Bulletin # 72 (23 MAY 2001)




--Sanal Edamaruku


New Delhi, India: 8-12, February 2002




Sanal Edamaruku

Slowly things are returning to normalcy in New Delhi. India's capital is looking back on two weeks of mass delusion and panic, sometimes dangerously turning into mass hysteria. The shadow of the "monkey-man" is still looming large over suburbs and urban villages. There are still excited people, waiting for a little sound, a little movement at night to utter a piercing cry and flee precipitately through the darkness, and others, ready to beat to death whatever might suddenly provoke their fear. But the peak of the crisis is over, the atmosphere has already cooled down to a great extend, and police has finally gained full control of the situation. Life has started to take its normal course again.

For two weeks the headquarters of Indian Rationalist Association have been the center of a fight against mass frenzy and widespread confusion, which engulfed major sections of the population, the media and the authorities. We have been able to change the public perception of the "mysterious" events with rational and scientific explanations and to provide an orientation, which helped to dissolve the crisis.

Some when in the beginning of May, when the city was reeling under a wave of scorching heat, a monster called the "monkey-man" jumped into public attention. Rumors of his attacks spread like wildfire and unleashed panic in and around Delhi. The newspapers were suddenly full with reports of people who claimed they had encountered the creature. It used to appear in the dark of the night, between midnight and 4 a.m. and favorably during the long hours of power cut, which are a regular menace in the poor areas of the town, which he exclusively visited. On the flat roof tops, where people use to sleep to get some respite from the pressing climate, similar scenes were happening every night: One of the sleepers suddenly wakes up in cold sweat and feels somebody has touched or scratched him. He cries in panic and everybody tries to escape, rushing down staircases or even jumping down from roof tops. There is chaos, pushing and pulling, stampede. Some people fall down and get injured. In some of these cases, people have even died by falling down staircases or jumping head down from the roof.

At the headquarters of Indian Rationalist Association we reacted fast hearing the first reports about the monkey-man's attacks. The situation was like in September 1995, when the marble statues of the Hindu deities all over India developed an unquenchable thirst for milk. But this time it was not a peaceful miracle, which cast its spell over the population. This time it was a mass delusion, which sometimes turned into hysteria and cost several lives. And while the milk-miracle subsided in one day, after we were given opportunity to explain the scientific principles behind the "drinking" statues in the evening news of several TV channels, the monkey-man mania turned out to be far more complex and resistant.

We started to collect all information so far available and went to the affected areas to talk to people. I personally questioned at least forty persons who claimed they had seen something and hundreds who were terrified by what they had heard. We evaluated all recorded material and got some important clues. Most of the people who came up with detailed descriptions had not seen anything themselves. Those who claimed they had encountered the creature gave very different and mutually contradicting descriptions of it. We soon understood that the monkey-man "appeared" in so many different shapes, as there were "eye-witnesses" to describe him. The big shadow-like monkey of the first reports had meantime, in a quasi Darwinian development, reached five or six feet height and got a human face. Not one, but at least five different faces of him appeared as phantom pictures, drawn with the help of different witnesses. He also started to wear clothes instead of his earlier shaggy fur, sometimes a sunglass, and sometimes a big black helmet like an astronaut. Though he was allegedly able to jump 30 meters and to move effortless from roof to roof and from village to village, he never produced a single footprint. Sometimes he was seen gliding on a big skateboard. Green and red lights were blinking on his chest and his hands were armed with artificial metallic claws. A reputed newspaper proposed he might be an extra-terrestrial or a robot with remote control. Beast, man or machine, he was a creature of darkness. When one held a light against him he would vanish in thin air, people told me. And when he was attacked he would change his shape and become a cat or a huge bird, raising up with a mighty stroke of his wings. It became more and more clear for us that the monkey-man was a pure fantasy product. He seemed to come right out of the television, which is presenting a multitude of very popular fantasy serials in different settings - from the story of the Indian monkey god Hanuman to Batman and the X-Files.

I came out with a statement. On the base of my evaluation and careful study, I was convinced that the monkey-man mania was a false belief of groups of people, firmly maintained even though it was contradicted by reality. The monkey-mania was a mass delusion. The monkey-man did not exist. His "appearances" were nothing but hallucinations of groups and people with tendency to hysterical psychosis. Such hysteria or hysterioid behavior can acquire epidemic proportions, when people in small or larger groups are charged with extreme fear or anxiety. A casual cat, a stray monkey, a moving shadow of a tree branch or a scream of a scared person can trigger off group panic and subsequent hallucinations.

Many people had been waiting for orientation and there was a great relief to hear a clear and calm voice. Even if most people were hesitant to fully accept our position, it was immediately in the center of public interest. I was extensively quoted by all major dailies the next morning and I gave interviews for the news in all major TV channels in English and in Hindi. Some of them repeated my statement every hour in the news. Like a pin picked into a giant balloon, the monkey-man mania started slowly but continuously loosing air.

But on the other side there were massive attempts from various sides to blow it up. Some TV channels had boom time and had their camera teams curb suburbs and villages around the clock in search of new sensations, witnesses and victims, encouraging all rumormongers. Police swung dramatically into action by pressing thousand additional policemen into service to patrol the affected areas at night with "shoot-at-sight" order, further escalating the panic. Smart politicians called even for deputation of military forces to protect their constituencies. A section of the media got currency with the theory that the monkey-man was an agent of Pakistan's intelligence agency. What had started as psychotic hallucination, gained new dimensions of reality.

As if to insist on the monster's existence, more and more attacks were reported. The media presented scratches and wounds, allegedly caused by its claws and teeth, as ultimate "proof" that there must be something. Police intensified their absurd efforts to catch it by further increasing the additional forces to three thousand. A special task force was equipped with extra fast vehicles, as the monkey-man seemed to move with enormous speed. Encounters were reported from different, sometimes far off places nearly at the same time.

