Twitching Teens and Status Symptoms: Megan Abbott and Katherine Howe Explore the Mysteries of Girls

Are Cheerleaders More Susceptible to Mass Psychogenic Illness?

Mystery MonthImagine my surprise when my colleague Sarah Hunter, after reading my review of Megan Abbott’s magnificent The Fever, told me that its story was almost identical to a YA book she reviewed, Katherine Howe’s Conversion. Consider these two passages from our reviews, both published in the May 1 Mystery Showcase.

The Fever by Megan AbbottFrom The Fever:

In an isolated northeastern town known for its miserable weather, Deenie and her best friends, Lise and Gabby, find themselves at the center of a mysterious epidemic that causes girls to—do what, exactly? The symptoms are puzzling. Lise seizes in class, and Gabby collapses onstage during an orchestra recital, leaving Deenie to wonder if she’s next. . . . Is the cause HPV vaccinations? Or the water of the town’s dead lake? Is it—a thought that lurks darkly in Deenie’s mind—­her recent loss of virginity?

Conversion by Katherine HoweFrom Conversion:

St. Joan’s Academy in Danvers, Massachusetts, a well-to-do private girl’s school for the best and brightest, is usually only home to hysteria of the college-admissions kind. But when Clara starts convulsing in class, a media frenzy fixates on the St. Joan’s mystery disease. Is it a reaction to the HPV vaccine? Or are students under so much pressure they’re beginning to crack? As more and more girls fall ill . . .

Wow! Coincidence? A case of industrial publishing espionage? The likenesses run deep, including echoes (stronger in Conversion) of the Salem Witch Trials. But, after a little research, I’m guessing it’s merely a case of similar source material. If you’re not familiar with the terms “conversion disorder” and “mass psychogenic illness” you’re going to want to read, as I did, “What Happened to the Girls in Le Roy,” a long but fascinating article by Susan Dominus in the New York Times Magazine. One tidbit:

Cheerleaders frequently come up in case histories of mass psychogenic illness at schools, partly because psychogenic outbreaks often start with someone of high social status. But it might also be that their enviable unity is what makes them more susceptible. In 2002, 10 students, 5 of them cheerleaders, in a rural town in North Carolina suffered from nonepileptic seizures and fainting spells. In 1952, the Associated Press reported that 165 members of the Tigerettes cheerleading squad from Monroe, La., fainted before halftime at a high-school football game in nearby Natchez, Miss. There were no unusual circumstances, other than a little bit of heat and an embarrassing incident in which the girls had come onto the field after the first quarter, by accident. So many girls were fainting in quick succession that five ambulances raced across the field at once. “It looked like the racetrack at Indianapolis,” a spectator said.

Following that, you might find yourself, as I did, trolling for video.

At some point, like me, you’ll have to get back to work, but you won’t be able to shake the haunting images from the books and real life, and wonder what it’s like to be one of those girls.

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About the Author:

Keir Graff is the editor of Booklist Online and the author of five books. His most recent is the middle-grade novel, The Other Felix.

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