Áine Ní Laoghaire: Hysteria in Le Roy

October 2011: High-school cheerleader Katie Krautwurst wakes up, her face spasming uncontrollably, her teeth grinding. A week or two later her best friend, fellow cheerleader Thera Sanchez, begins to exhibit similar but intensified tics; face twitches, stammers, and physical jerks.

The girls and their continuing symptoms were discussed and dissected on Facebook and Twitter by their peers. Soon, other girls reported their own physical and vocal tics. Something strange seemed to spread among the teenage students of Le Roy, New York.  By mid January, the number of twitching teens was 12 and was continuing to grow.

It wasn’t long before the media caught wind of the story – teenage cheerleaders caught up in terrifying mystery illness – and descended on the sleepy town. Camera crews roamed Le Roy’s main street, searching for comment from any of the seven and a half thousand occupants. YouTube videos made by the various sufferers documenting their experiences went viral. Both Katie and Thera were invited to appear on The Today Show, Thera’s arm spasming and flailing despite her best attempts to control it.

Experts in toxins were unable to provide any definite culprit for the symptoms, despite the fact there had been a chemical spill of an industrial solvent named TCE (trichlocroethylene) in the area 40 years previously. It seemed that the girls symptoms had appeared as if by magic.

The town breaks out in accusations – there’s something in the water, someone somewhere is definitely covering something up. But environmental tests come out clear. Experts in toxins are unable to provide a  definite culprit for the symptoms the girls are displaying, and no one has a satisfactory answer.

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February 1692: In Massachusetts, 9 year old Betty Parris and her 11 year old cousin Abigail Williams displayed symptoms similar to the tics the teenagers of Le Roy suffered from. Other girls in the village also began to complain of pinching sensations and no physical cause for their odd ailment’s could be found. It was decided that  witchcraft was to blame. Those mysterious behaviours became the basis of the Salem witch trials, the most notorious case of mass hysteria in the West.

The concept of hysteria does not seem to belong to our modern world. Historically, it is known as a medical condition that affects only women. Symptoms included nervousness, hallucinations, and occasional partial paralysis. Mass hysteria is when a group of people (again, often female) believe that they are all suffering from a similar disease or physical ailment. It is a collective delusion, and feeds on rumours and fear.

The term suggests irrational, uncontrollable, frenzied behaviour. It belongs to sexually repressed Edwardian women and demoniacally possessed young girls.

It couldn’t be further from our technologically advanced society. We are too mindful, too self aware to succumb to a backward concept like hysteria. And yet, despite our ever-expanding knowledge of the inner workings of our brains and bodies, over the last decade there has been a surge in cases of mass hysteria. Mass Psychogenic Illness (MPI), as hysteria is now known, occurs in groups of teenagers (mostly female), unable to control hiccuping, laughing or violent tics.

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November 2012: In Houston, Texas, 22 students fall ill with coughing fits and nausea at a football game. Only the students on the pitch are affected. No-one in the stalls reports any type of symptoms.

2007: In Mexico, 600  girls suddenly lose their ability to walk.

2013: In Danvers, Massachusetts, over two dozen high-school students suffered chronic hiccups and vocal tics for months on end. The case in Danvers was one of the few widely-reported stories, as Danvers already had a history of mysterious illnesses.

Danvers had previously been known as Salem, home of the infamous witch trials.

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But why has there been a rise in cases of  MPI over the last decade?

We have, at first glance, very little in common with the little town of Salem. We are a society based in science and logic, not devils and witchery. We are, however, still fuelled by gossip and social crazes. Trends on Twitter can attest to that.

Are we not a more open and accepting society then that of the Puritan society of Salem? We are as connected to one another as those townspeople had been, perhaps even more so. Since the birth of social media, we are now even more aware of the minutiae of peoples daily lives. In fact, we encourage that awareness.

In Le Roy, it was normal for the the victims of the mysterious illness to regularly upload videos of their symptoms. The videos of these tics then seemed to trigger waves of similar tics in others. David Lichter, professor of neurology at the University of Buffalo, who had treated several of the patients commented, “It’s remarkable to see how one individual posts something, and then the next person who posts something not only are the movements bizarre and not consistent with known movement disorders, but it’s the same kind of movements.”

The only adult victim of Le Roy, Marge Fitzsimmons, a 36 year old nurse, had no physical contact whatsoever with the teens but had been reading and re-reading about their symptoms via Facebook. She began to exhibit tics not long after she took an interest in the groups plight, jerking her head so violently and with such regularity that her chin began to bruise her right shoulder.

Last year, it came to light that Facebook had been manipulating users by tweaking news feeds in order to examine ’emotional contagion’ – the tendency for individuals to mimic one another emotionally and subconsciously, often for social acceptance. It had previously been accepted that emotional contagion only took place in face to face encounters. Facebook edited 689,003 users feeds to show more ‘positive emotional’ or ‘negative emotional’ content, and then monitored those feeds to see if those users began to mirror the emotional content being fed to them. Which, of course, they did.

The experiment suggested that “in-person interaction and nonverbal cues are not strictly necessary for emotional contagion, and that the observation of others’ positive experiences constitutes a positive experience for people,” according to an article, ‘Experimental Evidence Of Massive-Scale Emotional Contagion Through Social Networks published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.

Not only does it seem that emotions are contagious online, but it’s likely that social norms are too. The internet is often hailed as a  platform for free speech, but on social media the opposite may be true. In 2014, Pew Research and Rutgers University conducted a study into people sharing seemingly unpopular views online. They learned that that when social media users felt their opinions were not supported online, they were less likely to say they would speak their minds. If the opposite is also true – that supported opinions get hailed more and more, (or retweeted and liked) an echo effect takes place. What we believe to be true is repeated back to us, becomes stronger, becomes real. Which is exactly how hysteria spreads.

Already, there have been the beginnings of scientific studies into correlations between the rise in anxiety disorders and excessive use of social media. It takes no leap of the imagination to see how the physical manifestation of those anxieties might begin spread via the web too.

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The internet gave the girls of Le Roy a support system throughout their ordeal. People reached out to them, offering advice and well wishes. It acted as a feedback loop, recording the symptoms and echoing them along from case to case, girl to girl, far outside the confines of their small high-school in Massachusetts. It also allowed for online panic, overreaction, and wild accusations, creating a pressure cooker environment for those inside the story. Unlikely as it seems, there’s no denying that as the story got bigger, the girls got sicker. Hysteria via mass media, it seems, could be the witchcraft of our day.

June 2012: Doctors treating the girls of Le Roy in a nearby neurological clinic in Buffalo, NY claimed the girls were “80-90% cured”. By then, news outlets had decided to take down the online videos of the girls and the media circus surrounding them had retreated. Dr Laslo Mechtler, who treated fifteen of the girls, observed, “We noticed that the kids who were not in the media were getting better; the kids who were in the media were still symptomatic. One thing we’ve learnt is how social media and mainstream media can worsen the symptoms in these cases.”

Since then there has been little or no media movement on the story, but reportedly all girls have made a full recovery.

Áine Ní Laoghaire is an actor/performer based in Dublin. She tweets at @ainedunleary and writes mini fashion paragraphs at https://wantonboys.wordpress.com.

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