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Inside Girlstown: The boarding school where 500 students were haunted.

It's not every day you hear a story about a young girl being haunted, let alone hundreds of them.

But this is exactly what happened at Girlstown - a school for disadvantaged young girls that just over a decade ago, experienced a series of disturbing mass symptoms that left a federal government lost for words.


Girlstown is a Catholic boarding school in Mexico for young girls who are from low socioeconomic backgrounds, the families desperate for their offspring to have a better life. 

It was founded in 1990, and is one of a few schools operated by a charity called World Villages for Children. It is run by nuns from the Sisters of Mary, an order founded in South Korea. The tuition is free, and the school is largely built upon and reliant on donations. 

It was in 2007 that the school found its way into the media spotlight, and not for good reason.

Students were complaining about piercing sensations in their legs, many experiencing nausea and fevers too. 

Between October 2006 and June 2007, more than 500 students, one teacher, and some religious mothers succumbed to the contagion. An estimated 300 girls were sent home.

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Psychiatrist Dr Nashyiela Loa Zavala was fascinated and perplexed by what took place at Girlstown. 

She was sent there to investigate by the Mexican health authority, the federal government also sending inspectors and epidemiologists to test all the girls and the environment for answers. It yielded little results.

"I don't have any strength in my knees and my back hurts. I've had falls because my schoolmates couldn't carry me," one of the schoolgirls told the psychiatrist.

This schoolgirl also said she had begun seeing black shadows and hearing upsetting noises. The symptoms were intensifying.

Another girl called Jovita said: "It started like pricks, and my legs hurt, like they screeched. And all of a sudden I couldn't stand up. When I tried, my legs would buckle."

At the time of the event, Sister Cheong - one of the heads of Girlstown - told Banderas News that the hysteria wasn't a case of mistreatment from the nuns and those in authority positions, but a psychological phenomenon instead.

"They said some of the girls were ill because the food the nuns serve is spoiled and the water is polluted, which is false, because now inspections are better so everything we eat is cleaner. The parents become afraid and lose their heads because they are very angry and upset to see their girls this way," she said.


"What stuns us - really shocks us - is that they cannot walk. Doctors who have done the analysis say that they are imitating each other, that it is psychological. We need support, not scandal."

There remains a lot of confusion about what mass hysteria actually is, and whether it is legitimate.

Examples of mass hysteria are noted in history books related to the Middle Ages, the plague and the witch trials.

According to the Handbook of Clinical Neurology, mass hysteria, or rather mass psychosis, occurs when a group of people experience similar uncharacteristic symptoms that don't have a clear cause.

There is little scientifically proven about this phenomenon, though common suggested symptoms are dizziness, weakness, hallucinations, nausea, fevers, panic and convulsions. Essentially the general understanding is that it's when a group of people manifest physiological symptoms that may appear in reaction to psychological distress.

For the young women of Girlstown, the Mexican health authority determined they were experiencing mass hysteria, given there was little other medical explanation for what occurred. Tests and tests even came back negative for various diseases.

Dr. Víctor Manuel Torres Meza, the director of epidemiology for the Mexico State Health Department, said at the time there were some 80 documented cases of mass hysteria from around the world.

Officials found no evidence of overt mistreatment, although they acknowledged the schoolgirls were tightly disciplined and very isolated from their loved ones.


In 2010, psychiatrist Loa Zavala published a paper on her fieldwork at Girlstown.

She noticed that the school's very strict environment was quite emotionally restrictive, and would have had a great impact on the girls.

"There were so many rules, almost too many. The girls could not watch television, read magazines, or listen to the radio. They all wore the same uniforms, got the same haircut, and ate the same food. The girls were expected to celebrate their birthdays on the same day, the anniversary of the school’s foundation, each August," Loa Zavala recounted to Vox.

"It was as though the school had sought to sever each girl's ties to the outside world from the moment they arrived."

Loa Zavala said the only thing that even slightly resembled a correlation to the mass hysteria was that a short time before the psychological event, many of the schoolgirls had made an Ouija board and used it to try and conjure spirits.

Jovita told Loa Zavala that her symptoms started to show soon after the Ouija board night. 

Sister Cheong was completely against the use of the Ouija board in the school, as were the other nuns. They felt it was "an instrument of the devil, capable of changing people's souls to make them do evil things".

Now there's even a movie in development about this very story, aptly titled Our Lady of Tears, which is reflective of rosary beads deemed to help with healing and mental health.


Set to be written and directed by Issa López, she told MovieWeb that as soon as she read the article by Vox, she knew she wanted to tell this story.

"I myself attended a Catholic school in Mexico City. I grew up on a steady diet of supernatural visitations and miracles, and of the real-life horrors that young girls who grow up in poverty face every day in Mexico, and around the world," she said.

As for the fate of Girlstown, here's what we know.

It remains open today, though it will forever be shrouded in mystery and infamy given what occurred 16 years ago. Eventually, the hysteria symptoms among the schoolgirls quietened down. Loa Zavala said that once the girls were given the space to talk about their emotions and were no longer in such a restrictive environment, they came back to reality.

Many of the superiors and nuns at the school were transferred back to South Korea. The damage to their reputations had been done. To this day Sister Cheong believes the hysteria was "a test from God".

Jovita, one of the students, told Vox she left Girlstown with "mixed emotions", though she isn't religious anymore. 

As for what really happened at Girlstown in that fateful year - we likely won't ever definitively know. Instead, the story has been added to a growing list of mysterious, haunted tales. Stories that simultaneously fascinate and scare us.

Feature Image: Getty.