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 gets 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?
Attention focused on the school, with many parents claiming there must be something in the water, ground or air causing the girls to get sick. Immediate preliminary environmental tests declared the school completely safe, but parents demanded more extensive testing be carried out.
As a cry for help, the girls went on national TV, their story causing a global media frenzy with the world's attention turning in on Le Roy. This led doctors to claim that the symptoms were being ‘magnified' due to the girls seeing other sufferers on TV, and spread further through videos of the teens being uploaded across social networking sites.
Many families remained suspicious about the school and at the height of the drama, famed environmental campaigner Erin Brockovich intervened after receiving hundreds of emails from people in the area. Ms Brockovich - whose life was depicted in an Oscar winning film - brought to light that a highly toxic chemical spilled in A 1970S train derailment four miles from the school could have something to do with it. She also drew attention to seven gas fracking wells on the school property, which had parents up in arms. With community members unsatisfied, the school was forced to carry out further extensive and expensive testing.
At the peak of the outbreak, even more people came forward and claimed to have developed the Tourette's-like symptoms, including a teenage boy, a 36 year old woman as well as two girls from another New York town, 300 miles away called Corinth.
Finally when it felt like things were escalating out of control, almost as suddenly as it began, the media retreated and most of the girls started getting better. Then the biggest twist of all emerged- these all- American teenage girls didn't have such perfect lives after all, horrific trauma, abuse and family misfortune had affected most of them and could quite plausibly have been the cause of the illness all along. But some remain unsatisfied with that diagnosis, Erin Brockovich is returning to town to continue her investigation and the girls who are still sick are desperate for answers.
The Town That Caught Tourette's has secured exclusive access to the people at the heart of this outbreak, including girls who have recovered, as well as those who are still suffering. Using archive footage, it will also tell how this bizarre situation began and how the individuals and their families not only dealt with the symptoms, but how they reacted to the media frenzy surrounding their small American town.
Production Company - Raw TV
Exec Producer - Bart Layton
Director - Amanda Blue