Havana Syndrome: The Intriguing History of Spies and Mass Hysteria 

Listen to True Spies' podcast: Havana Syndrome Special

Espionage and mass hysteria aren’t often entwined but after a century of ‘Red Scares’, a Cold War obsession with nuclear weapons, and now Havana Syndrome they have become uncomfortably close bedfellows.

Since 2016, just after the US reopened its Havana Embassy, hundreds of North American diplomats and CIA officers started complaining about headaches, brain fog, vertigo, and other debilitating symptoms. The complaints soon spread beyond Cuba to Russia, China, and Europe.

Many have been diagnosed with concussion-like symptoms without the concussion but the underlying cause triggers heated debate: Are the symptoms psychological or something much more sinister? 

Havana Syndrome & Mass Hysteria
Havana Syndrome began in Cuba in 2016



The CIA ruled out involvement of a hostile foreign power in all but about two dozen of the 200 cases but its February 2022 summary still reads like a plot of a Len Deighton thriller. Spy agency’s experts believe Havana Syndrome symptoms could ‘plausibly’ be caused by a ‘pulsed electromagnetic energy’ source with a signal ranging up to hundreds of meters - effective even through walls - but there’s no proof yet that there’s a weapon or who may be wielding it.

Some experts aren’t convinced a mystery illness even exists.

“After six years of investigating this case, and specializing in the study of mass psychogenic illness for the past 35, I am convinced that this is a case of mass psychogenic illness,” Dr. Robert Emerson Bartholomew, an American medical sociologist living in New Zealand, told SPYSCAPE.


Havana Syndrome: The Intriguing History of Spies and Mass Hysteria 

BY
Caroline Byrne
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Listen to True Spies' podcast: Havana Syndrome Special

Espionage and mass hysteria aren’t often entwined but after a century of ‘Red Scares’, a Cold War obsession with nuclear weapons, and now Havana Syndrome they have become uncomfortably close bedfellows.

Since 2016, just after the US reopened its Havana Embassy, hundreds of North American diplomats and CIA officers started complaining about headaches, brain fog, vertigo, and other debilitating symptoms. The complaints soon spread beyond Cuba to Russia, China, and Europe.

Many have been diagnosed with concussion-like symptoms without the concussion but the underlying cause triggers heated debate: Are the symptoms psychological or something much more sinister? 

Havana Syndrome & Mass Hysteria
Havana Syndrome began in Cuba in 2016



The CIA ruled out involvement of a hostile foreign power in all but about two dozen of the 200 cases but its February 2022 summary still reads like a plot of a Len Deighton thriller. Spy agency’s experts believe Havana Syndrome symptoms could ‘plausibly’ be caused by a ‘pulsed electromagnetic energy’ source with a signal ranging up to hundreds of meters - effective even through walls - but there’s no proof yet that there’s a weapon or who may be wielding it.

Some experts aren’t convinced a mystery illness even exists.

“After six years of investigating this case, and specializing in the study of mass psychogenic illness for the past 35, I am convinced that this is a case of mass psychogenic illness,” Dr. Robert Emerson Bartholomew, an American medical sociologist living in New Zealand, told SPYSCAPE.


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A history of mass hysteria

Epidemic hysteria can be traced back to the Middle Ages and the dancing manias - plagues of erratic dancing - with people uncontrollably whirling in the streets of Europe from the 14th to 17th centuries. Some churchgoers believed they were possessed by a devil.

Religion may have also played a role in the case of a French nun living in a convent during the Middle Ages who inexplicably began to meow like a cat. According to The Epidemics of the Middle Ages (1844), all of the nuns eventually began meowing until the police threatened to whip them.

Havana Syndrome & Hysteria
Examination of a Witch (1853), Tompkins Harrison Matteson

Salem Witch trials

The Massachusetts’ Salem Witch trials of the 1690s are one of the worst mass hysteria events in US history. Some 200 people were accused of practicing ‘the devil’s magic’, resulting in 30 convictions and the hanging deaths of at least 19.

Havana Syndrome & Hysteria
The Battle of Dorking by George Tomkyns Chesney helped create anti-German fever

Super-spies and hysteria

Stoked by invasion literature and the onset of WWI (1914-1918), the British media labeled two renowned geographers - Sweden’s Sven Hedin and Germany’s Albrecht Penck - as enemy spies, setting off a hysterical period where many more geographers were then accused of colluding with ‘super spies’.

The anti-German hysteria likely also led to the creation of Britain’s spy agencies MI5 and MI6, set up in 1909. “MI5's first director general, Vernon Kell, had a staff of just 10, plus a car and a chauffeur,” according to The Guardian. “It expanded to 850 officers in the First World War, was cut to 16 by the 20s, then grew rapidly again, to 860 by 1941.”

MI5 now employs about 4,400 staff, one of Britain's three main spy agencies along with MI6 and GCHQ.

Havana Syndrome & Hysteria
US Attorney General Alexander Palmer


The Red Scare

Americans became obsessed with a Soviet invasion after WWI with FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and the government playing a crucial role in initiating the anti-communist hysteria. The Espionage Act (1917) punished acts of interference or ‘disloyalty’ while the Sedition Act (1918) targeted people who criticized the government and threatened labor union leaders with deportation.

