Several months later, a third staffer at the embassy described suffering from hearing loss he associated with a strange sound. Before long, more and more people at the embassy were talking about it. They, too, started to get sick. The symptoms were as diverse as they were terrifying—memory loss, mental stupor, hearing problems, headaches. In all, some two dozen people were eventually evacuated for testing and treatment.
The outbreak at the U.S. Embassy in Cuba wasn’t the only mysterious illness to pop up in the headlines. Around the same time that embassy officials were preparing to fly home, more than 20 students at an Oklahoma high school suddenly came down with baffling symptoms—uncontrollable muscle spasms, even paralysis. A few years before, a similar incident at a school in upstate New York had caught the attention of the local Fox News affiliate, which sent parents into a panic over the possibility that their children had been stricken by an unidentified immune disorder. But the Cuban mystery, the Trump administration insisted, was different. It was not some environmental mishap, but something far more diabolical.
Encouraged by U.S. officials, the media quickly unfurled a story that the mysterious sound was an “attack”—an act of war. Some kind of “acoustic weapon” had been secretly aimed at the diplomats, in an effort to reduce them to brain-damaged zombies. The story got told with a side helping of Cold War envy. Private contractors and the Pentagon’s own hip military lab, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, had long been working to develop an arsenal of sound weapons. There had been some limited success with cumbersome devices like MEDUSA (Mob Excess Deterrent Using Silent Audio) and LRAD (Long Range Acoustic Device), designed to cause excruciating ear pain to disperse mobs on the ground and pirates at sea. The dream, of course, was to get past such giant blunderbusses to something more portable and powerful, like a Flash Gordon ray gun. But the air force, after some experiments, concluded that any such effort using sound waves would be “unlikely” to succeed due to “basic physical principles.” If someone had developed a portable acoustic weapon, they had leapfrogged well beyond the skill set of a Raytheon or Navistar and into the arsenal of Q Branch from the Bond movies.
For the past year, the effort to crack the mystery of which technology could have caused the physical symptoms in Cuba has sparked a ferocious nerd fight—one that has pitted scientist against scientist, discipline against discipline, The New York Times against The Washington Post. New theories have emerged, only to be knocked down or marginalized by the evidence, or put down by the petty sarcasm of rivals and skeptics.
Sift through these scientific feuds and media battles, however, and you will end up at a single unified theory that fully explains the diverse symptoms of the injured diplomats, as well as the seemingly inexplicable circumstances surrounding their ailments. Unlike a futuristic gun, it turns out, the cause of the pain and suffering at the American Embassy in Havana appears to be as old as civilization itself. Over the centuries it has been responsible for some of the most confounding epidemics in human history, from the Middle Ages in Europe to Colonial America. And in Cuba, it appears to have been weaponized for our time, opening up a whole new battlefield in Donald Trump’s war on reality.
Tensions spiked in September 2017, after Secretary of State Rex Tillerson summoned home some two dozen afflicted diplomats and staffers to undergo medical tests at the University of Pennsylvania. When someone suggested that the diplomats might be allowed to return to Havana once their health improved, Tillerson freaked. “Why in the world would I do that when I have no means whatsoever to protect them?” he huffed to the Associated Press. “I will push back on anybody who wants to force me to do that.” Even before any cause had been discovered, the State Department’s medical director, Charles Rosenfarb, seemed to rule out the usual candidates for any overseas affliction—molds, viruses, ill-advised shellfish. “The patterns of injuries,” he insisted, “were most likely related to trauma from a non-natural source.” The government had already decided that foul play was afoot—and that the primary suspect was a secret weapon.
One of the chief difficulties of using sound that people can hear as a weapon is that it dissipates quickly. That means you have to make the sound really, really loud to start with, so it can still do damage by the time it reaches the target. “To harm someone from outside a room, a sonic weapon would have to emit a sound above 130 decibels,” said Manuel Jorge Villar Kuscevic, a Cuban ear-nose-and-throat specialist who examined the evidence. That’s a roar comparable to “four jet engines on the street outside a house”—a blast that would deafen everyone in the vicinity, not just a single target.
