Robert Bartholomew has become a world-renowned expert in debunking, whether that be broad phenomena such as fainting plagues or more specific cases, like hauntings. Image / Tina Tiller/Spinoff
One of the world’s foremost experts on mass psychogenic illness teaches high school in Auckland. Josie Adams spent an afternoon learning what a psychogenic illness is. Originally published by The Spinoff.
Robert E. Bartholomew lives in an old hotel in Flat Bush in south-east Auckland. He has a swimming pool used principally by frogs, and a shelf full of UFO books. “Those aren’t mine,” he says. “I’m holding on to them for a friend.”
He stacked them up on the shelf when he needed a backdrop for a TV interview. “I think they were out of focus,” he says. Bartholomew was being interviewed about his book No Māori Allowed. It’s about the recent and shocking history of racial segregation in Pukekohe. He finds a copy on the shelf somewhere and gives it to me.
Across the years he’s written about American anti-immigration sentiment, UFOs, hauntings, and cryptids. He’s investigated the Amityville Horror, visited Cuba to debunk sonic attacks, and studied shrunken heads in Sarawak. He’s also the one of the world’s foremost experts on “mass psychogenic illness”.
The Strasbourg dancing plague of 1374, in which hundreds of people danced until they died, is widely considered a psychogenic illness. Fainting fits in schools are often considered the same, as well as the Tanganyika laughter epidemic. Basically, it’s disease or hallucination spread through gossip at its lowest levels and mass hysteria at its most devastating.
Bartholomew is a teacher, historian and prolific author, and specialises in medical sociology at the University of Auckland. He’s become a world-renowned expert in debunking, whether that be broad phenomena such as fainting plagues or more specific cases, like hauntings. He’s been to the house from The Conjuring, and believes the whole haunting was the result of lucid dreaming. The Amityville Horror, he says, was a straight-up hoax.
Why is the pursuit of truth in the face of the bizarre so important to him? Why, I ask, is he the Scully to the world’s Mulders? “My brother is a Bigfoot hunter.”
The Bartholomew family has land on the border of New York and Vermont: prime Bigfoot territory. He’s been out there with believers, learning the lore: it’s a ghost, it’s trans-dimensional, it’s a lost Australopithecine species, it’s Jojo the dog-faced boy all grown up.
“Bigfoot is a fairy,” says Bartholomew. “An overgrown fairy.”
As a teenager, Bartholomew used to get the Fortean Times. Every weird kid still does. “I can remember the first-ever issue,” he says. “It was a picture of a guy on a horse with a trumpet.”
At 15 years old, he was hooked on the ghosts and UFOs the magazine showcased; and so was his brother. “We convinced my father to go on vacation not to Canada again, but to this conference on the unexplained in Washington, D.C.,” he remembers. “It was called FortFest.”
It was at FortFest that Bartholomew met Fortean Times founder Bob Rickard, a “sympathetic sceptic” like Bartholomew. His brother connected with another conference-goer, Loren Coleman; one of the world’s most notable Bigfoot hunters. So began the rest of their lives.
Bartholomew started out working in radio, as a journalist, but the call of the cryptid was too strong to resist. He went back to university, and to his home in Bigfoot country; north of the family farm is Lake Champlain. There, he completed his master’s degree on the monster hunters looking for Champ, America’s version of the Loch Ness monster. It became a book, The Untold Story of Champ. “It’s largely about the monster hunters fighting amongst each other, each trying to be the first to prove Champ exists,” he says. “My former university professor was one of the monster hunters.”
From there he moved to Malaysia, and eventually got his PhD in Australia. His work at James Cook University was on what Bartholomew calls “psychiatric imperialism”: the inappropriate placement of medical labels by western scientists onto unfamiliar customs and behaviours in non-western countries.
Now, he’s in Auckland. He still has an American radio accent: crisp, loud, direct. He studies the unexplained, but he’s very sure of himself.
The University of Auckland’s Keith Petrie says Bartholomew is one of a few very dedicated experts in his subject. “Psychogenic illness is not a big field of study,” he says. “But it’s growing.” Petrie is an expert in the “nocebo” effect: the phenomenon of believing you’ll experience adverse effects tending to manifest them; the opposite of the placebo effect. It’s similar to mass psychogenic illness. “People feeling sick from 5G would be a nocebo effect,” he explains. He wrote the foreword to Bartholomew’s latest book, Havana Syndrome, but they’re not collaborators.
