10 Strangest Mass Hysterias


William Byrd High School Twitching Incident (2007)

Students and parents wait in the office at Washington Middle School, Maine, after student complaints of headaches following a ruptured gas line. At William Byrd High School, Virginia, students also complained of headaches and tremors but no cause was ever found. Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
Students and parents wait in the office at Washington Middle School, Maine, after student complaints of headaches following a ruptured gas line. At William Byrd High School, Virginia, students also complained of headaches and tremors but no cause was ever found. Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

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.

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