Laura Dimon (demon?) writes at the Atlantic:
“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.”
Read more here.