By most accounts, it all started with a harmless joke...
In 1962, at a little boarding school in the tiny village of Katasha, in what is now Tanzania, a small group of children started doing what kids often do: they began laughing.
The laughter was jovial at first, so much in fact that other students not privy to the original humor joined in as well. Some kids laughed so hard they cried. It was fun. It was innocent.
But then it wasn't.
It's very difficult to breathe when laughing. That's why you can only laugh for about twenty seconds. However, some of the kids had been laughing almost constantly for ten minutes! They began experiencing pain in their throats, and some started fainting. Soon screams rent the air, creating a cacophony with the unceasing laughter.
The laughter continued off and on throughout the rest of the day, slowly spreading like a contagion amongst the students. Laughing children even spread the condition to their parents when they returned home. Two physicians, A.M. Rankin and P.J. Philip, who were called in to examine the situation, described the malady as follows:
"The onset is sudden, with attacks of laughing and crying lasting for a
few minutes to a few hours, followed by a respite and then a recurrence.
The attack is accompanied by restlessness and on occasions violence
when restraint is attempted. The patient may say that things are moving
around in the head and that she fears that someone is running after
it is all in the minds of the people who showed the symptoms. It's not
caused by an element in the environment, like food poisoning or a toxin.
There is an underlying shared stress factor in the population... It's an easy way for them
to express that something is wrong."
Mass hysteria begins with a few people experiencing symptoms
of severe stress, such as fits, headaches, or nausea. When these
manifest, they become rapidly magnified throughout the rest of the
stressed population, driven by our innate tendencies to imitate and
follow others with whom we closely sympathize.
After about 18 months, Tanzania's laughter epidemic subsided completely. There were no fatalities. Residents of Katasha and the surrounding villages still laughed of course, but their merriment was now normal; it didn't persist to pain nor spread beyond normal bounds.
(Image: Pal Teravagimov / Shutterstock.com)