There’s been a bizarre story trailing through the news over the last month, and as a collector of bizarre stories, this one has really got me interested. Back in the fall, a couple of teenage girls in LeRoy, New York suddenly came down with some strange symptoms: involuntary muscle spasms, twitching, shouting, clapping and other tics. Puzzled doctors were able to rule out Tourette’s syndrome and any communicable disease, but as the symptoms quickly spread to more than a dozen other students, the town started to wonder what was really going on. The school was examined by the health department, but no toxins or troublesome substances were identified. A handful of environmental activists are still investigating the area to see if they can identify some environmental factor to explain the symptoms overtaking the town’s teens. Meanwhile, medical experts have settled on a different diagnosis: mass hysteria.
Mass hysteria (a.k.a. mass psychogenic illness) is a phenomenon in which a group of people suddenly develop the same physical ailments without any obvious cause. The symptoms are real—but they are rooted in psychology, not disease or infection. In other words, through the power of social suggestion, psychological symptoms become physical conditions. Mass psychogenic illness is thought to occur in people who are under a lot of stress and is most common in groups of young females with close social bonds. Basically it’s an amazing example of “mind over matter”— outbreaks like this are usually made worse by the excitement, rumors, and media reporting that follow.
There have been many cases of mass hysteria documented over the years. Consider the great Pokemon Panic of 1997, in which thousands of kids in Japan fell ill after a particular episode of the cartoon aired. And then there was the Tanganyika Laughing Epidemic of 1962, wherein an outbreak of uncontrollable laughter among a few students spread so fast that the school had to be shut down!
Historians even believe that the Salem Witch Trials can be blamed on a case of mass hysteria among the young girls in the community, who created a major historical controversy when they started accusing their neighbors of witchcraft. Girls began falling into trance-like states and violent fits and reported many other maladies that they blamed on black magic in the community. You can read all about it in Rosalyn Schanzer’s awesome book Witches! The Absolutely True Tale of Disaster in Salem— or check out the 1996 film The Crucible, based on Arthur Miller’s play about the Salem Witch Trials (which was itself a commentary on the rampant fear of communism in America in the 1950’s).
If this kind of hysterical illness could take hold in Puritan New England, imagine how it might spread today in the world of Facebook and 24/7 news coverage. Some of the girls in New York posted YouTube videos of themselves that showcased their symptoms to the Internet—could this have widened the influence of the epidemic? How powerful is the power of suggestion?
Want to learn more? Check out Robert E. Bartholomew’s new book The Martians Have Landed! : A History of Media-Driven Panics and Hoaxes to keep reading about the freakish power of the media when it comes to spreading panic and creating hysteria. You might also pick up Time to Dance, Time to Die, which describes the strange true story of the Dancing Plague of 1518. Or dig into more web content on cases of mass psychogenic illness throughout history.
-Maggie, CLP- Carrick