Tanganyika Laughter Epidemic
In 1962 a mass hysteria episode, in which people started laughing uncontrollably, began in the village of Kashasha on the western shore of Lake Victoria in Tanganyika (modern Tanzania) and quickly spread throughout the surrounding region. By the time it subsided months later, the mass hysteria had affected thousands of people, and led to the closure of 14 schools.
It all started on January 30th, 1962, when a girl in a missionary boarding school had a fit of anxiety-induced laughter, and started cackling uncontrollably. She was soon joined by two of her friends, and it was not long before the contagion had spread and engulfed the school. Within a short time, 95 out of the school’s 159 students were also laughing uncontrollably. It got bad enough that the schoolgirls were unable to concentrate, and the school was forced to shut down 6 weeks later.
The afflicted students took their mass hysteria with them when they were sent back to their families, and within a short time of returning home, the contagion had spread from the schoolgirls to the surrounding community. Before long, students in other schools in the region were afflicted as well. The symptoms consisted in the main of recurring bouts of uncontrollable laughing and crying that lasted from a few hours to over two weeks, combined with a general restlessness, aimless running around, and the occasional resort to aggressive violence. Doctors could find no physical cause for the contagion.
By the time the mass hysteria subsided about a year later, 14 schools had closed down, and thousands had been afflicted. Subsequent investigation attributed the initial outbreak to stress among the schoolgirls, who found themselves in an alien environment within the missionary-run boarding school – the outbreak affected only the schoolgirls, without touching any of the teachers or staff. Beyond the school, the surrounding population was dealing with the stress and uncertainty of their country’s future, as Tanganyika had gained its independence only a month before the mass hysteria eruption.