Bartholomew is an honorary lecturer at the university; he oversees some graduate work, but he doesn’t teach there. He teaches high school history at Botany Downs College.
“It just is easier to get a position where you want to be in the world in a middle school or high school than at a university,” says Bartholomew. “I started at university, then taught at high school, now I’m moving down to middle school. Eventually I’ll probably retire in kindergarten.”
When I point out the Erich von Däniken on his bookshelf, he chuckles. “I have some signed by the guy,” he admits. We’re in full agreement that von Däniken is wrong. The notion that Egyptians and indigenous South Americans needed extraterrestrials to help them build pyramids is both ridiculous and racist. His collection is weird and wonderful and, by and large, about things he doesn’t believe in. “This is a duplicate, you can have this,” he says, handing me My Quest for the Yeti.
“I collect cultural anthropology textbooks,” he says, crouching low and pulling massive tomes off the shelf, slapping them down on each other thud after thud. “I bought these the other day from a secondhand shop.”
In the pile is The Forest People. When he tells the story of anthropologist Colin Turnbull trying to communicate to the Mbuti people that the giant dragonfly they’ve seen is actually an elephant, Bartholomew doesn’t quite get it right. “It’s funny how people’s memories change over time. It’s not you what remember, it’s what you think you’ve remembered.” He grips the book a little harder, and squints out the window. “What’s that thing about Bugs Bunny at Disneyland?”
He made an appearance on The Cryptid Factor, a bFM show hosted by David Farrier and Rhys Darby, several years ago. Farrier describes the show as being about all kinds of Fortean phenomena: aliens, cryptozoology, mass hysteria. It made sense to bring on Bartholomew.
“I don’t remember how I originally found him,” says Farrier when I ask if he remembers Bartholomew. “But I definitely remember him.”
“We had a segment in the show called ‘Weekly World Weird News’, and we got him on to speak to one of those, which was a mass hysteria event.”
He can’t remember the exact story, but suspects it was about fainting schoolkids. In 2007, Australian schoolgirls who had received the HPV inoculation began fainting. Bartholomew believes this is an example of psychogenic illness, and no other satisfactory explanation has been put forward.
“He’s just a treasure trove of amazing information,” says Farrier.
Bartholomew asks if I want to see some of his other books. Down the corridor, there’s a room full of books, magazines, and ring binders stuffed with photocopies. He pushes the door open as far as it will go, which is about a third of the way, and slips inside. “I have to close this to move around, sorry,” he says, and I stand in the hallway being passed binders through a crack in the door: Psychic Australian, the Roswell Report, Skeptic Magazine, and – of course – the Fortean Times.
He says the UFO books out the front aren’t his, but in this pile is a book that bears his own name: UFOs and Alien Contact. The book outlines, among many other things, the United States’ airship hysteria of 1896, in which citizens across the states swore black and blue they’d seen a big zeppelin. Some said they were visited, and some had bits of metal as souvenirs of their visitation. Most had fomo that a wealthy inventor was throwing a party in the sky above them.
Bartholomew’s dream is to write a best-selling book. “I wouldn’t say I’m a gifted writer,” he says. “It’s not easy, but I get the job done.” He’s got the job done 15 times. Surely he’s got some skill by now. “I can write OK, but to write a best-selling book it all has to fall into place.”
His latest book, Havana Syndrome, doesn’t exactly pander to the masses. It’s heavily critical of the US government. Bartholomew recently returned from Cuba, where he’d been investigating a mysterious syndrome. A Cuban cigar is sitting on a stack of papers, but it’s just for decoration. Bartholomew doesn’t smoke. “But when in Cuba, right?” he smiles.
Havana Syndrome, briefly, was a series of suspected sonic attacks on US embassy workers in Havana. Staff at the embassy reported hearing strange sounds, and then a variety of symptoms: headaches, hearing loss, and concussion-like symptoms. The sound, when recordings of it could finally be analysed, turned out to be crickets.
“Getting people needlessly upset, wasting valuable time and resources, spending taxpayer dollars, and costing the Cuban government potentially tens of millions of potential tax dollars from tourism; all because of the mating call of the Indies short-tail cricket, the Jamaican field cricket, and the Caribbean cicada,” Bartholomew is exasperated by the waste of time and resources. “I mean, you can’t make it up.”
