An outbreak of mass hysteria- yes, we have had an actual epidemic where people just couldn't stop laughing.
Since we are still amidst a deadly pandemic, we thought it’d be helpful to tell you about an epidemic that wasn’t quite deadly as COVID-19. The day was going as usual for the residents of Kashasha village in the Kagera Region, Tanzania. It was a bright sunny day on January 30, 1962. However, the village residents had no clue that this day would go down in history as one of the strangest days on the planet.
Come On! That Was Just A Joke
After years of struggle, the state of Tanganyika had just won independence. As students were now put back into schools, many complained about feeling stressed because of teachers and parents’ higher expectations. Meanwhile, at a missionary boarding school for girls in Kashasha, something strange was about to happen.
One student in a school there suddenly started laughing. Initially, her fellow students and the teachers thought she recalled a funny joke and laughed on its account. But the reality came out to be far from it.
The Uncontrollable Laughter
While everyone waited for the student to stop laughing for the class to resume, the girl kept on laughing without a stop. This long period of laughing didn’t fit right with the people present there. What was so funny that the student couldn’t stop laughing? Some even asserted that she was possessed by demons.
While the teachers were still figuring out the cause of the girl student’s randomly incited elongated laughter streak, two more girls started laughing. Now, the three girls laughed together uncontrollably, and the school staff realized that this laughter was not from any joke.
Wait! Is it Contagious?
We all know of some contagious and deadly diseases. We all know that a happy person can spread happiness to those around him too. But can a person even spread a ‘laughter disease’, if such a disease exists, to other people?
As is turned out, such a disease does exist, and a person can very well spread it. The laughter that had begun with three girls on January 30, 1962, expanded throughout the school, stirring 95 of the 159 pupils of the school between the ages of 12 and 18.
Yes! Almost 60% of the school children were laughing hysterically. If this sounds strange, hold your horses, as this story has more in the bank! While the ‘laughter plague’ seemed to spread all over the school, the teachers were surprisingly unaffected. No teacher was reported to be laughing while 95 students around the school were fainting from continuous laughter.
Not a Joke Indeed
By now, the villagers understood that this was not just a prank being played by many students. The situation was grim, and the school had to be closed down. Yes! The school was closed for one month after the laughter started because the laughter hadn’t stopped for the entire month.
The epidemic spread to Nshamba, the native village of several of the affected girls, and in April and May, 217 mostly young villagers also witnessed ‘laughter attacks.’ One important thing to note here is that the children weren’t continuously laughing for one month. The symptoms of the laughing plague lasted for a few hours to 16 days.
While it stopped after a certain period, many people were reportedly ‘re-infected’ multiple times.
By now, the laughing epidemic spread to another school called Ramashenye Girls Middle School, near Bukoba, affecting 48 girls. Meanwhile, the Kashasha School (where the first case was reported) reopened on May 21 of the year. But it had to close again at the end of June as the laughing plague re-emerged in the school
No More Laughter
Eighteen months after it started, one of the strangest diseases that hit our planet finally died off. Those eighteen months were very tough for the village as 14 schools were shut down, and 1000 people were affected. The laughter reports were widely accompanied by descriptions of fainting, flatulence, respiratory problems, rashes, crying and screaming. But the main suspense remained – what was the reason behind this strange disease?
Stressed About Being Stressed
Christian F. Hempelmann, then a professor at Purdue University, sought to find out the answer. Remember, we mentioned that Tanganyika had just won its independence from the UK a month before this began?
Since students had reported feeling stressed because of higher expectations by teachers and parents, Hempelmann theorized that the laugher epidemic was likely stress-induced. The uncertainties surrounding the country just one month after it got free might have played the part as a stress booster as well.
Sociologist Robert Bartholomew and psychiatrist Simon Wessely put forward a culture-specific epidemic hysteria hypothesis, pointing out that strict traditional elders ruled the Tanganyikan society. The children were likely so much stressed by the different ideas and strictness that their elders and school imposed that their mind and body had to finally ‘laugh it out’ to show that something was wrong.
Most cases of ‘Mass Psychogenic Illness’ such as the laughter epidemic, usually begin with a single individual. In this case, one schoolgirl likely fell into a fit of anxiety-induced laughter, setting in motion a chain effect, until the whole school and the areas around the school were all engulfed by mad laughter.