Not So Funny: The Mysterious 1962 Tanganyika Laughter Epidemic

On a January day in 1962, three African schoolgirls began to laugh uncontrollably. From there, the hysteria spread, turning into an epidemic that's still difficult to explain.

By Jesslyn Shields | How Stuff Works

Laughter can be contagious, which can lead to some happy, good times. As social animals, we laugh a lot more heartily when others are laughing, too. But a laughter isn’t always a gleeful response — like crying, fainting and shortness of breath, it can be a sign that someone is feeling really distressed.

Three Girls Started Laughing

In January of 1962, in a small, British-run boarding school in a remote town on the coast of Lake Victoria in Tanzania, three girls began laughing — possibly in response to a joke — and couldn’t stop. Soon, the fit of giggles spread to their classmates, until nearly 60% of the students were experiencing a rare collection of symptoms. The students were restless, alternating between uncontrollable bouts of laughter and sobbing that lasted from a few minutes to a few hours at a time. Some of the girls experienced other symptoms like physical pain, respiratory problems, fainting and rashes.

Psychologists, doctors and scientists were called in, all of them at a loss for an explanation for what was happening — no toxins or environmental factors seemed to be causing the laughter epidemic, and all the girls’ lab tests came back normal.

By March, the school officials gave up and requested that parents take their daughters home. But as the girls fanned out into their respective communities around the country, their families and people in their villages started laughing, too. Other schools became infected. In all, hundreds of people were infected over the course of 18 months — mostly young people, and primarily girls, but older people and men came down with the laughing sickness, too. There were no fatalities.

What Explains the Spread?

Experts who have assessed this bizarre and singular epidemic, both at the time and more recently, say that it was a Mass Psychogenic Illness (MPI) — or “mass hysteria.” This can involve quickly spreading physiological symptoms that happen as a result of a stressful situation experienced by a group of people. Symptoms don’t always, or even usually, involve laughter, but they can include fainting, chest pressure, trouble breathing, facial tics and crying.

The powerful collective trauma that seemed to have occurred at the Tanzanian boarding school might have resulted from the students feeling trapped in a strict environment run by foreigners, and from being away from their families. However, that wouldn’t explain the hundreds of other people up and down the coast of Lake Victoria coming down with the same symptoms.

A Cultural & Political Sea Change

The most plausible explanation for hundreds of people in a rural African country coming down with a mass sociogenic illness has to do with what happened in the country in the months leading up to it. In late 1961, Tanzania, which was then called Tanganyika, gained independence — it had been a British colony for four decades. Although this sounds like a positive step, it threw the country into cultural chaos.

Tanzania was suddenly a socialist state, and the new government was eager to make changes. Local clans were broken up and land changed hands. Almost overnight, there was a huge amount of pressure to adopt Christianity and modern systems of government, instead of the belief systems and social structures that had endured for hundreds or even thousands of years. People were even offered money to choose one church over another.

Life in Tanzania became very different, all at once, and it’s easy to imagine how stressful that must have been for everyone.

Humans look to each other to know how to behave, and it’s possible that the first girls who could not stop laughing, crying, screaming and fainting had just had enough — maybe of boarding school, maybe of the new order of things. Their schoolmates saw their uncontrollable laughter and thought, I feel like that, too. Over the next 18 months, people all over the country expressed their fear, anxiety, and sense of overwhelming stress, grief and confusion through laughter.

Sometimes a good laugh can make you feel better, but experts are doubtful the laughter improved anybody’s existential crisis. Wave after wave of the laughing epidemic shivered through Tanzania, until it eventually stopped all together. It’s the only one of its kind to ever have been recorded.

Now That’s Interesting

When it’s not the main symptom of an MPI epidemic, laughter has been shown to release endorphins and alleviate tension.

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