The Town that Caught Tourettes

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Project Details

  • Director: Amanda Blue
  • Producer: Poppy Dixon
  • Executive Producers: Bart Layton and Dimitri Doganis
  • Channel 4
  • May 2013

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In October 2011 in the tiny town of Le Roy, New York, a handful of teenage girls from the same high school suddenly developed symptoms that looked like Tourette’s syndrome; facial twitching, violent limb gestures and uncontrollable verbal outbursts. The epidemic strangely seemed to affect only teenage girls and resulted in panicked parents and theories coming in thick and fast.
Some doctors who saw the girls believed they were victims of conversion disorder, where real physical symptoms – in this case tics – are triggered not by a physical cause, but by psychological trauma. However this solution didn’t convince all the families, who claimed their perfect girls, from cheerleaders to high-achievers, were from stable backgrounds and couldn’t possibly be suffering from anything ‘in the mind’.

Within a few months, the stunned community watched up to 18 students get sick and the diagnosis became ‘mass hysteria,’ formally known as ‘mass psychogenic illness’, where symptoms spread amongst vulnerable people in close proximity. This diagnosis was even harder to accept for the families, who couldn’t understand how the symptoms could spread in this way – and why these seemingly normal girls became afflicted, why this town and why now?