OCCASION WHEN THE TALKING STICK BROKE
Or How I Was Almost Overwhelmed by Mass Hysteria
One of the most famous cases of mass hysteria is the Salem Witch trials that began during the spring of 1692, after a group of young girls in Salem Village, Massachusetts, claimed to be possessed and accused several local women of witchcraft.
A wave of hysteria spread throughout the colonial Massachusetts. A special court convened in Salem to hear the cases. The first convicted witch was Bridget Bishop. Eighteen others followed Bishop to the gallows, while some 150 men and women and children were accused over the next several months.
The hysteria began with uncontrollable outbursts of screaming and crying. While I was not around during the spring of 1692 to witness the birth of the famous Salem hysteria, I thought I experienced a small sampling of what hysteria may have looked like about four to five years ago -
Back in my previous life as a screenwriting lecturer.
Once, there was a group of nine students who were producing a short film based on a high concept story idea, meaning it was an idea that when pitched to strangers, had the ability to immediately stop you in your tracks and make you go Hmm. But like all high-concept ideas, they were easy to lay down in words, but notoriously tricky to produce and execute as a film. Especially when it involved special effects, to be accomplished within the low budget of a student film.
But the director was game for a challenge.
And so was his team and I thought with passion and will, we could overcome all obstacles.
I was so wrong.
I sensed trouble when the group’s lecturer reported to me that the group members were having difficulties communicating with the director. The director, who also happened to be the writer, was unhappy with the story and kept changing the script. He would decide on a story direction one week and have his team scout for locations and costumes and props, but he would chuck everything the next week and send his team on another round of location and costumes and prop research. This would happen week after week. The toll wore down the team morale, causing them to raise some questions like -
What did the director want?
Where was the story going?
Questions that needed a firm answer from the writer and director and team leader. But the team were not getting any. All they heard was a deafening silence. He would not answer texts or calls. It was as if he had retreated into a vast cold empty space to which no signal could reach him and from which no signal could return. The kind of changes he would make to his own script reminded me of someone who freely administered cuts to his own arms and legs like one of those self-harming individuals.
All this friction and tension however was not unusual. It’s not uncommon for a student team to suffer temporary setbacks because it takes time for personalities to gel together. But this case was unique. Not only was the team not getting along with the director, but the team was not getting along with the lecturer as well. Story meetings often began with simmering tension and ended with suppressed anger from both the team and their lecturer.
Because a student’s final year project takes weeks to develop, these tense story meetings slowly added to the bad and noxious air filling up the balloon of dissatisfaction. Eventually the balloon had to pop. And it popped when I received news that certain group members had put up a small passport-sized photo of the lecturer in the girl’s toilet.
As the overall-in-charge lecturer, I stepped in.
I had to douse the fire before it burned the whole team down.
I had to get the group together to talk it out.
And to get it done, I had to use the talking stick.
This was literally a stick I use to settle team conflicts. I had talked about it in a previous blog. How I used it as a device to make sure everyone had a chance to air his or her grievances and give everyone a chance to be heard.
It had been effective when I was handling my own group of students in the past. It would take hours at times to get through to everyone in a group but at the end of the session, people would leave the session vastly relieved and eager to make a brand-new start.
I thought with this group, it would be no different.
I was SO wrong.
As per usual, I had requested the group of nine students, comprising of seven girls and two boys, to gather in a circle. Then the passing of the talking stick commenced. My memory is somewhat vague at this point. But I recalled the meeting began with a revelation.
The director set forth his case. He had been undergoing severe stress and he apologizes for his indecisions and causing all the delays to his team. He would prefer to step aside and hand over the role of director to someone else.
What began as a chance for the students to air grievances turned into a discussion of who could replace the director.
Ordinarily that would be the assistant director. This was a girl.
She began to lament that she was entirely unprepared to take on such a huge responsibility and that she did not sign up to be a director, and why should the director be the only one under stress as she was also under stress and complained that since this project started, she had been sleeping only three hours every day.
She began to wail.
Then came the production designer.
Who was also a girl.
Her voice began to quiver as she confessed that she had episodes of psychotic breakdowns when she was growing up and she thought she had gotten over them but recently, those episodes were starting to return.
She began to wail.
So now there were two girls wailing, which triggered a round of sniffles from the next girl who was the producer. Her outburst at this point, was operatic in its intensity as she launched into a tirade against the director, lambasting him for his lack of leadership and how she had to cover for him and how much weight she had lost and how unfair it was for the whole team to look out for him and still, not a single acknowledgement of thanks from him for the stress he had put them through and especially herself as a producer.
The cameraman and set designer, both of whom were girls, let loose a torrent of tears and soon every girl was simultaneously holding hands and wiping tears from their faces. The entire session was held in a soundproof room so the wailing and crying and lamenting were amped up to a tremendous volume. Meanwhile, the two boys (director and editor) were struck dumb by the hysteria that was slowly but surely building up to a fever pitch.
As for myself, I felt a panic grip my insides. If I did not do something quickly, I would find myself pulled under the blood-tide of hysteria. For the first time, I had to take back my talking stick. I stopped the session. Made everyone take a break.
It would be a while before the group could get together as a team and talked things out.
The talking stick had failed.
Or did it?
What struck me about the whole incident was the speed of the chain reaction of crying, wailing and lamenting. It only took a few seconds of hysteria to mow down all pillars of rationality with the brutal force of a tsunami. I do not know if it is a gender phenomenon. Is hysteria a condition unique to the fairer sex? Lest anyone think so, I would like to mention a similar case of hysteria that happened to men in Singapore in the sixties. Adult men panicked because they read about a certain condition known as Koro. Koro was an affliction that caused the penises of grown men to shrink back into their abdomens. It was rumored to be caused by consuming pork that had been inoculated against the swine flu.
A study conducted in 1969 suggested the following:
“There was concern about chickens being injected with oestrogen to increase their growth. Some men were afraid that the oestrogen in the chicken would cause gynaecomastia and avoided chicken meat. At about the same time, there was a rumour that contaminated pork was being sold on the market and that diseased pigs were being inoculated against swine fever. This triggered off the epidemic and a possible explanation of the outbreak is that the inoculation of the pigs was seen to be similar to the injection of chickens with oestrogen.”
At the peak of the Epidemic of the Shrinking Penis, the Singapore General Hospital was seeing 70 to 80 cases a week. Soon, desperate Singaporean men all over the island were rushing to doctors, holding on to their disappearing genitals with all kinds of objects including rubber-bands, strings, clamps, chopsticks, and clothes pegs.
I should not have assumed that because one method of team management worked, it would have worked for all teams. It is a reminder to always regard every case as unique and assess it on its own merits. I let my guard down. Instead of using the talking stick on all the group members, I should have tried to apply it between two or three members at the start. Thankfully, the team survived, with everyone graduating and moving on to universities and jobs in the industry. Nevertheless, to this day, what goes on with the circuitry inside a human brain boggles my imagination.