“Eerie and remarkable.”
Those are the words that Robert Bartholomew used to describe this past winter’s outbreak of mass hysteria in Danvers, Massachusetts, a town also known as “Old Salem” and “Salem Village.”
Bartholomew, a sociologist in New Zealand who has been studying cases of mass hysteria for more than 20 years, was referring to the Salem Witch Trials of 1692-1693, the most widely recognized episode of mass hysteria in history, which ultimately saw the hanging deaths of 20 people.
Fast-forward about 300 years to January 2013, when a bizarre case of mass hysteria again struck Danvers. About two dozen teenagers at the Essex Agricultural and Technical School began having “mysterious” hiccups and vocal tics.
“The Massachusetts State Health Department refuses to say publicly,” Bartholomew wrote in an email in late August, “but I have heard from some of the parents privately who say that the symptoms are still persisting.”
The location might be eerie, but Bartholomew is not surprised by the outbreak in the slightest. He said that there has been a “sudden upsurge” in these types of outbreaks popping up in the U.S. over the past few years. It starts with conversion disorder, when psychological stressors, such as trauma or anxiety, manifest in physical symptoms. The conversion disorder becomes “contagious” due to a phenomenon called mass psychogenic illness (MPI), historically known as “mass hysteria,” in which exposure to cases of conversion disorder cause other people—who unconsciously believe they've been exposed to the same harmful toxin—to experience the same symptoms.
Though the Massachusetts State Health Department still has not declared the Danvers outbreak to be MPI, back in March, Bartholomew said, “[Danvers] could turn into another Le Roy, if they don’t watch their step.” Typically, mass hysteria is confined to a group of girls or young women who share a common physical space for a majority of the time. Bartholomew has studied over 600 cases, dating back to 1566, and said that the gender link is undeniable; it’s just a question of why. It is accepted within the psychiatric community that conversion disorders are much more common in females. There are also social, biological, and anthropological theories that have to do with how and why females might cope with stress.
He was referring to an episode of mass hysteria in Le Roy, a small town in western New York, that garnered massive media attention in the winter of 2011 when about 18 girls at the local high school came down with a very dramatic—and very real—case of hysteria. Bartholomew said that the Danvers case looks extremely similar to the case in Le Roy and that the lessons from Le Roy have gone “unheeded.”
One major lesson missed: the power of social media to spread and exacerbate an episode.
According to Bartholomew, there is “potential for a far greater or global episode, unless we quickly understand how social media is, for the first time, acting as the primary vector or agent of spread for conversion disorder.” He believes that epidemics spread by social media are “inevitable” and that “it's just a matter of time before we see outbreaks that are not just confined to a single school or factory or even region, but covering a disperse geographical area and causing real social and economic harm.”
Le Roy was the first majorly reported case during the era of social media. But there is another significant, related detail of the Le Roy case that sets it apart from the scores of mass hysteria that had come before it.
Marge Fitzsimmons, a 36-year-old nurse in town, also “caught” the disease. Bartholomew said that it’s not unheard of for one or two adults to be affected, but he cannot recall any cases like Marge’s, in which the adults were not intimately involved with the children suffering from the malady. Marge said that she knew about what was going on in town mainly through Facebook postings.
Catching an illness through Facebook sounds wonky. But the contagion of hysteria relies, among many things, upon the unconscious interpretation of what is suggested to us. Fitzsimmons did not even have to be in physical contact with the other girls to “catch” their disease. Marge encapsulates the power of social media to penetrate and trigger actions of the unconscious mind. She marks “a historical shift in terms of the trigger for people being affected and sucked into these cases,” Bartholomew said.
Here is her story.
It was December 2011, and Marge Fitzsimmons was sick. Marge, a nurse, was familiar with the many ways that the body can betray us, but this was different. It wasn't the flu or cancer or even depression, but an illness more mysterious, fraught with anxiety and fear. Marge was a grown woman with a daughter of her own, but that winter, more than anything, she needed her mom.
Her mother, Margaret, 60, had moved 250 miles south to Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, 10 years earlier. It was the first time since that Marge had insisted she visit. Marge was suffering from something she felt was deeply “private and personal,” so she wanted Margaret to visit without her husband, Marge’s stepfather. It was nothing against him, Marge said, but Margaret took it as an insult.
After several failed entreaties over the phone, Marge hand-wrote a three-page letter. “I ask you this one time, and you deny me,” it read. “I’m really sick, and I just need my mom.”
Weeks passed. It was the first Christmas that the two didn't speak. The problem wasn't only that Margaret was offended by Marge’s request. It was also that she hadn't yet grasped the gravity of her daughter’s situation. She did not yet realize that Marge was stricken by the mysterious sickness that was spreading through Le Roy, a town of 4,000 near the Canadian border.
The strange illness began that fall, when a few teenage girls at the high school started exhibiting uncontrollable tics and stutters, jerking their heads and limbs, and having verbal outbursts and seizures. The symptoms were likened to those of Tourette syndrome. The specifics of the twitches and tics were particular to each girl, but most of the girls exhibited consistency in their movements.
The outbreak began slowly among girls at Le Roy High School, but in February, CNN reported that 16 girls had symptoms. Panic was building and speculation flew around town. It was the Gardasil vaccine; it was the bad marijuana that had been going around; it was something in the water.
The spreading illness was also beginning to draw attention from around the country. Superintendent of the Le Roy school system Kim Cox reflected in an interview, “We had trucks parked on Main Street for two weeks. You couldn't get a cup of coffee without having a camera shoved in your face.”
It was as though media attention had been switched on and couldn't be switched off. There were the dramatic scenes, seemingly staged for the cameras: local police escorting the team of celebrity environmental activist Erin Brockovich off school grounds; screaming parents at a community meeting. And the public was getting to know some of the girls, such as Thera Sanchez, cheerleader and town darling, who went on national television with her alarming tics. And, of course, there were mentions of the one adult, the 36-year old nurse, who had also “caught” the disease.