Author of The Straight Dope, Cecil Adams wrote a winner of an article about mass delusions of penis-snatching witches in Africa and penis-shrinkers in Asia. I mean, I just could not avoid clicking on this when it appeared in my Google trap.
What's Up With Penis-Stealing Sorcerers?
Fear, witchcraft, and genitals
A penis-theft episode typically involves four stages. First the “victim” has an odd encounter, such as a stranger unexpectedly shaking his hand. Next is the sensation of an electric shock or chill traveling to his genitals. Third, he checks his crotch and becomes convinced his penis, testicles, or both have been stolen or shrunken. The final step is crying “Thief!” and enlisting others to confront the suspect, sometimes with the “victim” stripping on the spot to prove his genitals are gone. When an epidemic swept Nigeria in 1990, men walked around grasping their penises to prevent theft.Apparently, the theft is really just shrinking that could be related to the cremaster muscle which can activate in response to cold or fear. Or both. Incidentally, the castration scene in the movie Farinelli also seems to work pretty damn well too.
I think Adams is pegging this phenomenon on uneducated country bumpkins being exposed to strangers and new experiences in increasingly urban settings. They're just not used to dealing with so much unknown and the stress that it's triggering a physiological process that, in turn, feeds back to their paranoia.
What’s going on? The likeliest explanation is what’s been called “the witchcraft of modernity”: in a rapidly urbanizing society, when you dump a bunch of bumpkins into the middle of a faceless crowd, you can’t be surprised when some of them get weird.
... The scenario is easy to picture: teeming Lagos, a frightening encounter with a stranger, the activation of the cremaster. Add in journalists uncritically spreading wild tales, and we understand the frisson victims experience: it’s the shock of the new.I agree that could have something to do with initialising these mass hysterias. However, it is the belief in superstition and magic that acts as fertile soil for these delusions to spread.
This article reminded me of miracle claims in religions - Christianity and Islam. I often hear people ask how so many dozens, hundreds or thousands of people could have all believed they saw something. Surely they cannot all be hallucinating? Or do phenomena like this one tell us a different story?
I acknowledge you don’t get many substantiated cases of penis theft in, say, Paris. While rumors of genital larceny appear sporadically throughout the world, most commonly they’re found in developing nations with poorly-educated tribal cultures where belief in witchcraft is still strong. In Senegal, for example, it’s believed penises can be stolen by cannibal witches, or via impotence spells cast by sorcerers, or simply by ordinary, everyday evil spirits.Isn't it interesting how miracles like magical penis theft still happen in these developing countries but not in increasingly secular countries with high levels of education?