Gross-Tinz, Germany, 1892: a ten-year-old girl develops a tremor in her right hand, which quickly escalates to full-body seizures. Soon after, 19 other students are similarly afflicted. Doctors are stumped as to the cause.
Montreal, 1894: at a ladies’ seminary, sixty students suffer mysterious seizures with no known medical cause.
Bellevue, Louisiana, 1939: a girl develops a twitch in her leg while at a high school dance. Soon after, all of her friends are similarly afflicted. Again, health professionals are confounded.
Blackburn, England, 1965: 85 students at a girls’ school are overcome with fainting spells. No illnesses were discovered and no pollutants or toxins were found in their food or the environment.
North Carolina, 2002: Ten girls–mostly cheerleaders–attending a rural high school experience seizures and other inexplicable symptoms lasting for five months.
LeRoy, New York, 2011-2012: 12 high school girls suddenly develop ticks and other symptoms similar to Tourette’s. Investigations are carried out, and even Erin Brochovich’s team is called in to test the ground water and other possible environmental causes. Once again, no physical explanation can be found. The girls are all diagnosed with conversion disorder, a mental disorder in which stress and anxiety manifests as symptoms of a physiological illness.
What do all of these things have in common, apart from having similar symptoms with no known cause? Each of them is considered a classic example of mass hysteria. While examples of mass hysteria date back to the middle ages and at one time were thought to be the result of witchcraft, and is even blamed for the infamous Salem Witch Trials, it seems that in modern times, these cases more often than not occur amongst populations of young women and teenage girls, usually in some type of school setting.
Such incidents served as the basis for the film The Falling, which is a fictional account of mass hysteria spreading through an English girls’ school in the 1960s, inspired primarily by the Blackburn case of 1965. The more recent case in New York was covered in the documentary, The Town that Caught Tourette’s.
The more current and politically correct term for this type of event is “mass psychogenic illness.” According to a Time article covering the New York case, such an illness is ” thought to be triggered by stress or emotional distress, in response, for example, to reports of a chemical exposure, toxin or virus.” Symptoms can vary, and have included not only those described above but also uncontrollable dancing or laughter, and even fits of meowing like a cat. They’re believed to be spread “by way of humans’ often unconscious social mimicry of one another’s behavior,” according to Time.
That certainly fits in with the Blackburn incident, which is thought to have been triggered by the combination of anxiety over a recent polio outbreak and an incident from the day before it all started in which 20 people fainted from exhaustion during a three-hour long parade through the town.
All of which brings us to…
Dewey, Oklahoma, 2017: a “rash of student health issues” among middle school and high school students have been reported from the beginning of the fall semester. Although school officials aren’t identifying specific students or releasing information as to the specific symptoms of the illness, one concerned mother allowed the local news to film her teenage daughter, who has been experiencing mysterious seizures and trouble walking and talking, and other students are said to be experiencing similar symptoms. Investigations into the cause of the symptoms are ongoing, but so far officials haven’t been able to identify either a contagion or toxins to which the students could have been exposed. The school recently released an official statement saying that several of the students have been officially diagnosed with conversion disorder, but many of the parents involved are not having it.
Here is a recent story on the case from KOTV News in Tulsa, complete with video of the above mentioned girl and her mysterious symptoms. It’s worth noting that the comments are full of theories ranging from mold to the flu vaccine to Gardasil, with no one willing to accept the diagnosis of conversion disorder.
So what in the world is going on with this little Northeastern Oklahoma town? Is this another case of mass psychogenic illness? It certainly appears that way. But if so, then what could have triggered it? Is this just the culmination of anxiety from the onslaught of terrible things that have been in the news over the last few months? Goodness knows these kids have plenty to be stressed out about. Of course, many of the parents aren’t accepting the conversion disorder diagnosis and are consulting medical professionals to get to the bottom of this. So maybe a medical or environmental cause will eventually turn up. But considering the similarities between this case and prior incidents cited above… I’m not going to hold my breath.