The haunting of Girlstown

The Haunting of Girlstown. Illustration of nuns looking at a schoolgirl amid cactuses and stars.

The students carried the girl into the classroom. She was 12 years old, very thin, and her lower body was rigid, as if she were paralyzed. The classroom was beige, with a crucifix on the wall and a collection of empty desks. The students navigated the girl to a chair, lowered her down, and retreated. A group of nuns waited outside, leaving her alone with the government psychiatrist.

Illustration of praying hands.

Marzo 2007

A map of Mexico.

It was March 2007 and nearly everyone at Girlstown, a Catholic boarding school in Chalco, Mexico, was panicked. Months earlier, some students had begun complaining of a piercing sensation in their legs. Some were overcome with nausea and fevers. Some talked of suicide. State and federal inspectors and epidemiologists were sent to test the environment: the food, the water, the soil. But the results showed nothing unusual. Then they tested the girls themselves — for brucellosis, leptospirosis, and rickettsiosis. Still, they found nothing. It was as though the school had fallen under a spell. 

The pain intensified. The outbreak spread to hundreds. That’s when the federal government sent a psychiatrist, Dr. Nashyiela Loa Zavala, to investigate.

In a report about the outbreak, Loa Zavala, 32, identified the 12-year-old girl under a pseudonym, Zitlali, to protect her identity. The psychiatrist began by asking the girl to describe her condition.

“I don’t have any strength in my knees and my back hurts,” Zitlali told Loa Zavala in a weak voice. “I’ve had falls because my schoolmates couldn’t carry me.” 

Then her story turned darker. Zitlali said she saw black shadows and heard upsetting noises. She prayed hard to calm down, but even the praying didn’t help. She told Loa Zavala she’d been feeling sad and hadn’t been sleeping well. She worried she was becoming a burden on the other girls. She feared she was becoming paralytic.

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Illustration of a woman taking notes while sitting in a chair.
Illustration of a family picture of four people in a frame.

When Loa Zavala asked about her upbringing, Zitlali said she’d always wanted to go to a boarding school because her mother worked during the day and she was always on her own. She hadn’t seen her alcoholic father since her parents separated when she was 2. Her first stepfather beat her, and police frequently showed up to the house to break up fights between him and her mother, Zitlali recalled. Loa Zavala listened intently and took notes.

Zitlali’s second stepfather was worse. “He has bad thoughts, his mind is very dirty, I can only be close to him, he tells me to stay near him,” Zitlali said. She added that he likes when she wears skirts and sometimes “gets too close up behind” with a camera. And as much as she initially looked forward to leaving home, she said she feared that without her around, her stepfather would “do something to [her] little sister.”

Her separation from her siblings wasn’t the only thing that unsettled her at Girlstown. She was unprepared for the strict rules set by the Sisters of Mary, an order of nuns headquartered in South Korea. Their aim was to educate “socially neglected girls of the families of the poor and the families located in the secluded areas, all over Mexico where no light of civilization is shone, for the purpose of making them dignified society members.” To entice students, the Sisters offered four years of free education, housing, and meals. It was meant to be a refuge, a place where girls could get closer to God and escape poverty.

Illustration of a girl sitting in the grass, looking at a shooting star.

And then she told Loa Zavala what she thought was haunting Girlstown. “I see babies that have their cord, like fetuses,” Zitlali said. “Sometimes they are very ugly, bloody and with red eyes and a wrinkled face.” 

She said she lived in terror of the babies, but that sometimes they became angelic. “The last time I saw one, it was a baby with no face,” she said. “It was beside the Lord.”

Loa Zavala was trained to stay calm. She knew she could handle this. Then Zitlali told her something that sounded like a warning: “We have to be careful with our eyes because with our eyes we can go to hell.” 

Illustration of paper documents.

Loa Zavala published a paper on her fieldwork at Girlstown in 2010. Some 15 years after the outbreak that terrified everyone involved, this account has been corroborated through firsthand interviews with participants. The Sisters of Mary did not respond to requests by reporters to visit the site, but the Mother Superior at the time, Sister Margie Cheong, and Loa Zavala spoke about the events at Girlstown.

