Experts blamed a whole raft of things for the illness that struck several students and one teacher at Virginia's William Byrd High School: Carbon dioxide from the photography classroom. Lead paint. Drugs. Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Even swamp gas and raging hormones.
In September 2007, a student at the high school fell ill with tremors, twitching, dizziness and headaches. Soon nearly a dozen people were afflicted, causing alarm in the school and community. School officials were urged to close the institution; at one point about 300 of the school's 1,200 students were staying home.
Virginia's Department of Health swept in, performing innumerable tests to see whether there was an environmental issue causing the symptoms. But after weeks of study, all results were negative. The conclusion: a sociogenic problem (i.e., one produced by societal issues). In other words, mass hysteria. The reason for the hysteria was presumed to be stress. However, the school superintendent was uncertain, saying these students were no more stressed than any others [source: Jeffries].
Author's Note: 10 Strangest Mass Hysterias
I've never fallen prey to an episode of mass hysteria, although I was around during the day care ritual abuse panic. I definitely remember reading about it and being appalled. But I was young and didn't have any children of my own at the time, so I wasn't that invested in the story. What's scarier to me today is a situation like one in Le Roy, New York, where 18 girls began twitching. Some said it was conversion disorder, but others disagreed, insisting it must be because of an infection or some kind of contaminant in the soil (during a 1970 train accident in the area, toxic chemicals were spilled). The girls eventually got better through counseling and antibiotics. Since the antibiotics could have cured an infection or "healed" the girls through the placebo effect, in the end the episode is still a mystery.
More Great Links
- Andrews, Evan. "What was the dancing plague of 1518?" History. Sept. 14, 2015. (Jan. 27, 2016) http://www.history.com/news/ask-history/what-was-the-dancing-plague-of-1518
- Bartholomew, Robert and Erich Goode. "Mass Delusions and Hysterias: Highlights from the Past Millennium." Skeptical Inquirer. Vol. 24, No. 3. May/June 2000. (Feb. 4, 2016) http://www.csicop.org/si/show/mass_delusions_and_hysterias_highlights_from_the_past_millennium/
- Blumberg, Jess. "A Brief History of the Salem Witch Trials." Smithsonian. Oct. 23, 2007. (Jan. 27, 2016) http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/a-brief-history-of-the-salem-witch-trials-175162489/?no-ist
- Casey, Maura. "How the daycare child abuse hysteria of the 1980s became a witch hunt." The Washington Post. July 31, 2015. (Feb. 3, 2016) https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/a-modern-witch-hunt/2015/07/31/057effd8-2f1a-11e5-8353-1215475949f4_story.html
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Epidemic of Acute Illness—West Bank." Aug. 5, 1983. (Feb. 1, 2016) http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/00000068.htm
- China Daily. "Teens suffer soap opera virus." May 19, 2006. (Jan. 29, 2016) http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/world/2006-05/19/content_595035.htm
- Dominus, Susan. "What Happened to the Girls in Le Roy?" The New York Times. March 7, 2012. (Feb. 4, 2016) http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/11/magazine/teenage-girls-twitching-le-roy.html?_r=0
- Glover, David. "Terror reign of Halifax 'slasher.'" Halifax Courier. April 24, 2013. (Feb. 1, 2016) http://www.halifaxcourier.co.uk/news/nostalgia/terror-reign-of-halifax-slasher-1-5607760
- History. "Salem Witch Trials." 2011. (Jan. 25, 2016) http://www.history.com/topics/salem-witch-trials
- Gerber, Hestie. "The Terrifying Reign of the Illusive Halifax Slasher." History & Headlines. (Feb. 1, 2016) http://www.historyandheadlines.com/terrifying-reign-illusive-halifax-slasher/
- Haberman, Clyde. "The Trial That Unleashed Hysteria Over Child Abuse." The New York Times. March 9, 2014. (Feb. 3, 2016) http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/10/us/the-trial-that-unleashed-hysteria-over-child-abuse.html
- Jeffries, Stuart. "The outbreak of hysteria that's no fun at all." The Guardian. Nov. 20, 2007. (Feb. 3, 2016) http://www.theguardian.com/world/2007/nov/21/society.health
- Little Rascals Day Care Case. "The Little Rascals Case in Brief." (Feb. 3, 2016) http://www.littlerascalsdaycarecase.org/
- Mayo Clinic. "Conversion disorder." Feb. 27, 2014. (Feb. 4, 2016) http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/conversion-disorder/basics/definition/con-20029533
- McGraw, Peter and Joel Warner. "Why laughter makes no sense: The surprising science behind what tickles our funny bones." Salon. April 9, 2014. (Jan. 27, 2016) http://www.salon.com/2014/04/09/why_laughter_makes_no_sense_the_surprising_science_behind_what_tickles_our_funny_bones/
- Momtastic. "11 Weirdest Real-Life Cases of Mass Hysteria." (Jan. 29, 2016) http://webecoist.momtastic.com/2008/12/06/mass-hysteria/
- Riley, William and Oskar Johannsen. "Handbook of Medical Entomology." 1915. (Feb. 3, 2016) http://www.gutenberg.org/files/34279/34279-h/34279-h.htm
- San Francisco Call. "Kissing Bug Scare Reaches Alameda." July 11, 1899. (Feb. 3, 2016) http://cdnc.ucr.edu/cgi-bin/cdnc?a=d&d=SFC18990711.2.96
- Sebastian, Simone. "Examining 1962's 'laughter epidemic.'" Chicago Tribune. July 29, 2003. (Jan. 27, 2016) http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2003-07-29/features/0307290281_1_laughing-40th-anniversary-village
- Shipler, David. "More Schoolgirls in West Bank Fall Sick." The New York Times. April 4, 1983. (Feb. 1, 2016) http://www.nytimes.com/1983/04/04/world/more-schoolgirls-in-west-bank-fall-sick.html
- University of Virginia. "Tituba." Salem Witch Trials Documentary Archive and Transcription Project. 2002. (Feb. 4, 2016) http://salem.lib.virginia.edu/people?group.num=&mbio.num=mb29
- Wallis, Paul. "Mystery explained? 'Dancing Plague' of 1518, the bizarre dance that killed dozens." Digital Journal. Aug. 13, 2008. (Jan. 27, 2016) http://www.digitaljournal.com/article/258521
- Wasserman, Edward. "Remember the Wave of Satanic Child Abuse Hysteria? You Should." Huffington Post. Feb. 20, 2012. (Feb. 3, 2016) http://www.huffingtonpost.com/edward-wasserman/satanic-child-abuse_b_1162854.html
The guys at Stuff They Don't Want You To Know break down some of the myths behind the Salem witch trials.