Another bug in the initial sonic-weapon theory was exposed by … a bug. As the diplomats prepared to undergo a battery of tests, the Associated Press leaked a recording made in Cuba by one of the two dozen afflicted staffers and posted it on YouTube. Although the sound had been described in a number of contradictory ways, some of those who heard it experienced something like a high-pitched, high-frequency stridulation. In short, it sounded like chirping. And, in fact, once experts listened to the YouTube recording, there was an almost embarrassing revelation. What did many hear? Crickets.
Literally, crickets. Specifically, Gryllus assimilis, a.k.a. the Jamaican field cricket, also known sarcastically among bug experts as the “silent cricket.” And while Gryllus can get as loud as, say, a vacuum cleaner, it’s not noisy enough to cause deafness. Or, others argued, the sound might be cicadas. ProPublica’s groundbreaking investigation into the embassy mystery last winter quoted a biology professor named Allen Sanborn as saying that the only way a cicada could injure your hearing was if “it was shoved into your ear canal.”
By January 2018, some of the government’s own experts had ruled out a sonic attack. In an interim report, the F.B.I. revealed that it had investigated sound waves below the range of human hearing (infrasound), those we can hear (acoustic), and those above our hearing range (ultrasound). The conclusion: there was no sonic cause to the physical symptoms experienced by the diplomats.
But the Trump administration was not about to let good science stand in the way of politics that satisfies the base. The State Department slashed American staff in Havana by 60 percent and downgraded the posting to a “standard tour of duty”—a designation reserved for the most dangerous embassies, such as those in South Sudan and Iraq. A day after the F.B.I. ruled out a sonic attack, Marco Rubio, who despised Obama’s policy of restoring relations with his family’s homeland, gaveled open a hearing on Cuba before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. As far as Rubio was concerned, the “attacks” were a given—as were the weapon and the assailant. “There is no way that someone could carry out these number of attacks, with that kind of technology, without the Cubans knowing about it,” he told Fox News. “They either did it, or they know who did it.”
After the hearing, Senator Jeff Flake, who had been briefed on the evidence, said out loud what the scientists already knew: that there was no proof Cuba had anything to do with the symptoms experienced by embassy staffers. “The Cubans bristle at the word attack,” he told CNN during a visit to Havana. “I think they are justified at doing so. The F.B.I. has said there is no evidence of an attack. We shouldn’t be using that word.”
In reply, Rubio essentially told Flake to shut the fuck up. “It is impossible to conduct 24 separate & sophisticated attacks on U.S. Govt personnel in #Havana without the #CastroRegime knowing about it,” Rubio tweeted. “Any U.S. official briefed on matter knows full well that while method of attack still in question, that attacks & injuries occurred isn’t.” Rubio, like many in the Republican Party, was copying the playbook of the man he had tried so hard to defeat for the presidency: if you repeat misinformation often enough, and angrily enough, it starts to take on the shape of reality.
Cuban officials, still operating under the Enlightenment principles of science, reacted with disbelief, and sometimes snark. “It is evident that to attack #Cuba some people don’t need any evidence,” tweeted José Ramón Cabañas, Cuba’s ambassador to the United States. “Next stop UFOs!!”
Not long after Rubio’s hearings, a new sonic theory emerged from scientists at the University of Michigan and Zhejiang University, in China. After reverse-engineering the sound on the audiotape, they concluded that ultrasound signals from an everyday device—a burglar alarm, say, or a motion detector—crossed with those from a secret surveillance system could produce a sound like the YouTube cricket. But the new theory, known as intermodulation distortion, didn’t catch on, for the same reason the F.B.I. investigation was dismissed: because Rubio and others in the administration continued to insist that there had to be malicious intent involved. Rubio’s paranoia sustained a major blow in March, when the medical team that had been allowed to examine 21 of the patients published its finding in The Journal of the American Medical Association. Given the limited data, the article’s 10 authors couldn’t get very specific. “Because of security and confidentiality considerations,” they wrote, “individual-level demographic data cannot be reported.” But investigating this “novel cluster of findings” and “neurotrauma,” they found that the victims suffered from a wide range of symptoms: balance issues, visual impairments, tinnitus, sleep disorders, dizziness, nausea, headaches, and problems thinking or remembering.