“When intense moments of vulnerability ... occur in the environment, malignant spirits that appear in the magical world take advantage of the situation and become dangerous,” Dr. Nashyiela Loa Zavala wrote in the International Journal of Psychoanalysis.I will now describe situations that propitiate this break from reality and allow evil spirits in.

Illustration of a nun near a child on the ground, with a speech bubble with bones inside it.

Jovita Sanchez Velasco had survived weeks on campus avoiding the contagion. She tried to stay calm and pray, as the nuns had instructed. But in January 2007, the soft-spoken 15-year-old fell ill, like many others on her dormitory floor. Her lower body became wracked with pain.

It started like pricks, and my legs hurt, like they screeched,” she recalls. “And all of a sudden I couldn’t stand up. When I tried, my legs would buckle.”

Tuxtepec, Mexico

Jovita grew up in Tuxtepec, a small city caught in a kink of the Río Papaloapan in the state of Oaxaca. She was the youngest of four children. When she was 8, her father left for the United States, abandoning the family. Her mother washed clothes but couldn’t pay the rent, so Jovita got a job cleaning houses and babysitting. She liked school, but like many children — and particularly girls born into poverty in Mexico — Jovita figured she’d have to drop out. The family wouldn’t be able to survive otherwise. Then the nuns from the Villa de las Niñas came to town.

They said they were looking for students for a school for girls located on the outskirts of Mexico City. To Jovita, it sounded amazing: free education, free housing, free meals. And best of all, it came with the possibility that she could build a life for herself outside the confines of poverty in Tuxtepec. The nuns said they wanted the most dedicated students. Jovita passed a math and writing exam and was called in for an interview at her elementary school. The nuns asked about her parents, what kind of house she lived in, and how many siblings she had. They also wanted to know if she waxed her body, dyed her hair, or had any tattoos. She was only 12, so she hadn’t put much thought into that. In the fall of 2003, the nuns offered her a spot on the bus for Villa de las Niñas.

Illustration of a bus in the desert, under the sun.

The nuns explained that the children could bring nothing with them: no extra clothes, no cellphones, no jewelry, not even a photo of their mothers. Just the clothes they were wearing and nothing else. They must also have their hair cut short before boarding the bus to Girlstown — two fingers below the ear. Multiple members of a single family would not be permitted. The school provided one-way transportation for students only; parents would have to pay their own fare if they wanted to come along. Most of the parents couldn’t afford 300 pesos to make the journey, so they said goodbye at the departing buses.

The strictness had a purpose: The nuns believed that, through discipline and prayer, they could help otherwise poverty-shackled young girls in a country where half the population is poor. Some would become nuns, but most would graduate with high school or technical diplomas. To students like Velasco, all the rules at Girlstown were worth it in exchange for something they’d rarely been given: hope. 

Jovita was nervous and cried when she said goodbye to her family. Maria, another girl from her school, was also selected in Tuxtepec, so at least Jovita sat next to a known face during the five-hour zigzagging ride to Mexico City. On the bus, the two barely spoke. Like Jovita, Maria was 12 and had also grown up without a father. She was later described as “meek” and “innocent” by fellow classmates, although by the time she left Girlstown, Maria would be described as anything but.

They traveled in a convoy of three buses chartered to collect girls from across the region. After making it over the winding pass between the twin volcanoes of Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl and down into the dense urbanized floor of the Valley of Mexico, the convoy rolled into the municipality of Chalco. Dotted with scrapyards and clusters of concrete houses built informally by recent internal migrants, Chalco was considered the poorest of the poor places in the vast amalgamation that is Mexico City. The smog gathers in the north and east of the valley, where Chalco sits, and open sewage canals make the air smell bad through much of the year. In the middle of it is the Villa de las Niñas.

The school grounds, on 80 acres of manicured gardens, were an image of parched perfection. There were vast, brownish lawns intercut with paths leading to rotundas and statues of baby Jesus and the Virgin Mary. Many of the paths were lined with tall hedges with odd zigs and zags pruned into them, as though the gardener were hallucinating. The school was secured by a guard, a security tower, and a 20-foot-tall fence topped with barbed wire. 

Illustration of tall buildings with trees and a road.

Welcome to Girlstown

Illustration of the bible.

