In 1962, in a boarding school for girls in a small town in Tanganyika (now Tanzania), a group of young students broke out in peels of laughter. It’s not unusual for young girls can get the giggles. We all know that. But this was different. An epic case of the giggles.
What actually happened has been mythicized, and looking back on it, many researchers think exaggerated. Here is the most common description of what happened.
A bit of background. In 1961, Tanganyika gained its freedom from its British colonial government. Within a few months, suddenly everything was changing—what was expected of children in school, the practice of traditional religions, the laws that governed the country. The general state of flux flummoxed most people, especially the least educated and most downtrodden of the citizens.
The schoolgirls in question were to take a math test one day in early 1962. Suddenly, as the exam was about to begin, one of the students broke out in uncontrollable laughter. Laughing, as we all have experienced, can be quite contagious. Soon a score of girls were in hysterics. Literally, it turns out. What happened next is not precisely documented but has been widely reported as follows.
The laugher spread to other classrooms. It became impossible to stop it. Eventually, the hilarity caused chaos, and the school had to be closed. Parents came to take their children home, spreading the epidemic to several villages. Thousands of people were affected.
At first, doctors thought it might have been some sort of weird virus or strange form of malaria. No dice. Nothing microbial was detected. Depending on whom you consult, the outbreak lasted somewhere between six and eighteen months. People did not laugh continuously. That would have been physically impossible. But evidently, after pauses, the sufferers relapsed, and the rolling laughter continued.
So what. Laughter is good thing. No?
This kind of laughter has nothing to do with glee. It comes to people, not from merriment, but from anxiety and brings along with it pain, fainting, inability to breathe, tears, and rashes. The underlying cause is mass hysteria. The official diagnosis is Mass Psychogenic Illness (MPI). Stress sets it off—usually in a workplace or a school.
And it is not localized to Africa. Something similar happened in Lafayette, Indiana in the twenty-first century. They didn’t want to admit that it was psychological, so they blamed it on bug bites and sprayed insecticide.
A well-known outbreak of MPI took place in the West Bank in 1983. The symptoms there were fainting and dizziness. 943 people were hospitalized, most of them Palestinian schoolgirls, but also a number of female Israeli soldiers. The government blamed it on propaganda
MPI almost always affects people who are poor and powerless. Looking back at history, researchers have identified a few strange outbreaks of “disease” as MPI, most notably, the Dancing Plague of 1518 in Strasbourg. During the month that it lasted, around 400 people danced for days on end. Some died of heart attacks, stroke, or just plain exhaustion. Other outbreaks of choreomania (also called St. Vitus Dance) occurred in Germany, the Netherlands, England, France, Italy, and Switzerland between 1374 and into the 17th century. But the largest by far was the one in 1518 in Strasbourg.
Mass hysteria. When life becomes intolerable.
Given the stressful times we are now going through, I wonder how MPI will next manifest itself. I imagine it will. Unless the antidote is Eurovision.
Annamaria - Monday