Last August, 16-year-old Lori Brownell passed out while head-banging at a concert. A month later, she lost consciousness again at her school’s homecoming dance in upstate Corinth, N.Y. Brownell says her doctors put her on Celexa, but she only developed more symptoms, including involuntary twitching and clapping. In videos she posted to YouTube, Brownell flutters her fingers, touches her hair, snorts through her nose and throat, and shouts “Hey, hey, hey,” seemingly without control. On Christmas Eve, doctors diagnosed her with Tourette’s Syndrome. Now, however, her symptoms have another name: conversion disorder, or mass hysteria.
Since Brownell first passed out last summer, 14 other upstate New York students—13 girls and a boy, most of them students at LeRoy Junior-Senior High School—have come down with similar symptoms. The young people and their parents seem baffled. The state department of health and a separate report commissioned by the school have found no problematic substances in the building. Environmental activist Erin Brockovich is launching her own investigation into the outbreak; she told USA Today that her prime suspect is a train derailment that dumped cyanide and an industrial solvent in LeRoy in 1970. On Saturday, Brockovich’s team was turned away by the school while trying to collect soil samples on the property.
However, a doctor treating many of the students is confident that they are suffering not from poisoning, but from mass hysteria, also called mass psychogenic illness and other variants. Typically, symptoms—which can include Brownell’s Tourette’s-like movements, along with nausea, dizziness, cramping, and more—start with one or two victims and spread when others see or hear about them. Victims are often accused of faking it, but more often they are suffering real physical symptoms that are psychological in origin. The phenomenon has been observed for centuries, with the blame shifting to whatever specific anxieties are culturally pervasive at the time. But one theme has remained consistent: The victims are overwhelmingly female.
The most famous American incident of mass hysteria remains the events surrounding the witch trials in Salem, Mass., which began when several girls began suffering mysterious fits and outbursts. In non-Western countries, demons and witchcraft are still sometimes blamed for outbreaks of fainting and fits [PDF]. Pollution, poisoning, chemical weapons, and other environmental concerns are dominant in the West (a fact that makes Brockovich something of a mass hysteria machine). Some bloggers are now claiming that the upstate New York girls fell ill because of the HPV vaccine or fracking.
My favorite example of mass hysteria is a 1962 outbreak of contagious laughter in Tanzania reported here by RadioLab.