In September 2003, news sources documented numerous accounts of mysterious foreigners (origin and description varying with each retelling) in Khartoum, Sudan who were causing penises to disappear by shaking the hands of their victims in public. Details were rarely consistent but media accounts told of victims who reported that their penises began to "melt into their body" either after shaking hands or using a "penis-melting cyborg comb" that had been given to them by a mysterious stranger. One Sudan based columnist went as far as reporting in a foreign-based newspaper that ""Even though what I write today will harm 'tourism' in Sudan, I consider it my duty to warn anyone who wants to come to Sudan to refrain from shaking hands with a dark-skinned man. Since most Sudanese are dark-skinned, he had better avoid shaking hands with anyone he doesn't know…". The mysterious hand-shaker (often referred to as `Satan`s Friend`) was said to ``drain men`s virility`` through a handshake and then extort money from victims to regain their lost manhood. The accusations and recriminations were directed against numerous convenient scapegoats including ``Zionist agents`` attempting to exterminate the Sudanese by preventing men from procreating. Despite medical examinations that determined no indication of sexual abnormalities in victims, it took an active intervention on the part of the Sudanese government (including numerous arrests of alleged victims and others accused of practising `sorcery`) to bring an end to the hysteria. While it was ultimately deemed to have been a hoax that got out of hand, the furor took a while to subside.
Despite being the most widely reported outbreak, what occurred in Khartoum was only part of a epidemic of genital shrinking hysteria reported in six West African nations between January 1997 and October 2003. There appears to be superficial resemblances to the cultural psychosis known as Koro, but with a significant twist given the nature of the accusations that were levelled against mysterious ``others`` who were attempted to emasculate African men. Cases of perceived genital shrinkage have been primarily reported in South-east Asian males although similar cases have been reported in non-Oriental cultures and seem to be associated with a fear of losing sexual potency.
What then are we to make of what happened in Khartoum in 2003? It seems likely that the epidemic was fuelled by media coverage but the political turmoil resulting from a long and bloody civil war (which has since escalated) probably played a part as well. There seems to be little available information on psychological or demographic factors that may have made the victims more vulnerable to suggestion. While ``mass hysteria`` is a convenient label for outbreaks of unusual symptoms, it seems to mask the very legitimate fears that people in a given time or culture may experience and which may emerge in an exaggerated form with the right provocation. For the Sudanese males who were affected, the fear of ethnic cleansing (including the very real ethnic cleansing occurring in Darfur) may well have driven the epidemic with various scapegoats (domestic or foreign) being proposed as targets of potential retribution.
While the idea of penis-shrinking hysteria may make for entertaining reading, the paranoia that can be triggered during mass hysteria outbreaks shouldn`t be dismissed so easily. The violence that can erupt as a result of mass hysteria has led to some tragic episodes over the years. Witch-hunts (sometimes literally so) have claimed countless lives through the centuries and even "civilized" people can form lynch mobs under the right circumstances.
In other words, don't believe everything you hear (especially if it involves penis-melting combs).