Driving through the spike-topped gates of Villa de las Niñas, Jovita thought she’d be able to stay close to Maria when they disembarked. But after stepping off the bus, they were separated. Nuns told them to line up in two straight lines in front of a large gymnasium, and then they were ushered inside. The interior of the gym was dotted with partitions. Led behind one, Jovita was told to strip down to her underwear and leave her clothes on the ground. A nun gave her a white button-down shirt, a long blue skirt, and tennis shoes. The new skirt, she thought, was “really ugly.” It was also too long — the hem dragged on the floor.

The buses were also packed with returning girls. The nuns walked among them in the gym. They pulled shirts up, looked inside shoes, and flipped through songbooks for any signs of the outside world. When nuns attempted to check underwear, some of the girls lied and said they were menstruating, in an attempt to smuggle in photos from home. But the nuns were undaunted. Jovita heard a few students start to sob as the nuns confiscated photos of girls’ parents and siblings. The nuns also assiduously checked armpits, faces, and bikini lines for any signs of waxing. Girls who had waxed their hair were expelled on the spot and put back on a bus.

One nun approached Jovita and looked at her closely. “Did you bring anything in?” the nun asked. Jovita said no. “Because if you arrive with something that the other girls don’t have, the other girls will start to steal,” the nun warned. A moment later, they checked her name against a list and asked to see her forearm. A nun took out a pen and wrote on her skin,

Phase Three, St. Bernadette Family, Sixth Floor

Illustration of an arm with its sleeve pushed up.

Jovita fell into a long line of girls walking to a six-story building known as Phase Three. The girls marched up the flights of stairs and into a room packed with rows of bunk beds. This area was now her designated “family.” The beds were stacked three high, pressing up close to the ceiling. Jovita made her way to the middle of the room and chose a bottom bunk.

This was her first night at Girlstown, and for the first time in her life, Jovita was alone, surrounded by utter strangers. She was amazed by the quiet. It seemed that no one made a sound that was unapproved. At 9 pm, the lights went out.

Illustration of a girl sitting, hugging her knees.

Signs of trouble

inside the school became

apparent early on.

Illustration of a book, tv, and radio, inside of the “not allowed” symbol.

There were so many rules, almost too many, Loa Zavala observed. 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. Even more alarming to Loa Zavala, the girls were expected to celebrate their birthdays on the same day, the anniversary of the school’s foundation, each August. It was as though the school had sought to sever each girl’s ties to the outside world from the moment they arrived.

The isolation was profound. The girls were only allowed to go home for two weeks in the summer and two weeks at Christmas. Calls to relatives were not allowed. Students could receive letters but not write any, and all incoming mail was screened. Emotional connections of any kind were discouraged between students and staff, as well as most physical contact, Loa Zavala noted.

If a girl got too close to a certain floor mother, or vice versa, the parties would be reassigned to separate floors or towers. Stripped of emotional interactions with adults, the students sometimes sought comfort in one another. One student told Loa Zavala that some girls liked to watch their classmates while they bathed. But the nuns also ensured that no two girls ever got “too close.” At the merest hint of affection between two students, they would be separated.


Illustration of a priest.

Photos of the school’s founder hung in halls around the campus. Aloysius Schwartz was an American priest with an extremely wide smile who went to South Korea in 1957. He started an orphanage and eventually opened the first Boystown and Girlstown in the Philippines in 1985. His aim was to provide a brighter future for kids from very poor families, and he formed a close partnership with an order of Korean nuns known as the Sisters of Mary. Together, they built a network of schools that currently educate more than 20,000 students at 15 locations around the world.

When Schwartz broke ground in Chalco in 1990, he had the degenerative disease ALS and was using a wheelchair. Despite his condition, he was committed to building a school in Mexico and wrote a book about his efforts, titled Killing Me Softly.

He wanted to help the poor, but his health was failing and it was unlikely he’d be around when the campus opened. As he described his final departure from Mexico, he reflected on his decision to start the school. “There was a lingering doubt and a nagging concern that I was making a mistake, perhaps the biggest mistake in my life.” He called the school his “unfinished symphony.”


