THIS YEAR IN FEAR: 1967, when people were afraid their penises had been stolen

imgresAnd you thought eating pork only ratcheted up your cholesterol levels.

In 1967, the men of Singapore were seized with terror that their love of noshing swine products was causing a condition called koro, which is literally defined as an individual’s “overpowering belief that his or her genitalia are retracting and will disappear.” (Although let’s be honest: Men tend to be juuuust a little more anxious about the relative size of their nether regions.)

According to Scott Mendelson, the author of The Great Singapore Penis Panic (a.k.a. The Best Book Title Ever), a newspaper article stating that some men had contracted koro from eating pork from animals that had been vaccinated with anti-swine-fever meds set off the panic. (Hey, nobody tell Jenny McCarthy about this.) At one point, as many as 500 men were certain their penises had disappeared wholly or partially. They remained convinced until an aggressive public health campaign by the government urged them to believe otherwise. Or until they looked down. Either way, the situation eventually abated.

Singaporean men didn’t invent this mass hysteria on their own. It actually dates way back. In 400 B.C., according to Vice.com, “the condition was known in Chinese medicine as ‘suo-yang,’ which translates roughly to ‘Bye for now, penis. Hope to see you again soon.’ In his 1834 compendium of remedies, Pao Sian-Ow recommends several methods of treatment for suo-yang, including taking warm alcoholic drinks and rubbing the affected crotch with the ashes of burnt female undergarments.” And during the Middle Ages, the Malleus Maleficarum (the 250px-Malleusguidebook that helped Inquisitors put the screws to alleged witches), warned of a koro-like condition, in which “witches can take away the male organ not indeed by actually disspoiling the human body of it. but by concealing it with some glamour.”

But lest you think koro went out with other pre-1970s fads, like fallout shelters and witch-burning, it’s still around. Outbreaks of koro have occurred in just the last 10 years in West and Central Africa, sometimes leading to tragedy when someone is accused of being a black-magic practitioner-come-penis thief and gets (literally) strung up in the town square. And yes, while it’s unlikely this specific malady will befall American men en masse, we’re certainly no stranger to believing something despite all evidence to the contrary. Once again, I refer you to Jenny McCarthy.