How Jerusalem Syndrome Works

Jerusalem Syndrome Profile

People coming to Jerusalem often expect it to look as it did in Biblical times. They don't expect cell phones
People coming to Jerusalem often expect it to look as it did in Biblical times. They don't expect cell phones

"Samson" also happened to be a paranoid schizophrenic. So what's the back story of your average person with Jerusalem Syndrome?

The majority of the people (about 80 percent) who get Jerusalem Syndrome have some form of mental illness [source: Kezwer, Lee]. They may already have some form of psychotic disorder -- "Samson" falls into this group -- or they may have some sort of personality disorder or fixation.

A large percentage of the people in this group are Jewish, some are Christian and very few are Muslim. Local residents fall into this group as well. Jews with the syndrome tend to identify with Old Testament figures, Christians with the New Testament. Men identify with male characters and women with female characters.

But the most interesting group is also the smallest group -- the people with no history of mental illness, who come to Jerusalem, come down with the symptoms of Jerusalem Syndrome and recover quickly. Some experts claim that this group doesn't exist, that no one without some sort of disorder spontaneously suffers a psychotic episode like this. But others disagree.

Who gets this type of Jerusalem Syndrome? Men and women seem to get the syndrome in equal numbers, although some estimates skew the number toward men. The majority of people who get the syndrome are:

  • from North America (occasionally Western Europe)
  • members of a Protestant Christian religion
  • in their 20s or 30s
  • unmarried

Reports indicate that people who come down with Jerusalem Syndrome had very religious childhoods, but renounced their religion sometime during adolescence or young adulthood. So what they expect when they come to Jerusalem is how they pictured Jerusalem as children, not a bustling modern city.

Why is it that Protestant Christians from the United States are the most susceptible to being overcome by this sudden religious fervor? Bar-El has suggested that they're more susceptible because unlike Jews or Catholics, who have rituals, traditions and an intermediary to the divine (like a priest), Protestants connect directly to God [source: Lee]. Rituals may serve as something to ground a person -- the person can connect to God, but in a safe, prescribed manner, in a way that has parameters.

Why the United States, Canada and parts of Western Europe? Maybe because religion has an uncertain place in the Western world today. Think of watching the news: On one hand, you hear about religious extremists carrying out suicide bombings in the name of a higher power. On the other hand, you hear about skirmishes over labels on textbooks denouncing evolution or whether you can say "Christmas" in a school newsletter. It seems to be a question of scale, and the modern, Westernized world doesn't know quite where to put its beliefs. For someone who grew up devout and steeped in the word of God, the world today doesn't match up to the tenets of the Bible. Perhaps he or she thinks that a return to the roots of the religion will be a return to purity and simplicity.

For some people, a visit to Jerusalem turns their world upside down. But is Jerusalem Syndrome even real? Or is it just some disappointed people going a little batty on their Mediterranean tour?