In her interviews with the girls, Loa Zavala uncovered an important clue, an event that had preceded the outbreak. During a field trip to the Universidad de Anáhuac, an elite Catholic university in central Mexico, around a year earlier, one of the students found a magazine that contained a guide to making a Ouija board.

In the magazine, it was referred to as the tabla, and it was easy to make: a board usually adorned with the words YES and NO on either end along with a set of numbers and the letters of the alphabet, laid out in rows. Kids find a circular piece of glass and, together in a group, place their hands on the edges of the glass and allow it to “move” on its own. The tabla is said to answer questions and channel spirits that engage in conversation. Eventually, according to accounts, one of the Girlstown students — Maria, Jovita’s former neighbor from Tuxtepec — decided to make one.

Illustration of a Ouija board.

Maria and her classmates began playing Ouija late at night, on the rooftop terrace of their dorm tower, after the evening lights went out. The girls snuck up through a window in the sixth-floor chapel in order to avoid waking up the floor mothers. In hindsight, it seemed obvious to Jovita that Maria would guide her classmates in exploring the occult world through Ouija. Maria was a natural leader, said Jovita, who described her as beautiful, with striking features. And students reported that Maria’s mother “was known in her hometown to be a devotee of Saint Death and also to have powers as a witch.”

Around the time that students started conjuring spirits with the Ouija, Jovita began to experience sights and sounds she couldn’t explain. One night she went to the bathroom, thinking she was alone, but then she heard movement and a flush in a stall nearby. She opened each stall to confirm that she was alone, only to hear flushing from the stall where she had started. No one else was there. Terrified, she ran out. 

During bunk rotations, Jovita refused to sleep in any bed that was near a window. She feared what she might see — the spirits of past girls who’d died at the school wandered among the bushes at night, according to the stories the other girls told her. The nuns, who were mostly South Korean, were largely oblivious. None of the nuns had ever encountered a Ouija board before, Sister Cheong recalled.

Illustration of a bright red hand in a dark window.

As interest in the Ouija board spread, the students at Girlstown competed at the Girlstown basketball tournament, an annual ritual, in the spring of 2006. The tournament had become a beloved tradition among students, in part because it was one of the most freewheeling events sanctioned at the school, and one in which all the girls got to interact with one another. The competition was across grade levels and towers, and the champion team earned bragging rights for an entire year.

According to interviews, Maria decided to use her newfound connection with the spirit world to intervene. She summoned the other world with the Ouija and asked for a favor: She wanted her friend Liz’s team to win the tournament. And sure enough, Liz’s team barreled to victory.

Illustration of two girls in basketball uniforms near a basketball net.

Word of Maria’s “magic” spread through the school. It was an unthinkable violation of school rules. Black magic was obviously forbidden. So was cheating. Liz’s team was also from a different dorm, so it meant that Maria had conspired against her own dorm’s team. Her actions unlocked something across the school. Perhaps more than anything, it was an extraordinary display of individuality and personal strength that called into question the entire power system of Girlstown.

After the tournament, the runners-up started complaining. “It greatly irritated many of the adolescents,” Loa Zavala noted in her report. “They were so angry that they commented on it insistently to several mothers in charge until it reached the knowledge of the Mother Superior.”

Sister Cheong was baffled. “What is Ouija?” she asked. Some of the lay Mexican teachers explained that the board was related to Mexican-style brujería — witchcraft. It is “an instrument of the devil, capable of changing people’s souls to make them do evil things,” they said. Sister Cheong immediately issued a directive warning against the use of Ouija anywhere on school grounds.

Sister Cheong also sought to root out the culprit who brought the game into their midst. A nun questioned Maria, who denied playing the game, but a search of her bunk quickly revealed a Ouija tabla. This was an offense that could get her expelled. Maria insisted that she wanted to stay. The world outside was worse. She wanted to keep studying.

Illustration of a devil.
Illustration of something hidden under a bed.

Nonetheless, Sister Cheong rendered her verdict:


“In the house of God, that kind of game cannot be permitted,” Cheong recalled saying. 

