A Case Study on the Mass Hysteria of Brigstowe Hall

Fiction written exclusively for the IIAL

 

The first ever recorded case of mass Reduplicative Paramnesia occured on the 21st of May, 1982, in the call centre of Brigstowe Hall, an office complex on the outskirts of Plymouth, an event which caused the death of two members of staff, and permanently altered the psychiatric wellbeing of fourteen others.

The mental illness Reduplicative Paramnesia, normally associated with severe head injuries, is widely regarded to be one of the more unusual delusional brain disorders, causing the patient to believe that their current geographical location has been expertly and inexplainably duplicated, and relocated – often to somewhere many thousands of miles away. The most famous case (and that which resulted in the disorder being officially registered) involved a patient who, upon realising he was in a Boston hospital, began to insist that the entire institution had been disassembled and rebuilt in the spare room of his house in Massachusetts, whilst simultaneously maintaining that there still existed a hospital in Boston, and expressing an impressed surprise that the staff were able to work in both locations at once. The phenomenon which occurred at Brigstowe Hall has so far confused mental health experts and neurologists, as unlike the Boston patient, nobody in the Plymouth office had received the extensive frontal lobe damage suffered by the patient, or the formation of intracerebral hemotomas later discovered in his brain tissue.

According to the security footage, standard recorded telephone conversations and several eyewitness accounts, the hysteria took the form of a large proportion of staff members from the second floor of the office building – for a period of approximately ninety-two minutes – becoming convinced that their place of work had been duplicated and shifted an area which was eventually identified through recorded conversations with bewildered customers as being a town on the Plitvice Lakes in Croatia. So severe were the delusions that three members of staff were seen leaving the building and completely losing the ability to walk on the real firmament – a simple pavement in Plymouth – as the paramnesia was presumably causing a hallucination which gave the appearance of a softer, grass-covered and marshy surface so convincing it caused unbalance, disorientation and misplacement of footing; an illusion which proved to be fatal when the staff members stumbled into the busy, traffic filled high street.

As might be expected, within minutes a state of panic, fear and confusion caused the office to come to a standstill. Several injuries were sustained, and the humidity of the particularly hot May afternoon had resulted in faintings, prompting the few unaffected staff members to call an ambulance, which, on arrival, removed a small number of the worst affected men and women, but were left baffled by the scene they surveyed. One paramedic went on record to report “the office looked and sounded like Bedlam… Everywhere (we) could hear demented babbling, foreign languages spoken, sweating bodies…the (paramedic team) began to feel effected by the oppressive atmosphere, as if a pair of hands had been clapped against our ears”.

Whilst the exact cause of the mass reduplicative paramnesia remains a mystery, it is the opinion of the IIAL that the reason for this phenomenon are potentially due to a four-fold series of factors, each coinciding with each other and multiplied due to the atmospheric conditions of this particular hour and a half in the summer of 1982. Firstly, one must consider the exact location of Brigstowe Hall, which sits atop one of Plymouth’s largest Victorian sewer ducts, a vast, subterranean arena-like structure that acts as a meeting point and subsequent vortex for seven separate ducts radiating outwards to the sectors of the old city. Recent studies into the peculiar effects of infra-sound on the human brain may go some way towards explaining unusual brain activity in those situated near this site, and it has been argued that very low frequency (and thus, inaudible by the human ear) soundwaves had been produced by firing drills undertaken by HMS Hecate some three miles out in the channel that very afternoon. It is arguable that such infrasoundwaves could reverberate through the sea-facing redbrick ducts, and be perceived on an unconcious level by the inhabitants of the buildings above, having an effect on brain activity.

A similar infrasound phenomena was written about when the study was in its infancy, a series of ecstatic visions experienced simultaneously by a yogic circle in the Bimbekta catacombs of Uttar Pradesh, India, in 1952 during a quarry blast of unprecedented volume, some 32 miles to the south of the caves. The infrasound created that travelled through the sandstone terrain was of a frequency that has since been proven in laboratory conditions to produce “feelings of awe or fear in humans” (John D. Cody. Infrasound Borderland Science Research Foundation), and resulted on this occasion to produce hallucinations so terrifying and lucid as to ‘strip the faith from the holiest of men… the yogis of Bhimbekta were reduced to ashen shells’ (Terence Thwaine. Infrasound and Synethesia – A Study of Perceived Madness Lucknow Press 1992). It seems the only rational explanation for the hysteria experienced at Brigstowe Hall was due to similar environmental factors as that in Uttar Pradesh – a combination of humidity induced mental weakness and tiredness, a blast of infrasound, and the peculiar amplifying effects of Victorian waterworks, certainly comparable to the catacombs that worm through the Pradeshi mountains. But why the connection with Croatian lakes? It has been argued that the most likely explanation would be due to a conversation in the office concerning this location (and by no means necessarily in recent times – such a conversation may have taken place weeks before and produced the same effect) triggering a shared experience. So far, after extensive psychiatric counselling, this has been discredited by all those involved in the incident itself, with the patients claiming no knowledge of such an exchange. Another hypothesis involves a sublimation of some sort, a message hidden in music or passed through the telephone headset. This has been so far unprovable, but by no means ruled out.

Stanthorpe, shortly before his death

For the final hypothesis, we must turn to the studies undertaken by M.R.Weber on the architectural works of Mr. James Stanthorpe, a devout christian and eccentric, plagued by the death of two of his children, and one of whose major works involved the design and construction of the sewage channels of Plymouth. According to Weber, Stanthorpe’s design for the antichamber and nucleus of his labrynthine sewer was based on the ‘perfected passageways of the human oesophagus’; an observation taken so far as to include something akin to red-brick larynx – an architectural musical instrument based crudely on the human voicebox at the summit of the chamber, which resembled a series of ridged, low walls jutting from the ceiling and peppered with holes measuring between three and nineteen inches in diameter. Nothing was thought of this oddity in design for well over a century, merely the fancy of a wealthy, yet distressed Victorian engineer. However, when the notebooks of Stanthorpe were re-examined and decoded, it was revealed that the design itself was made to potentially hold the ability to form certain (unrevealed) sounds, given the correct conditions and flow of water and pressure. Of course, Stanthorpe had never intended these sounds to be anything but abstract noise, echoing beneath the streets of a bustling city. No records exist of any audible sound coming from what many believed to be a failed experiment, but which Stanthorpe insisted in his lifetime was merely the absence of the ‘correct conditions’.

The atmospheric conditions on the 21st of May. 1982, could have produced something the architect may have had in mind, and it is on the edge of conceivable reason that within the abstraction and chaotic nature of the barely audible or inaudible sound produced, a nanosecond of ordered, understandable noise may have broken through, momentarily and subconsciously effecting some of those situated just above it. This noise may have, by some staggering coincidence, been a set of instructions, not dissimilar to a hypnotist’s demands, bypassing the rational part of the consciousness.

The investigation continues.

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About Benjamin Norris

Published writer of short stories, long stories, poems. Well received art critic and cultural commentator for Berlin magazines. Collaborator with operatic societies. Co-writer of fictional historic psycholinguistic journals. Lecturer of architecture and art history at a Budapest University. View all posts by Benjamin Norris

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