They also concluded that while the patients experienced this assortment of brain-rattling symptoms, they couldn’t find what should have been clear evidence of concussion in the brain scans and other tests. “Most patients had conventional imaging findings, which were within normal limits,” the medical team reported, noting that the few scattered anomalies could “be attributed to other pre-existing disease processes or risk factors.” The scientists wrapped up their report with a sentence that expressed their bafflement: “These individuals appeared to have sustained injury to widespread brain networks without an associated history of head trauma.” According to one author, the team enjoyed referring to this contradiction as the “immaculate concussion.”
With the medical doctors left scratching their heads, and a sonic weapon ruled out by the F.B.I., enterprising scientists continued their search for a sonic explanation. In September, The New York Times published a breathless front-page story that read like a Tom Clancy novel: “Members of Jason, a secretive group of elite scientists that helps the federal government assess new threats to national security, say it has been scrutinizing the diplomatic mystery this summer and weighing possible explanations, including microwaves.”
The article reached back three decades, to the early era of sonic research. Those were the days when spooky words like “neurowarfare” were coined, and scientists dreamed of developing a weapon that could induce “sonic delusions.” The Russians, the Times added suggestively, had also been working on this. Then, carriage return, new paragraph:
“Furtively, globally, the threat grew.”
There was even talk, the Times trembled, of a sonic weapon capable of “beaming spoken words into people’s heads.” And the threat could be coming to fruition, the paper warned, thanks to new research based on an old finding. The potential weapon might rely on a phenomenon known as the Frey effect, in which a tiny pulse of microwaves is aimed at one’s ear, raising the temperature inside the ear by an amount so small it can’t be measured—around a millionth of a degree. That would be enough, though, to ever so slightly rattle the moisture molecules and create an acoustic effect. Sadly, the suspected weapon had been downgraded from a sonic ray gun to a high-tech version of a popcorn-popper.
There were several obvious problems with this theory. An “inside the skull” explanation, for instance, doesn’t account for the sound that the diplomats in Havana recorded. But before anyone could dive into the scientific details, a tiny press skirmish broke out between the Times and The Washington Post, which took a blue pencil to the Clancy plotline. “Microwave weapons is the closest equivalent in science to fake news,” Alberto Espay, a University of Cincinnati neurologist, told the Post. Kenneth Foster, a bioengineer who delineated the Frey effect way back in 1974, called the entire idea “crazy.” The microwaves involved, he told the Post, “would have to be so intense they would actually burn the subject.” Or, as he put it vividly a decade ago, “Any kind of exposure you could give to someone that wouldn’t burn them to a crisp would produce a sound too weak to have any effect.”
If you view what happened to the diplomats in Havana as an “attack,” you must look for something capable of producing such an assault. It would have to emit a sound that varied widely from listener to listener. It would have to strike only people who worked at the embassy. It would have to assail them wherever they happened to be, whether in their homes or staying at a hotel. It would have to produce a wide range of symptoms that seemed to bear no relation to one another. And it would have to start off small, with one or two victims, before spreading rapidly to everyone in the group.
As it happens, there is and always has been one mechanism that produces precisely this effect in humans. Today it’s referred to in the medical literature as conversion disorder—that is, the conversion of stress and fear into actual physical illness. But most people know it by an older, creakier term: mass hysteria. Among scientists, it’s not a popular term these days, probably because “mass hysteria” summons the image of a huge mob, panicked into a stampede (with a whiff of misogyny thrown in). But properly understood, the official definition, when applied to the events in Havana, sounds eerily familiar. Conversion disorder, according to the International Journal of Social Psychiatry, is the “rapid spread of illness signs and symptoms among members of a cohesive social group, for which there is no corresponding organic origin.”
We tend to think of stress as something that afflicts an individual who is enduring heavy psychological pain. But conversion disorder, or mass psychogenic illness, as it is also known, is essentially stress that strikes a close-knit group, like an embassy under siege, and behaves epidemiologically—that is, it spreads like an infection. Because the origins of this affliction are psychological, it’s easy for those on the outside to dismiss it as being “all in the victim’s mind.” But the physical symptoms created by the mind are far from imaginary or faked. They are every bit as real, every bit as painful, and every bit as testable, as those that would be inflicted by, say, a sonic ray gun.
