Mysterious Illnesses That Plague Us

Detail from a 1642 engraving by Hendrik Hondius, based on Peter Breughel’s 1564 drawing depicting sufferers of a dance epidemic occurring in Molenbeek that year.

Some plagues that sweep over the land disappear as mysteriously as they arrived on the scene. 

Plagues: they are awful and mysterious, sometimes bizarre, such as the Medieval Dancing Plague of Strasbourg, France, that I once wrote about.  The hundreds of victims could not control themselves from the desire to dance.  They danced for days, often until they dropped—some of them dropped for good. 

Then there was the laughing plague of 1962 in Tanganyika.  Young girls from a girls’ school, and the surrounding area beyond, fell into fits of laughter and could not stop.  No organic reasons for the outbursts could be found. 

Researchers have described these maladies as mass psychogenic or sociogenic illnesses that happen to the vulnerable in high-stress conditions.   These plagues disappeared as mysteriously as they arrived on the scene.  There have been others.

More recently there was a twitching epidemic in Le Roy, New York in 2011.  The town of Le Roy is about 50 miles east of Buffalo.  (Le Roy is also the birthplace of Jell-o—there is a museum).  The twitching epidemic can only be described as a mini-plague and it faded almost as quickly as it came.  It wreaked havoc while it was here:  about 20 girls were victims of the disorder. 

The girls were students in the Le Roy Junior and Senior High Schools.  One of the first victims recognized was actually diagnosed with a genuine case of Tourette Syndrome and eventually received medication and treatment.  It is thought that this case set the stage for the rest of the cases.  Other girls observed her behavior and began having the same symptoms.

Those stricken manifested involuntary movements, odd tics and twitches, and disruptive verbal outbursts.  After the first case presented, fourteen more followed in rapid succession. A few more then followed.  The cases spanned a four-month period.

It is hard to even imagine this until you think of an example that most of us have experienced.  Have you ever seen someone yawn, and you couldn’t resist yawning yourself?  I think it must be very similar—these copycat reactions.  There is another.  I have had the experience of spoon-feeding disabled patients in care facilities.  It is almost impossible to keep your own mouth still while doing this.  You seem to move your own mouth in accordance with the way you want the eater to move his or her mouth.  It is almost impossible to control.  If you have ever spoon-fed an infant, you know what I mean. These examples almost seem reflexive in nature.

When parents were informed by doctors that their daughters were experiencing a psychological conversion disorder, a few of the parents accepted this diagnosis.  There was another group of parents that wanted to contact Erin Brockovich.  They were convinced their daughters were poisoned by a chemical spill from a wrecked train that had derailed in the past.  The authorities assured them that they had tested soil, water, and air, and there was no poison lurking about.  There was no poison found in the girls’ systems, either.  Erin had come to the area to gather samples but she was not allowed to do so.

There was but the one girl with a true diagnosis of Tourette Syndrome.  The remaining girls were all completely normal and healthy.  There was no way they were faking it.  The symptoms were very real, involuntary, out of control, and debilitating.  Their symptoms did worsen in proportion to the glare of media hype each girl experienced.  The worsened symptoms then created more media hype, in turn.  

The mystery illness drew the curious agents of local news, print media, and even national media.  Some girls were coaxed to go on talk shows.  Also in this strange mix was the interest generated by their own posts on social media sites about their awful experiences. 

The girls returned to normal in a few months.  Medical and health department personnel were of the controversial opinion that social and news media had greatly contributed to and possibly caused the manifestation of the mystery illness. When the girls stayed away from the media, and the media lost interest, the symptoms faded completely.

Parents were frantic.  Some of the girls soon found themselves in the midst of media attention.  This seemed to create more symptoms and keep the symptoms going longer.  The girls who avoided the media were known to recover more quickly.

Sara Marie Hogg is the author of Quite Curious, a collection of true stories about the mysterious and unexplained. Please click HERE to find the book on Amazon.

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