(Illustrated by John D. Batten, 1892)
Why do we laugh? How odd it is, that with the right external (or even internal) stimuli, a physiological, audible reaction can occur. It’s no secret that if you can make people laugh, you’ll find it easier to make friends, charm or influence people. Because generally, most humans (and arguably some other primates) love to laugh. In those brief moments of laughter, it can feel almost euphoric. It’s when the laughter does not cease, the euphoria becomes something else. Mania, hysteria of any kind can become utterly nightmarish to those afflicted (and shocking to those looking on). All sense of control and composition is lost, rendering those consumed by madness in a vulnerable, debilitated state.
In many instances, laughter is often contagious, that’s why it’s so common for comedic television programs to add a laugh track. We hear someone laughing and we’re more inclined to laugh also (possibly similar to the way we’re drawn to yawn when we see someone else yawn. Some people are inclined to want to yawn from merely reading the word). In 1962, in the country once known as Tanganyika (now modern day Tanzania), they pushed the concept of contagious laughter to extremes.
On the 30th of January, 1962 in (or located near to) the Village of Kashasha, Kagera Region, Tanganyika (Tanzania), a bizarre spell of highly contagious laughter became a terrifying reality.
Lessons began as usual, in a German Missionary run Girls boarding school. But during the morning, for a reason that appears to be lost from all sources of these events (or perhaps too trivial to warrant mentioning), 3 students began to laugh. Despite the teachers efforts to stop the girls from laughing, they continued, growing quickly hysterical. In an effort to calm the girls down, the class was led outside to an open field, to give them some air. What was surely considered an event which was soon to end, had only just begun.
The girls of the boarding school (aged 12 to 18) could only look on as three of their fellow students were utterly consumed by this mysterious madness. But before long, one by one, other students found themselves swept up in the mania, showing the same hysterical behavior as the original three. The teachers struggled to control the situation as the number of hysterical girls grew from 3 to 95, in a school of 159 students. 60% of the school was laughing uncontrollably, crying, feinting, losing bladder and bowel control. For some these spells of hysteria would end in hours, for others the ordeal continued (on and off) for over 16 days. Not so funny now? When the outbursts of hysteria seemed beyond control, the school was closed on the 18th of March, 1962.
Only the madness continued, the epidemic spread to the neighboring village of Nshamba where some of the girls lived. By May, it was estimated that 217 people were now experiencing these strange bouts of hysterical laughter (and accompanying symptoms). They tried in vain to reopen the school on the 21st of May, but the mass hysteria would re-ignite again and yet again. Leading to the school being closed once more around the 31st of June, 1962. Epidemics spread to neighboring schools and villages, primarily affecting girls and boys, usually under 21 years of age. Final estimations of those affected by this strange laughter epidemic are somewhere around 1000 individuals.
Then, as sure as the strange events arose, the “madness” slowly faded away. Experts were brought in, theories were made, tests were taken. Talk of magic, curses, witchcraft, a new strain of malaria. To this day, there is no definitive explanation of why this epidemic occurred. It has been proposed that due to Tanganyika winning its independence in 1962 the premise of change or even a “brave new world” had left the youth feeling bewildered. Young, confused and dealing with emotions rooted in anxiety, they were prime candidates for mass hysteria to take place.
Mass hysteria of varying types has occurred all over the world throughout the ages. Possibly one of the strangest cases, started with a woman named Frau Troffea from Strasbourg, Alsace, Holy Roman Empire (modern day France) in the year 1518 A.D. For a reason that can and has only been speculated now for over 500 years, Frau Troffea while standing in a street in Strasbourg, began dancing.
Hours, turned to days, as the story goes she danced for 6 days before bystanders started to join in. Stories like this always omit whether she stopped to sleep, drink, eat, urinate, but physiologically, I can only imagine she must have. By the 6th day it’s said that 34 people had joined Frau in her manic dancing, mostly women. By the fourth week, there were approximately 400 dancers in the street of Strasbourg. This led to dancers dying from strokes, heart attacks, dehydration and general exhaustion. Until eventually dissipating, just like the events of Tanzania, 1962.
Maybe it’s only a matter of time before an outbreak of mass hysteria or an event somehow like the two I’ve described will occur again.
Could it ever happen to you?
Eh, probably not. You’ll probably be OK.