“Think of mass psychogenic illness as the placebo effect in reverse,” says Robert Bartholomew, a professor of medical sociology and one of the leading experts on conversion disorder. “You can often make yourself feel better by taking a sugar pill. You can also make yourself feel sick if you think you are becoming sick. Mass psychogenic illness involves the nervous system, and can mimic a variety of illnesses.”
Scientists in Cuba were among the first to realize that the outbreak at the American Embassy conformed to mass hysteria. Mitchell Valdés-Sosa, director of the Cuban Neuroscience Center, told The Washington Post, “If your government comes and tells you, ‘You’re under attack. We have to rapidly get you out of there,’ and some people start feeling sick … there’s a possibility of psychological contagion.”
Some American experts who were able to review the early evidence concurred. “It could certainly all be psychogenic,” Stanley Fahn, a neurologist at Columbia University, told Science magazine.
If you retrace the key events and anomalies of the outbreak at the embassy in Havana, every step of the way corresponds to those in classic cases of conversion disorder. The first few staffers hit by the symptoms were C.I.A. agents working on hostile soil—one of the most stressful positions imaginable. The initial conversation between Patient Zero and Patient One referenced only the odd sound; neither experienced any symptoms. Then, a few months later, a third embassy official reported that he was losing his hearing due to a “powerful beam of high-pitched sound.” As word spread quickly throughout the small, tight-knit complex of diplomats and other staff, Patient Zero helped sound the alarm. “He was lobbying, if not coercing, people to report symptoms and to connect the dots,” says Fulton Armstrong, a former C.I.A. officer who worked undercover in Cuba.
According to ProPublica, Patient Zero informed Ambassador Jeffrey DeLaurentis, in a telling phrase, that “the rumor mill is going mad.” So a meeting was called, which spread the word even further. Over the next weeks and months, more than 80 staffers and their families came forward to complain of a dizzying and seemingly unrelated range of symptoms: deafness, memory loss, mental stupor, head pain. Many reported hearing the strange noise, but they couldn’t seem to agree on what it sounded like. One described it as “grinding metal,” and another called it a “loud ringing.” Yet another compared it to feeling the “air ‘baffling’ inside a moving car with the windows partially rolled down.”
The sound also moved around a lot. The first four complaints all came from C.I.A. agents working undercover in Havana, who reported hearing the noise at their homes. But then others claimed that they had been felled by the mysterious sound while staying temporarily at Havana hotels, specifically the Hotel Capri and the Hotel Nacional.
Within days of the first report, U.S. officials like Rubio tipped the scale of belief toward a super-secret sonic ray gun, issuing press releases that referred to “acoustic attacks.” The State Department’s medical director uttered this exquisite contradiction: “No cause has been ruled out,” he insisted, “but the findings suggest this was not an episode of mass hysteria.” Rather than waiting for actual data and expert analysis, officials immediately leapt to the most exotic possible explanation. The outbreak in Havana certainly could have been caused by a mysterious unheard-of secret weapon. But the story, as it has developed in the media, has always worked backward from the idea of a sonic attack. The cause was a given; the only question was which branch of acoustic science was responsible.
Government secrecy made things worse. “We will not release information,” the State Department declared, “that violates individuals’ privacy or reveals their medical conditions.” The government also ignored data that didn’t fit its preferred theory. Early on, there was an outbreak of symptoms among Canadian officials in Havana, one of whom lived next door to Patient Zero. But Canada and Cuba enjoy good relations, so it made no sense for Cuba to be attacking Canadians. Likewise, an isolated report of a similar “attack” at the U.S. Embassy in China briefly made the news, but was eventually dropped from the narrative. U.S. officials further loaded the dice by selecting the people sent home for testing—presenting an incomplete and misleading set of data for doctors to examine.