This was an earthquake-level development at Villa de las Niñas. Many of the girls had developed both a fear and an attraction to the fact that Maria flouted the rules and practiced the dark arts. And Maria was herself incensed by the decision. Why should she have to go if other girls had played with the Ouija, too? Sister Cheong stood her ground. The nascent witch was to be expelled, sent home as soon as arrangements could be made. But the girl refused to depart without leaving a lasting impression.

When Maria was taken from her dorm and held in a room away from her classmates, something weird happened. The official explanation is that a “wind” blew through the room, but no one else was with Maria at the time to corroborate the story. The wind slammed a door and Maria’s finger happened to be in the door at that moment. Maybe it was an accident. Maybe not. Either way, the door sliced off a piece of Maria’s finger, spraying blood in the stairway and in the hall as Maria was taken away, according to accounts.

Jovita recalled seeing the chilling aftermath firsthand. “There was blood everywhere,” she says.

On her way out, Maria encountered a group of former dormmates. According to Jovita and a number of other girls, this is when Maria cast her curse. The exact words are lost — Maria was escorted away soon after, and efforts to find her in recent years failed — but everybody agrees on the message she conveyed at that moment. It spread like a contagion through the campus until nearly every girl had heard a version of the curse.

Every one of you in my generation who accused me or thought badly about me will fall sick. You will be sick in your legs. You will not be able to walk. You will be cursed.


After the outbreak erupted, it became difficult for some students to differentiate reality from nightmares, hauntings from hallucinations. Jovita recalls a late night when many of the sick girls were gathered together on one floor. Word spread that a nun known as Mother Citlali was moving among the girls in their beds, massaging their legs in silence, one by one. Jovita says she saw the mother: She wore a veil and didn’t speak.

“Since it was dark, all I saw was the silhouette,” Jovita remembers. “And when we saw that she was getting closer, I saw it wasn’t the mother, wasn’t anything like that. It was white.”

The next day, Velasco and the girls in the room decided that they had been visited by the Virgin Mary.

Illustration of the Virgin Mary.

Tales of ghosts and apparitions of restless souls were abundant. “It was constant,” Loa Zavala recalls. “They heard children crying, babies crying, figures they saw in the darkness.” Sometimes the students saw the girls “hanging” in the hallways, according to the accounts she recorded.

In her paper, Loa Zavala noted one particularly vivid example of a Girlstown legend:

“When the boarding school was formed there was a girl about 12 years old who died of an illness that made her bleed from the mouth,” she wrote, possibly referring to tuberculosis. “Since then, this girl [has been] seen in various places and now that the girls [have gotten] sick in their legs she has appeared even more, dressed in white, running in the field, or else she suddenly appears on the stairs, sometimes with blood on her face.”

Before long, the media had heard of the mysterious outbreak. Camera crews arrived in Chalco, the town that surrounded the school. Worried parents, desperate to save their daughters, traveled hundreds of miles to take them home from the boarding school. Some of them spent days riding the bus from remote pueblos.

The Sisters of Mary became the media’s primary focus, and local reports hinted at allegations of mistreatment inside the schools’ walls. Though the Mother Superior denied the allegations in public statements, she was privately panicked. “I thought some virus, some sickness is in us, among our environment,” Sister Cheong says now. “I could not send the girls to their homes without knowing what was wrong because maybe they could bring the illness to their village.” 

All the while, Loa Zavala interviewed affected students, filling up notebooks and audiotapes. Just three years out of her residency, Loa Zavala treated all types of cases, but her work was already becoming specialized. The bulk of her hours were spent with adolescents experiencing psychosomatic illnesses. Some children exhibited multiple personalities. Others dealt with dissociation. One young girl she examined experienced hysterical convulsions. But the Girlstown case reached a scale she had never seen before. And she had a growing suspicion of what was happening.


Conversion disorder, or hysteria, remains one of the great mysteries of medicine.

A clinical understanding of it emerged in the late 19th century, led by Sigmund Freud, who encouraged the notion that psychological trauma can “convert” into physical symptoms in certain patients — imagined by the brain, released into the body, and curable with intensive therapy meant to flesh out repressed memories and traumas. Hysteria, even its skeptics concede, is triggered in people in that unknowable physiological bridge between the brain and the “mind.” It is real but not, and a century later, still somewhat dismissed.

Illustration of Freud.

