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Australian Family Suffer Bizarre Shared Delusion

The strange case of the family who suffered a collective panic attack.

Reports of mysterious assailants who terrorize small groups before melting into the night without a trace, often leave authorities scratching their heads, and the public bewildered. These rare events recently made headlines in Australia, and for several days, captivated the nation. The strange saga began on Monday August 29th, 2016, when the Tromp family of the Melbourne suburb of Silvan, fled their red currant farm and embarked on a frantic trip over hundreds of miles in a desperate effort to evade evil forces who they believed were trying to kill them. It would be five days before all five family members would be accounted for. At that point, Mrs. Tromp (Jacoba) and her daughter Riana, 29, had been hospitalized for severe stress, and 22 year-old Ella was charged with stealing a car. It was reported that the family had ditched their technology, left their credit cards behind and taken a bundle of cash with them, in a scene that resembled a Hollywood movie. Some media outlets have speculated that the Tromps may have been suffering from a collective mental disorder and New South Wales police were worried that they may have been experiencing some type of group delusional schizophrenia. However, there is a very real possibility that the Tromps had simply scared themselves.

From time to time, bizarre news stories appear about a chase or siege involving a family or close-knit group who claim to have been attacked by mysterious assailants whose existence cannot be verified. Upon closer investigation, authorities can find no evidence to confirm their story. Incidents often give rise to speculation that the event was a hoax, that those involved were on drugs, or mentally disturbed. I have collected about 30 such cases of what I term “small group panics.” Most episodes involve normal, healthy people who, as a result of a series of unusual events, grow paranoid and literally scare themselves after growing convinced that their lives are in imminent danger.

During episodes, members become distressed and emotionally unstable, often as a result of prolonged fear, fatigue and lack of sleep. These factors enhance suggestibility and inhibit their powers of critical thinking. Within this atmosphere of fear, members begin to redefine everyday objects and events in a new light. It is within this context that a car backfiring, may be perceived as a gunshot, or rustling in the bushes is mistaken for a monster or hostile gang member.

Most cases begin in an isolated environment, under the cover of darkness. The principal witness – the first to draw attention to the threat, or to panic – almost always holds an influential social position. In each case, a false consensus emerges that the group is under attack, after which a variety of ambiguous stimuli are redefined within popular cultural labels such as space aliens, Yowies or drug dealers. Let’s examine some examples of small group panics from the United States and Australia.

The Kentucky Space Goblins

On the evening of 21 August 1955, a farm family in the state of Kentucky, made international headlines after claiming to have been terrorized by beings from outer space. Members of the Sutton family, comprised of seven adults and three children, were living in the rural, isolated hamlet of Hopkinsville. The episode began at about 7 o’clock, during a visit by their landlord William Taylor, who claimed to have spotted a glowing saucer-shaped object land in a gully near the farmhouse. Family members were incredulous and thought that Taylor had overreacted to seeing a 'falling star.' Soon the two men spotted a three and a half foot-tall creature outside the house. They said it had a huge head, extended arms and large ears. The pair panicked, retreated into the house, grabbed their guns and began firing. Over the next three and a half hours, various family members claim to have glimpsed several creatures either on or near the house, sometimes peering through windows. The occupants responded with intermittent bursts of gunfire.

The Sutton’s didn't have a phone, so at about 11 o'clock, they dashed from the house, piled into two cars and raced to the nearest police station to summon help. Police swarmed on the farmhouse but found nothing unusual. Not long after the last officer left at 2:15 am, the family’s mother claimed to have seen a creature peering into a window and alerted the others. More sightings and sporadic gunfire continued for the next three hours until sunrise. At some point during the ordeal, everyone in the house said they had spotted at least one creature. Again police rushed to the house but found no evidence of space aliens – only a terrified family and a house riddled with bullet holes.

Former police detective Joe Nickell later visited the house, interviewed family members, and concluded that they had seen Great Horned Owls. These creatures stand about 3 and a half feet high, become active at dusk, and are known to be aggressive in defending their nests. They have big heads, large eyes and long ear tufts. After the owls were scared off by the gunfire, fatigue and imagination appears to have taken over and the terrified occupants were soon firing at shadows and rustling in the bushes.

Phantom Drug Siege in Michigan

Between 7 and 8 November 1978, a phantom drug siege took place at a house place near Lowell, Michigan. The first man, ‘Masters,’ was 24 and suspected of being a drug dealer. His companion, ‘Cordell,’ was 29. The pair gradually grew suspicious after a series of mundane events. Each new event fostered more anxiety and snowballing suspicions. On the afternoon of the 7th, great significance was given to the finding of a bubble gum wrapper on the roof, the other half near a wood pile. They also grew certain that people were lurking about the house, peering through the windows.