When The Journal of the American Medical Association published the report by the initial medical team, it also ran a hand-wringing editorial undermining the very article it was publishing. The “initial clinical evaluations,” the JAMA editors observed, “were not standardized.” The “examiners were not blinded,” and some of the ailments were based on “patient self-report.” There was a “lack of baseline evaluations and the absence of a control.” Those factors, the editors concluded—along with the fact that many of the reported symptoms “occur in the general population”—meant that the results of the study are “complicated.” The editors added a disclaimer, much like the one in Bush v. Gore (don’t ever cite this case in the future!), urging “caution in interpreting the findings.”
The editors suspected that skeptical scientists would attack the study, which is exactly what happened. The chief editor of Cortex, Sergio Della Sala, ridiculed the authors’ methods, specifically for setting a low bar for reporting embassy staffers as “impaired”—resulting in “numerous false positives.” Take the symptom of tinnitus. Some 50 million Americans—one in six people—experience ringing in the ears. If the JAMA scientists had assessed “any group of normal, healthy people” using the same criteria they applied to the diplomats, Della Sala pointed out, they would have found “several of them performing below the chosen cut-off score in one or another test.”
So, between the shaky medical study and the government secrecy, the description of the patients that emerged has always remained vague. Bartholomew, the medical sociologist, calls this the data equivalent of “a fuzzy Bigfoot photo.” That is to say, every nonexistent creature captured in an out-of-focus photograph is typically just blurry enough to permit anyone to see whatever they want to see, like Chupacabra, or the Ivory Billed Woodpecker, or Ebu Gogo, or batsquatch, or the Lizard Man of Scape Ore Swamp.
The authors of the JAMA study noted that they briefly considered conversion disorder, but dismissed it after screening for “evidence of malingering.” Malingering means to fake illness, which was a very weird thing for the JAMA authors to say. “Malingering was in the literature about 60 years ago,” says Bartholomew, somewhat bemused. “So I’m not sure what literature they were looking at.” Conversion disorder isn’t faking illness. Conversion disorder is being panicked into actual illness.
In December, a new study found that 25 embassy staffers tested positive for real, physical symptoms—in this case, impairments to balance and cognitive functions. “What we noticed is universal damage to the gravity organs in the ear,” the study’s lead author told the Times. But a closer look at the study itself, experts say, reveals that it found no such thing. “This paper only reports statement of deficits without giving any evidence, or scores, or methods, or statistics, or procedures,” explains Della Sala, the editor of Cortex. “It is far below par, and would not pass the scrutiny of any respected neuropsychology outlet.” In other words, he says, the symptoms cited in the study may be testable. But that alone “does not necessarily support an organic cause.”
Psychological contagion, it turns out, happens all the time. Bartholomew, who is writing a book on the subject, sets aside time each week to scour the Internet for unrecognized instances of mass psychogenic illness all over the world. “If you go on Google and type in ‘mystery illness in school’ or ‘mystery illness in factory’ or ‘mystery illness’ in general, you’ll get a lot of outbreaks,” he says. Sometimes the public doesn’t know that the illnesses were actually diagnosed, he adds, because one way to treat conversion disorder is to keep calm, let the stressful situation pass, and watch the symptoms disappear. That’s what happened in that outbreak of paralysis at an Oklahoma high school in 2017, around the time the U.S. diplomats were headed home. The superintendent, Vince Vincent, ordered tests for mold issues or water poisoning, which found nothing, and followed up by reassuring parents that health officials had diagnosed the problem as “conversion disorder,” and that everyone was safe. If, however, you make a big deal about an outbreak, the way Rubio and the State Department did, you can add to the hysteria and make things worse.
It doesn’t help that discussions of mass hysteria typically revolve around the craziest and most extreme examples. Every standard article on mass psychogenic illness seems obligated to cite the Salem witch trials, with detailed descriptions of the young girls’ convulsions and trances. Or there’s a mention of the barking children in Holland in 1673, or the laughing epidemic that broke out at a girls’ boarding school in Tanzania in 1962. The outbreak of “meowing nuns” in the Middle Ages usually warrants a mention, as does choreomania—the dancing frenzy—that gripped the German city of Aachen seven centuries ago.