The Palmer ‘Red’ Raids - named after Attorney General Alexander Palmer - were one of the biggest miscarriages of justice in US history. Some 3,000 suspected socialists were arrested and more than 550 deported, including many Italian immigrants and Eastern European Jewish immigrants with alleged leftist ties. Race riots erupted and bombs were sent to Palmer's home, justice officials, and businessmen including John D. Rockefeller.

Havana Syndrome & Hysteria

MI5’s Double Cross

Britain was in the grip of spy mania again in the late 1930s and ‘40s as the Nazis gained control in Germany and WWII erupted. Under Germany’s Operation Lena, at least 20 of the Führer's agents infiltrated England to gather intelligence on coastal defenses but many spoke poor English and were easily captured. They then joined MI5’s 'Double-Cross' effort, providing disinformation to their German superiors.


Havana Syndrome & Hysteria

The Second Red Scare and Cold War hysteria

Fear and communist paranoia swept the US again during the Cold War, intensifying in the ‘40s and early ‘50s. The House Un-American Activities Committee investigated private citizens and organizations. Senator Joseph McCarthy alleged Soviet spies and communists had infiltrated universities, the US government, and - famously - the film industry, leading to the Hollywood blacklist and jail for the Hollywood Ten who refused to testify about political beliefs.


Havana Syndrome & Hysteria

Nuclear spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg 

The climate of fear and repression continued into the 1950s with increasing worries about a Soviet surprise nuclear missile attack. In 1953, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were electrocuted - the only spies America executed during the Cold War - and many questioned their fate. The couple allegedly oversaw a spy network that stole atomic secrets. Ethel’s guilt, in particular, is still debated: Was she a spy or a mother killed by Cold War hysteria? 

Havana Syndrome & Hysteria
Stranger Things series looks at the MKUltra experiments


The CIA and MKUltra

Fearful the Soviets were racing ahead of the US in the areas of ESP, psychology, and mind control, the CIA embarked on a series of frightening experiments in a Cold War program known as MKUltra. They drugged unsuspecting victims with LSD as part of the search for a ‘truth’ drug to use in interrogations. US scientist Frank Olsen ‘fell’ to his death at a hotel in 1953 after the CIA spiked his drink. France may have also been an MKUltra target. One investigator claims the US spiked baguettes with LSD in the French village of Pont St. Esprit. Five people died and locals still haven’t gotten to the bottom of the mass insanity that ensued. 

Havana Syndrome & Hysteria

Moscow Eye

US spies have also been the subject of health-related mysteries themselves. US Embassy staff in the Soviet Union were afflicted with ‘Moscow Eye’, Dr. James Giordano told SPYSCAPE's True Spies podcast. It seems they were nervous and on edge every time they saw a white van parked across the street or a suspicious person. “As a consequence, they developed this Moscow twitch,” Giordano said. “They would get hives.” That said, however, Giodano doesn’t believe Havana Syndrome falls into the same category as Moscow Eye.

Havana Syndrome & Hysteria

Evil clowns

Do we still live in an age of mass hysteria? Much depends on perspective. When residents of the US, Canada, and 18 other countries began seeing evil clowns on the streets they felt threatened, but others dismissed the sightings as mass hysteria. Vox claimed ‘The Great Clown Panic of 2016’ was perpetuated by pretty much everyone except clowns.

Sweden’s sleeping beauties

Sweden has battled a mysterious illness for decades. Hundreds of children of asylum-seekers have fallen into a deep sleep, for weeks and months - sometimes even years - at a time. They appear to be in self-induced comas - unable to walk, talk, speak, eat without a tube, or open their eyes.

Neurologist Suzanne O'Sullivan, author of The Sleeping Beauties, believes the stress of potential deportation creates physical symptoms which leads to 'resignation syndrome'. But why are there so many cases in Sweden but very few reports in the rest of the world? The mysterious syndrome is still being investigated.

Havana Syndrome & Hysteria


Havana Syndrome

Havana Syndrome symptoms are very real, but are they caused by hysteria, a weapon, or a new means of attack?

In a February 2020 report, the CIA said it was ‘plausible’ that a device shooting pulsed electromagnetic energy could have caused at least some of the Havana Syndrome cases. The Agency earlier ruled out that the symptoms were the result of a sustained global campaign by a hostile power in all but about two dozen cases.

Dr. James Giordano, a Fellow at the US Naval War College, doesn’t believe the symptoms developed in the patients’ minds.

“These were individuals in Cuba who'd been on the job for decades. These are individuals who were used to being in risk or harm's way. These were individuals who had no secondary gain involved,” he told SPYSCAPE’s True Spies podcast. “They certainly did not want to be relieved of their duty for medical causes, for other postings, and they had long histories of being on the job and performing effectively.”

Havana Syndrome Podcast Special
Listen to SPYSCAPE’s True Spies podcast: Havana Syndrome Special


Detractors aren’t convinced. 

“The confusion with the case is the result of politics mixing with science,” Dr. Bartholomew told SPYSCAPE. “While the CIA is continuing to investigate a small number of cases that are classified as 'unexplained,' this does not mean that there is some nefarious plot against American diplomats and intelligence officers.”

“A recent US government investigation on UFOs found that many cases were unexplained,” he added. “But that does not mean that they were ETs. Many of these cases lack sufficient information on which to base an assessment. The same is true with Havana Syndrome.”

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