Near dusk, they thought they may have spotted a ‘kid’ in camouflage gear. Cordell chased after the figure but to no avail. Then he shouted a warning to “the people he felt were hiding but could not see that if the nonsense did not stop somebody was going to get shot.” A short time later they thought they could hear people near a back door. At this point events quickly spiraled out of control as Cordell fired a warning shot to scare away the people he thought were there. Fearful that they might be under siege, Masters telephoned a friend and asked him to bring over a variety of weapons. Soon, a 23-year-old friend, ‘Hamby,’ joined them. The trio kept a watchful eye on the house until about 1:30 am when Cordell and Masters thought they saw shadowy figures near the house and they fired off some 10 shots. Meanwhile, Hamby was adamant that he saw and heard no one.

Over the next three and a half hours, the trio said they heard more noises and distant figures. Then, near dusk, and in a state of physical and emotional exhaustion, the men began firing indiscriminately. Cordell was sure he saw someone hanging in a window and that he shot the figure but later no body or blood were found. Harvard-trained sociologist Ron Westrum interviewed the men and later wrote: “Hamby fired a .44 magnum through a refrigerator – I saw the hole myself – at a person in the kitchen, whom he heard slam against the sink, fall on the floor, and make gurgling noises, as if critically wounded. ...All three were extremely scared; Masters to the point where he was re-loading spent cartridges into the revolver.” Near sunrise, the men phoned the Sheriff’s Department, showing how desperate they had become as one of them was on parole.

One of the men was so anxious to get the attention of a passing police car that he fired a shotgun – inadvertently striking the windshield! He was charged with attempted murder, but it was later reduced to misuse of a firearm. Police conducted a thorough investigation of the scene and found no evidence of any intruders, only a bullet-ridden home littered with empty shell cartridges.

The Nullarbor Plain Incident

On 19 January 1988, Faye Knowles of Perth, Australis, decided to drive her Ford Telstar across the continent to stay with relatives in Melbourne. Accompanying her were three sons: Wayne, Sean and Patrick, ranging in age from 18 to 24. The group had been traveling virtually non-stop for 13-hours when Traveling virtually non-stop for 13-hours when something bizarre happened near the tiny outpost of Mundrabilla in the Nullarbor Desert.

Near dawn and with the rest of his family asleep, Sean noticed a mysterious light in the distance and became convinced it was a ‘spaceship.’ After alerting the others, Sean became terrified that the object was pursuing them. He floored the accelerator and the car began roaring down the remote stretch of highway at about 200 kph, generating fear and confusion among his groggy passengers.

The group later told police that a beam raised the vehicle into the air, then dropped it, causing the tire to burst and the car to become disabled on the roadway. They also said that a loud thud could be heard on the roof, and an eerie grey mist filled the car. Meantime, a foul smell foul odor permeated the vehicle. The nervous occupants changed the tire and drove on to Mundrabilla. Two truck drivers who encountered the family there said they were visibly upset. One of the truckers said that the Knowles car was laden with a strange black ash. They reached South Australia, where police interviewed the family who by now were making global headlines after claiming that their car had been picked up by a ‘UFO.’ South Australian police inspected the car and found only typical road grime. An investigation of the car was conducted by the Australian Mineral Development Laboratory which analyzed the ash and found particles of clay and salt, consistent with what one should expect to find in a vehicle that had recently crossed the sand-laden Nullarbor Plains near the Great Southern Ocean.

As for the strange aerial light that appeared to follow the car, weather records reveal that at the time of the incident, there had been a temperature inversion in the area. Former South Australian meteorologist Allan Brunt later observed that such events in the region are notorious for refracting light and distorting sizes, shapes and colors of objects. Brunt believes that the Knowles family saw the distorted image of the headlights of a truck in the distance, which appeared to them as a UFO.

Given the lack of corroborating physical evidence, and the frightened state of the occupants, it appears that family members, fatigued from a long trip, under the cover of darkness while traveling on an unfamiliar road, mistook an anomalous light for an extraterrestrial space craft that they believed was pursuing them. It is also notable that based on interviews with the family, they were all in an extremely emotional state, “shouting and crying.” Mrs Knowles even said she thought they were going to die.

Further Study Needed

When viewed from afar, small group panics may appear to be a sign of mental disturbance. Yet, they are perhaps best understood through the lens of the famous Thomas Theorem. In the 1920s, American sociologist William Isaac Thomas devised a maxim that is often quoted to this day. He wrote that “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.” Put simply, if you believe that you were being chased by drug dealers or space aliens, in a sense, you really were, because you behave as if you were.

In the absence of any clear evidence of mental disorder among the Tromp family, I am inclined to believe that the most likely explanation for their behavior, is that after a series of unfortunate events, combined with stress and fatigue, they had simply scared themselves.

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