Sam McPheeters travels through the Holy Land in search of the “Jerusalem syndrome” for Vice:
I was whacked out in the land of the whacked out, seeking the even more whacked out. I was on the hunt for casualties of the Jerusalem syndrome, a sudden psychological affliction with messianic overtones that some visitors, primarily Christians, suffer shortly after their arrival to the city. They usually wash up in police custody or emergency rooms, suffering from dehydration and self-neglect of, well, biblical proportions. A handful of patients are treated every year at Jerusalem’s Kfar Shaul Mental Health Center. Many recover from their episodes and resume their lives (sometimes falling right back into their previously scheduled tour itinerary). A select few allegedly do not, winding up on the streets. They live on as case histories, stripped of names and nationalities.
There are several diagnostic types of Jerusalem syndrome. There are the traditional crazies—travelers with profoundly skewed worldviews, acutely religious, who find themselves caught in Jerusalem’s psychic force field. Some come with claims that they have decoded religious secrets, such as the date of the Messiah’s return, the location of Eden or Golgotha, or the exact criteria for heavenly ascension. Others arrive to act out particularly grisly Bible passages. Many of them are practitioners of what the journal Mental Health, Religion & Culture terms “psychotic asceticism.” (A 2008 MHR&C study described one lonely pilgrim who was found, emaciated and helpless, on a street bench. God apparently told her to “die of famine on the streets of Jerusalem.” By the time she started to doubt her instructions, she was too weak to ask for help.)
The Jerusalem syndrome’s second, more severe type concerns false messiahs. These are the high-profile cases, people who arrive in Jerusalem and abruptly claim to be Jesus (or John the Baptist, or a variety of other notable biblical figures). Many of these people have strict religious backgrounds and an intimate familiarity with the Bible. Often they have been given a “secret message.”
The third type, “pure” Jerusalem syndrome, follows all the rules of type two, with one crucial exception: These people have no prior psychological problems. They are professionals, students, retirees, and housewives whose long-treasured visions of Jerusalem are shattered by the grime, tension, and commercialization of any other modern city. The result is a long and dramatic detour from reality. And for once the stereotype of a lunatic draped in bedsheets is appropriate; many of the pure raid their hotel’s linen for garments before setting out, reborn, into the streets.
Long-form journalism at its finest. Read the full feature here.
(h/t Peter Frase)