We went out to have a close look at the victims' injuries, which had become something like the last bastion of the spook. We succeeded in tracing most of the known cases and were rather "disappointed": There was not a single serious wound, only little scratches, cuts and rubbings, which under normal circumstances would not get any attention. Red marks, which could well be caused by rubbing of naked skin on the hard jute strings of the traditional beds, small scratch marks looking like opened mosquito bites, four line scratch designs in fork size and other common little injuries. Interestingly there was no uniformity in them, though they were claimed to come from the same source. Most of the injuries occurred on the legs, which is quite unusual if there was an upright attacker of six feet height. With every single case we were more convinced that all these injuries were self inflicted, deliberately or unknowingly.

Clinical examinations of the scratches, so far, did not establish the involvement of any human or animal nail. In a hyper gullible situation, any casual injury and any injury, scratch or wound, inflicted on their own bodies by people, craving pathologically for attention, could be taken as injuries caused by the "monkey-man". I noticed that people, describing how they had been attacked and injured, were more excited than sullen and traumatized, indicating their mental state. There are cases of an extreme form of pathological lying consisting of telling stories without discernible or adequate motive and with such zeal that the claimants may eventually become convinced of their truth. This state of mind is called pseudologia fantastica.

Our statements about the obviously self-inflicted wounds finally turned the course of events. Meantime the situation took a new and frightening turn: People got violent. In two incidents the mob, armed with sticks and lathis, chased and attacked a couple of harmless passers-bye and would have killed them mercilessly if police did not come to their rescue. The only mistake of the victims of the furious mob was that they had a black motor bike helmet with them, quite similar to the astronaut helmet of the science fiction version of the monkey-man. The mob attacks caused a shock wave.

In press and TV interviews I criticized the Delhi police for promoting mass delusion and panic rather than dissolving it. By sending out three thousand men in khaki to catch a phantom, they officially and authoritatively confirmed its existence and encouraged further escalation of the panic. It was the responsibility of the police to investigate all claims strictly and seriously instead of jumping into unfounded conclusions. Proper questioning of those who claimed they had encountered the monster and forensic investigation of the wounds of the "victims" would fast put and end to false claims. I advised to calm people down and educate them that the monkey-man was nothing but a product of wild fantasies. High police officers responded fast with weak excuses, the controversy provoked discussions inside and outside the police force. The main Hindi news channel and later also some newspapers took up the idea of systematic education and prepared schoolbook like graphs and charts with questions and "Rationalists' advices" how to tackle the problem. Police officers were interviewed and asked to comment our proposals one by one. Seven hours later, the TV news started with the announcement that the police was meanwhile completely in line with the rationalist position. They had started to arrest rumor- mongers and pranksters and the number of panic calls to the police control room dropped drastically. They constituted a team of forensic experts and psychologists to investigate all claims. The results confirmed what we had already explained several days before.

We are glad about these results. Our lonely initiative and intervention to deflate the giant balloon of the monkey-man mania has opened many eyes and minds. They have reminded the authorities of their duties and responsibilities and encouraged many scientists to play their part in educating the public. This is in my opinion one of the classical roles rationalist organizations can play and have to play in society.

Spreading with enormous pace and intensity, the monkey-man mania in India's capital has alarmed and shocked us. During these days of hard and hectic work around the clock we felt like firefighters trying to stop an expanding area conflagration. But looking back, I feel that our victory over the flames has not only been a defensive one. The fantastic monkey-man has given us a unique opportunity to touch thousands of people and make them listen to the voice of reason at a moment of greatest receptivity. This lesson in critical thinking, which we have been able to give, may have a lasting impact on many of them. The episode can also be seen as rationalist crash course on how to handle mass delusions. And last but not least, it has been another chance for us to understand the importance of our work and it has equipped us to face greater challenges and take up greater tasks.


Creative Rationalism


New Delhi, India: 8-12, February 2002

Rationalist International invites you for an extra-ordinary event: The Third International Rationalist Conference.

Join Rationalists -- Atheists, Freethinkers, Humanists, Skeptics and Secular Humanists -- from around the world. Meet rationalist thinkers and fighters who influence social change. Exchange ideas, views, experiences and visions. Identify the creative dimension of Rationalism. Discuss the potential of transforming societies. Set the course for the future of enlightenment and humanism. Witness history.

Creative Rationalism


At New Delhi from 8 to 12 February 2002

We need to keep setting high goals and achieving them.

An interesting, thought-provoking conference.

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Honorary Associates: Dr. Pieter Admiraal (The Netherlands), Prof. Mike Archer (Australia), Katsuaki Asai (Japan), Prof. Colin Blakemore (UK), Sir Hermann Bondi (UK), Prof. Vern Bullough (USA), Dr Bill Cooke (New Zealand), Dr. Helena Cronin (UK), Prof. Richard Dawkins (UK), Joseph Edamaruku (India), Prof. Antony Flew (UK), Christopher Hitchens (USA), Prof. Paul Kurtz (USA), Lavanam (India), Dr. Richard Leakey (Kenya), Dr. Henry Morgentaler (Canada), Dr. Taslima Nasreen (Bangladesh), Steinar Nilsen (Norway), Prof. Jean-Claude Pecker (France), James Randi (USA), Dr G N Jyoti Shankar (deceased, USA), Barbara Smoker (UK), Prof. Harry Stopes-Roe (UK), Prof. Rob Tielman (The Netherlands), David Tribe (Australia), Barry Williams (Australia) and Prof. Lewis Wolpert (UK).

Sanal Edamaruku, President of Rationalist International, can be contacted at Edamaruku@rationalistinternational.net