In 1944, the small town of Mattoon, Illinois was terrorized by a creepy black-clad prowler who sprayed anesthetic gas in his victims' faces. Or maybe not. Where reality ended and myth began in the Mad Gasser mystery has been open for debate since the media first broke the "news." Indeed, psychologists have studied the phenomena as a case study in mass hysteria. (Loren Coleman analyzed the story, and the story behind the story, in his classic book Mysterious America, suggesting that there may have been several real attacks and that hysteria may not be entirely to blame for the reports.) In Fortean Times, cryptozoologist Jonathan Downes investigates further. From the article:
Like the incidents reported from London and Aldershot over half a century before, the real events that unfolded in Mattoon underwent a fortean sea change to become items of myth and folklore, and a local lunatic, more to be pitied than censured, became a figure of legend: if 19th-century London hatched 'Spring-heeled Jack', then 1940s Illinois gave birth to 'The Mad Gasser of Mattoon'.
One fascinating aspect of these stories is that they provide some clues towards the workings of that peculiar sociocultural mechanism whereby real events become myths, one particularly prevalent in my own field of cryptozoology (most notably, perhaps, in the case of the exotic cats which now roam the wilder parts of the United Kingdom; they too have undergone this process, becoming the 'Surrey Puma', the 'Fen Tiger' or the 'Beast of Exmoor'). The other thing we shouldn't forget is that tales like those of the Mad Gasser of Mattoon are, quite simply, irresistible fun.