The book is published, but he’s still eagerly awaiting answers to requests he filed under the US’s Freedom of Information Act. “They have not filled any of the requests from journalists or researchers,” he says. “The response from the US government,” he smiles very slightly in anticipation of a good joke, “is crickets.”
He believes it’s a psychogenic illness induced by stress and paranoia, à la Gulf War Syndrome. The next most popular theory is that insecticides caused the damage. Some experts believe the US government is hiding what they know about the syndrome for political purposes.
“Politics has got mixed up with science, and when you mix politics and science you are asking for trouble,” says Bartholomew. “I think you’ll find it’s not microwaves, and it’s not sonic devices; these are science fiction things.”
When we head outside to take photos he advises me to put shoes on, because there’s a beehive. I nearly step on a frog. “Oh yeah, there’s frogs,” he says. “They’re native, and very loud at night.” There’s a frog on a rock next to the clean blue pool, wet despite the baking sun.
We walk around the garden, which is made up of sun-bleached grass and bushes even taller than Bartholomew, and he puts on a different pair of glasses. These ones have thick, black frames. “I have four pairs of glasses,” he says. “These ones are for photos.” He gets interviewed a lot, and needs to be prepared. There aren’t many other people in Auckland with his breadth and depth of knowledge on unexplained phenomena.
As he stands in the sunlight, Rangitoto in the distance, he tells me about his friends at Manukau Heads who are seeing orbs in the sky outside their house most nights. He’d like to check it out. We get to talking about space aliens, and abductions. Those things, he says, aren’t just science fiction; they’re religion.
“There’s usually a spiritual element to abduction folklore,” he muses. I read a book once that told me how to communicate with aliens in my dreams. “Yes,” he nods. “Transpersonal psychology.” He heads back inside to the shelf of books that aren’t his. “I have some duplicates of books on abduction I’d be happy to give to you. There’s a lot of 50s stuff here.” He’s looking for the New Zealand-based Islands of the Dawn, but it must be in another pile. I add Strangers in Our Skies to my take-home stack.
What about the modern stuff, though? What about QAnon? He sits back down and leans back a little, as though trying to move away from the subject. “The fact that people can believe that there’s this group of paedophiles that Trump is trying to get rid of and stuff like that – it’s so far out there,” he says. Conspiracy theorists hold far less intrigue for him than abductees. “You’ve got people who believe the earth is flat right here in New Zealand.”
He tries to explain the conspiracy mindset as best he can, but it’s not a field of study he’s excited about. “There’s so much information out there that it’s hard to know who or what to believe,” he says, flicking the corners of a book while he thinks of what to say next.
“I think, to a certain extent, many people have stopped searching for information. Instead of searching for information, they’re searching for confirmation and affirmation of their pre-existing beliefs.” Sometimes, he says, distrust of government and authority isn’t unreasonable. “Some governments can be so overtly oppressive that there’s a natural distrust of what those governments are telling you.”
However, flat earth theory isn’t one stacked up by a shady government. “Take it to its logical conclusion,” he says. “If the earth were flat, that would mean every geography teacher was in on it, and NASA, and all these university professors.” Too many people would be involved for it to be a successful conspiracy. That doesn’t seem to matter.
He waves at the shelf full of heavy books on the paranormal. “You can always find an expert, a rogue scientist, who believes that Bigfoot is real. You can quote that person and give a misperception of what’s happening.”
He tells me about John E. Mack, a Harvard psychiatrist who believed people really were being abducted by aliens and wrote a whole book on it. “I was mentioned in the book,” he says as a cheeky aside, smiling. “He ended up dying.” The two facts aren’t connected.
While Robert Bartholomew’s scholarship might sometimes have an air of nostalgia about it – UFOs, haunted houses, Bigfoot – study in mass psychogenic illness could not, he insists, be more relevant than it is now.
“Let me give you a prediction,” he says, raising his hands like one of the mystics he researches. “I will bet my life that with Covid-19, and with all of the concern and distrust out there of governments and authority figures, when a vaccine comes out in the west that is given a stamp of approval, I predict there will be an epidemic of outbreaks, of mass hysteria, of mass psychogenic illness. It is almost inevitable.”
He knows what’s coming, but there’s no way to prepare for it.
“I have spent 30 years studying mass psychogenic illness: this is the perfect storm.”