Nonetheless, a long and notorious list of recorded cases of hysteria reaches into the late Middle Ages. One of the most well-known cases is the Dancing Plague of 1518, when a woman named Frau Troffea began dancing feverishly in the streets of Strasbourg, France, for no apparent reason. After days and weeks, little by little, hundreds of other people joined her, many dancing until they died.

Illustration of a woman dancing.

In 1962, in what is now Tanzania, a mass hysteria incident — at a girls school run by German missionaries — centered on laughter. The Tanganyika laughter epidemic started in a classroom, when one student made a joke, sparking laughter, which then began spreading, and spreading, and spreading until the school was shut down and thousands of people found themselves inexplicably laughing, for days on end.

Illustration of a set of grinning teeth.
Illustration of a soldier with his lungs highlighted.

Closer to home, and not too long ago, an incident occurred at a San Diego military base. In 1988, over a period of 12 hours, dozens of men began suffering from acute respiratory symptoms, including coughing, chest pains, and lightheadedness. Hundreds of recruits were evacuated from a barracks facility, examined, and tested. A few were hospitalized. The air and food were tested for toxins, yet no medical cause was ever determined, and the group’s symptoms subsided.

For Loa Zavala, the subject was endlessly fascinating, and the case at Girlstown proved almost thrilling to her sense of professional inquiry. “There’s a belief in medicine that hysteria no longer exists,” Loa Zavala says. “And then a case like this arrives and I think, ‘Of course it exists! We’re looking at hundreds here!’”

Loa Zavala later said she felt a certain kinship to her new patients. She looked not unlike the students at Girlstown: She had black hair that fell to her shoulders and almond-colored skin — the sort of complexion that is commonly called “mestiza.” She said she felt compelled to bring the girls back to reality. It was a tricky proposition. Through the course of her interviews, she learned that Villa de las Niñas had actually been an escape from deeper horrors outside its walls. The horrors, in some form, had followed the girls there.

Loa Zavala’s method was to trace manifestations of physical symptoms back to what she suspected were psychological triggers, often difficult and frightening topics for the patients to excavate. But gradually, through hours of sitting down with Loa Zavala, the girls began to improve. Zitlali, one of the first girls whom Loa Zavala interviewed — the girl who recalled seeing bloody babies — stopped showing symptoms as the analyst worked with her. “What helped for her was to talk: about her dreams, how they scared her, her stepfather,” Loa Zavala recalls. “I noticed that when she talked about these things, she got better. The next day, she was walking normally.” 

Hysteria, Loa Zavala explains, is an audiovisual contagion. You have to see and hear someone exhibiting symptoms in order to find yourself replicating those symptoms. See it enough, and it becomes you. This is hysteria’s essential and most terrifying threat: Anyone is susceptible.

Loa Zavala began to see a number of similarities among the girls as she sat with them one-on-one in an austere classroom day after day. Many came from broken families and experienced abuse. One 16-year-old girl, whom she identified as Soledad, described how her mother beat her when she was angry, “with an electrical cord or with her shoe, only once she made me bleed.” 

“Nobody likes the way I am,” Soledad told Loa Zavala in the classroom. “I know there’s something bad about me but I would rather there weren’t.”

As far as Sister Cheong could tell, evil had invaded her school. One of her first moves was to have a priest perform an exorcism. It didn’t seem to work. The nuns also tried a traditional Chinese therapy that involved sprinkling a plant powder on the girls’ legs and then lighting it on fire. That, too, failed to cure them.

But under Loa Zavala’s care, Soledad finally improved. Soledad didn’t want to leave the classroom, Loa Zavala noted in her report. “It was difficult for her to say goodbye to me,” she wrote. “She was trying to stay with me longer.”

Illustration of woman with a suitcase.

At night, at her home in the center of Mexico City, Loa Zavala, too, began to have nightmares. Perhaps it was all the girls’ descriptions of divorce and shattered relationships. She thought about how the girls in Maria’s dormitory said they saw Maria in their dreams and woke up screaming. ‘‘Maria was burning, surrounded by flames, and laughed as she told us that we would be the next, that it was our fault because we accused her,” Loa Zavala quoted one girl in her report.

