Day 774: Beware The Madness Of Jerusalem & Paris

originally published February 12, 2014

A few days ago, I attempted to bake a word-brew that would adequately (or at least semi-adequately) justify the singular importance of the Beatles’ inaugural appearance in American culture on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964. We all know what followed that show – the British phenomenon known as Beatlemania spent the next few years pummeling our culture and steering kids into an idolizing frenzy. But the Beatles were not the first to incite madness and hysteria in an adoring public. No, Elvis wasn’t the first either. 

The original Rawk Gawd, the man whose very presence on a stage would incite heart palpitations, unrestrained shrieks and a swift swoon of consciousness-sapping wonder for ladies of a certain ilk was none other than Franz Liszt. 

That’s right – no matter how passionately parents in the 1950s and 60s railed against the scourge of popular music that was causing their kids to devolve into manic, startled sheep, those folks merely had to look at their own great-grandparents to see how natural a phenomenon this could be. And for what, some classical pianist? 

The term ‘mania’ as it existed in 1841 when this phenomenon was first observed meant something entirely different than it does today. Beatlemania (and ABBA-mania or Bay-City-Rollers-mania or Roxette-mania or whatever media soundbites have oozed out since) refers to a craze, a trend, even the unrestrained jubilation in the presence of the subject. An 1840’s mania was seen as a disease, a potentially contagious affliction that required the intervention of medical personnel. 

There’s the story of a society woman who plucked one of Liszt’s cigar butts out of the gutter, slipped it into a locket upon which she then had “F.L.” engraved in diamonds. She wore the thing even in spite of the nefarious odor it caused. Franz was a cultural superstar before the marketing mechanisms were in place to facilitate such a thing. He simply did it himself, by his stage presence, his looks and of course his music. 

But while many stars can trip over their requisite troops of manic fans, for a true 1840’s-style mania, a genuine severing of reality from fantasy, one merely needs to look to the Middle East. 

If you’ve ever been overwhelmed on vacation by a city so rich and frothy it has made you fall to your knees in gratitude at having glimpsed it, you might understand the very nascent symptoms of Jerusalem Syndrome. But the sensation of being wholly affected by one’s surroundings can happen anywhere – I felt it the first time I drove through Manhattan and when I saw the lights of Las Vegas as a 10-year-old kid. No, Jerusalem Syndrome cuts a little deeper. 

As the most holiest of hubs for Christians, Jews and Muslims alike, Jerusalem has the onerous privilege of feeling like a personal part of everyone’s history. As such the city has the ability to trigger a religious fervor in tourists of all faiths. And while Jerusalem Syndrome hasn’t found a home in the DSM-IV or DSM-5, it is recognized as absolute fact, particularly by the doctors in the region who have to contend with it. 

There are seven distinct stages of Jerusalem Syndrome: 

  1. Anxiety, agitation, nervousness, like when you’re about to meet Rue McLanahan or ask a girl on a date. 
  1. Declaration of the need to split from the group and explore the city alone. Not to be confused with frequently leaving everyone to poop – that might just be the falafel. 
  1. A need to be clean and pure, an obsession with baths and showers. I just realized, I work with a guy who needs to go to Jerusalem and at least make it to stage 3. 
  1. Preparation, sometimes with hotel bedsheets, of a white robe.  
  1. Shouting verses from the Bible or singing loudly. Usually by now tour guides or hotel staff have alerted someone to have a look at you. 
  1. A procession or march to one of Jerusalem’s holy places – a temple, a mosque, the Western Wall, etc. No cab, just a walk in your bedsheet-toga. Definitely a sign that something is up. 
  1. Delivery of a sermon, usually imploring peace or the betterment of humankind, probably in a holy place. 

This is more than a physiological response to a favorite performer – this is a pure descent into psychosis, and I have no doubt the warning signs are part of the on-the-job training for most hospitality workers in the city. 

Lest you dismiss this weirdness as the inevitable fallout of mentally questionable zealots frothing at the temples because they’re finally in that holiest of holy lands, think again. While I suspect a semi-religious background is required for the Jerusalem Syndrome to sink its claws into your think-meat, often the afflicted persons have shown no indications of any mental imbalance ever in their lives. The city simply packs that kind of power, I suppose. 

Between 1980 and 1993, the local Kfar Shaul Mental Health Centre reported about 1200 tourists with this condition, 470 of which were admitted. The only cure appears to be distancing oneself from the torrid influence of Jerusalem itself. 

Be warned – this could happen to you. Keep your religious fervor in perspective, or if you’re worried you can’t, change your vacation plans. Head somewhere else, somewhere beautiful and cultured. What could possibly affect you in a glorious place like, say, Paris? 

Whereas Jerusalem seduces travellers with its significance in doctrine and history, Paris Syndrome is almost the opposite. Its symptoms include a feeling of depersonalization, persecution, and can progress as far as outright delusion and hallucinations. This occurs not because of the grandeur of Paris, but rather because of its inherent disappointment. 

I know, it’s a trifle baffling to say the least. I visited Paris two years ago and fell in love with its food, its art and its architecture. But my expectations may have been met because they were realistic; in some cultures – in particular among Japanese tourists – Paris has been idealised in way that no city could ever match. When these tourists show up and discover that French people yell at each other, swear out loud, and act like… well, like normal humans, the shock can be too much. 

Again, this is not an officially recognized psychiatric disorder, but rather one that local doctors have seen often enough to have coined a phrase for it. On average, as many as 12 Japanese tourists are afflicted each year, often women in their 30’s. These people are isolated linguistically (not a lot of Parisians speak Japanese, though many speak English), plopped into a very different culture than their own, and they are often exhausted from travelling. Add that to the fact that Paris is not in fact filled with the quirky but well-meaning cast of Amelie, and that the city’s intrinsic romance doesn’t simply fall into their laps with a glorious accordion swell, and you’ve got some seriously disturbed tourists. Again, leaving the city is the only known cure. 

It’s almost hard to believe that certain slabs of land on our little floating globe can incite such symptoms. But any half-decent travel agent should clue you in these conditions. Otherwise you just won’t see it coming. 

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