But what’s most striking about episodes of mass hysteria is how the symptoms—and suspected causes—change over the centuries to fit each moment and culture. Several centuries ago, they were taken as evidence of the invisible reality of witchcraft or spiritual possession, because that made total sense at the time. After World War I, and Germany’s infamous use of mustard gas to burn or kill thousands of soldiers, psychological contagion started to be triggered by smells. Depression-era Virginia, apparently, was especially susceptible to outbreaks of gas fears, which the local authorities eventually traced to organic causes ranging from backed-up chimneys to phenomenal farting. After the group panic that broke out over Orson Welles’s legendary broadcast of a Martian invasion in 1938, a later survey showed that one out of every five people who flipped out actually thought it was a German gas attack. And during World War II, a small town in Illinois became convinced that it was under siege by a mysterious assailant who became known as the “Mad Gasser” of Mattoon.
Psychological contagion typically occurs in places where people are thrown together under pressure, and where escape is difficult—hence monasteries in the Middle Ages, or modern-day schools, factories, and military bases. In terms of locations under pressure, embassies are strong candidates, especially when a considerable number of the staff are undercover spies. One C.I.A. agent told me that these low-grade panics happen a lot. Writing in The New Yorker in 2008, the novelist and former British spy, John le Carré, made the case that spies are susceptible to a unique form of hysteria. One of his first missions, he recounted, was to accompany a superior on a late-night rendezvous with a mysterious source. But the source never arrived. Only later did le Carré realize that his boss was a bit touched, and there had probably been no source in the first place. “The superbug of espionage madness is not confined to individual cases,” he warned, in a prescient nod to the embassy in Havana. “It flourishes in its collective form. It is a homegrown product of the industry as a whole.”
Bartholomew suggests that le Carré’s “espionage madness” is a harbinger of things to come. In 2011, an epidemic broke out among a dozen kids at a school in Le Roy, New York. The children were suddenly overtaken by speech impediments, Tourette’s, and muscular twitches. Health officials quickly suspected the symptoms were the result of psychological contagion, but the local Fox News channel stoked the outbreak by amplifying one doctor’s diagnosis that the kids were suffering from a “PANDAS-like” strep infection. Outraged parents formed an advocacy group, and Erin Brockovich showed up demanding an investigation that would discover the “real” cause. Fake news fueled a real illness, and scientific evidence was rejected in favor of pre-determined beliefs. Eventually the Fox rage subsided, and the symptoms went away.
The Le Roy outbreak was intensified by texts and tweets, fanning the fear and ramping up the number of kids who reported symptoms. Social media has a toxic way of creating tight, sealed-off, le Carré spy dens everywhere. Since 2000, Bartholomew says, there have been more events of mass psychogenic illness than there were in the entire previous century. The prescribed treatment for psychological contagion—avoiding inflammatory rhetoric and letting everyone calm down—will be increasingly difficult in the age of the Twitter Presidency, when the populace is regularly needled into fits of panic.
This fall, the Joint Chiefs of Staff were briefed by several experts about the mysterious noise at the embassy in Havana. Among them was James Giordano, chief of neuroethics studies at Georgetown University, who believes that there is a “high probability” that the diplomats in Cuba were attacked by a “directed energy” weapon. After the briefing, Giordano reported that the Joint Chiefs expressed interest in “the idea of brain sciences as forming at least one vector to the new battle space.”
Then, as scientists are prone to do, Giordano switched from English to the kind of sci-fi word salad rarely heard beyond the bridge of the starship Enterprise, when Scotty carries on about tachyon pulses and anti-time convergences.
“The most likely culprit here,” Giordano explained, “would be some form of electromagnetic-pulse generation and/or hypersonic generation that would then utilize the architecture of the skull to create something of an energetic amplifier or lens to induce a cavitational effect that would then induce the type of pathologic changes that would then induce the constellation of signs and symptoms that we’re seeing in these patients.”
Machete one’s way through all the Star Trek syntax and twaddle, and what Giordano is telling us, in sum, is both true and terrifying. There is a new battlespace in America’s ongoing war over what is real, and it can be found inside the architecture of our own skulls.