During the day, as Loa Zavala sat in the austere classroom talking with the terrified girls, something strange began to happen. Loa Zavala began to feel symptoms in her legs, though she fought back the sensations. She also described feeling as though the nuns — not in view — were eavesdropping or listening to her sessions with the Girlstown students. She said others in the government medical team felt it, too, but had no evidence to prove their hunch. Describing the whole scenario now, Loa Zavala spreads her arms and nods to her right hand. “Here is health,” she says, and then nods to her left hand. “And here is illness.”

Then she draws her hands together. “After a while, the boundary there isn’t always so clear.”

Illustration of silhouettes of schoolgirls.

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.

Illustration of a nun in front of a blackboard teaching a class.

At the height of the outbreak, in March 2007, the Sisters of Mary attempted to reach Maria’s family. As a last resort, Sister Cheong wanted to see if the supposed witchcraft could be reversed.

But after her expulsion, Maria and her family had moved from Tuxtepec to Veracruz. They left no forwarding information. In the developing world, where much of Mexico squarely sits, it is common for people to simply lose track of one another. Millions emigrate to the United States, walking across deserts. People also migrate internally, from state to state, chasing work. After more than a decade of intense drug war violence, tens of thousands of people in Mexico are officially missing, but human rights workers believe that figure is much higher.

“Lots of us tried to find her,” Loa Zavala says, referring to Maria. “Before the health secretariat, I myself insisted quite a bit that we attempt to locate the girl.” Despite all these efforts, Maria was never located. She had disappeared.

All the students who stayed at the school eventually recovered and stopped showing symptoms in their legs. A final federal report on the case, signed by Loa Zavala and several other scientists and doctors, declared that the diagnosis of the paralysis incident at Girlstown in 2006 and 2007 was a “psychogenic disorder of movement consistent with conversion disorder.” 

A child should not have to go to those extremes to express what they feel if they are in a healthy environment,” Loa Zavala says now. “Their bodies needed to speak. … So through these symptoms, the girls were trying to say something, trying to evoke change.

Though Girlstown remains open, the crisis altered Sister Cheong’s career. In November 2007, after the symptoms had largely dissipated among the student population, the Mother Superior was transferred back to South Korea. Speaking from the city of Busan, Sister Cheong says some of the criticism directed at the school during the ordeal was at least partly rooted in cultural stereotypes about the severity of rules in East Asian societies. “Koreans are strict,” she says with a laugh. “And we have a hard brain, and that’s why our girls are suffering. … That was humiliating for me.” (Requests for comment from World Villages, the organization that operates the school, were declined.)

To this day, she believes the hysteria that afflicted the Girlstown students was a test from God. She says she never lost faith. “I know I really tried my best,” Cheong says. “I love Mexico, I love our girls.”

Illustration of a woman holding a child’s hand, in the sun, near cacti.

After the outbreak, Jovita’s mom gathered up some money and went to pick up her daughter in Chalco. When the Girlstown guards let Jovita’s mother through the gates, Jovita hugged her and said she didn’t want to leave Girlstown, no matter how bad the symptoms got. She loved the outdoors, the songs. But there was something strange going on there, and as far as her mother was concerned, they shouldn’t take any more chances.  

Jovita says she will always remember her time at Girlstown with mixed emotions. The outbreak was frightening, and the promise of Girlstown lifting its wards out of poverty didn’t materialize for her. She leads a modest life in her hometown and isn’t very religious anymore. But the school was special, she explained. The Mother Superior inspired her, and Jovita never lost hope.

Nonetheless, she never returned to Girlstown.

Illustrations of flowers.

Joshua Davis and Allison Keeley contributed reporting to this story. Illustrations by Will Staehle for Epic and Vox; Jef Thompson/Shutterstock; Ron and Joe/Shutterstock. Web development by Miriam Nadler.

Daniel Hernandez is a culture reporter at the Los Angeles Times. He previously worked as editor of Vice Mexico and as a Styles reporter for the New York Times. He is the author of Down & Delirious in Mexico City.

Will Staehle is an award-winning designer based in Seattle. He’s been one of Print magazine’s New Visual Artists and an ADC Young Gun. He has had a solo exhibit at the Type Directors Club.