Tanganyika laughter epidemic
The Tanganyika laughter epidemic of 1962 was an outbreak of mass hysteria – or mass psychogenic illness (MPI) – rumored to have occurred in or near the village of Kashasha on the western coast of Lake Victoria in the modern nation of Tanzania (formerly Tanganyika) near the border of Uganda.
The laughter epidemic began on January 30, 1962, at a mission-run boarding school for girls in Kashasha. The laughter started with three girls and spread haphazardly throughout the school, affecting 95 of the 159 pupils, aged 12–18. Symptoms lasted from a few hours to 16 days in those affected. The teaching staff were not affected but reported that students were unable to concentrate on their lessons. The school was forced to close down on March 18, 1962.
After the school was closed and the students were sent home, the epidemic spread to Nshamba, a village that was home to several of the girls. In April and May, 217 people had laughing attacks in the village, most of them being school children and young adults. The Kashasha school was reopened on May 21, only to be closed again at the end of June. In June, the laughing epidemic spread to Ramashenye girls' middle school, near Bukoba, affecting 48 girls.
The school from which the epidemic sprang was sued for allowing the children and their parents to transmit it to the surrounding area. Other schools, Kashasha itself, and another village, comprising thousands of people, were all affected to some degree. Six to eighteen months after it started, the phenomenon died off. The following symptoms were reported on an equally massive scale as the reports of the laughter itself: pain, fainting, flatulence, respiratory problems, rashes, attacks of crying, and random screaming. In total 14 schools were shut down and 1000 people were affected.
Charles F. Hempelmann of Purdue University has theorized that the episode was stress-induced. In 1962, Tanganyika had just won its independence, he said, and students had reported feeling stressed because of higher expectations by teachers and parents. MPI, he says, usually occurs in people without a lot of power. "MPI is a last resort for people of a low status. It's an easy way for them to express that something is wrong."
Sociologist Robert Bartholomew and psychiatrist Simon Wessely both put forward a culture-specific epidemic hysteria hypothesis, pointing out that the occurrences in 1960s Africa were prevalent in missionary schools and Tanganyikan society was ruled by strict traditional elders, so the likelihood is the hysteria was a manifestation of the cultural dissonance between the “traditional conservatism” at home and the new ideas challenging those beliefs in school, which they termed ‘conversion reactions’.
- Jeffries, Stuart (November 21, 2007). "The outbreak of hysteria that's no fun at all". The Guardian. Guardian News and Media Limited.
- Provine, Robert R. (January–February 1996). "Laughter". American Scientist. 84 (1): 38–47.
- Rankin, A.M.; Philip, P.J. (May 1963). "An epidemic of laughing in the Bukoba district of Tanganyika". Central African Journal of Medicine. 9: 167–170. PMID 13973013.
- "Laughter". Radiolab. Retrieved 2011-01-12.
- Sebastian, Simone (July 29, 2003). "Examining 1962's 'laughter epidemic'". Chicago Tribune.
- Bartholomew, Robert E. (2001). Little Green Men, Meowing Nuns and Head-Hunting Panics: A Study of Mass Psychogenic Illness and Social Delusion. Jefferson, North Carolina: Macfarland & Company. p. 52. ISBN 0-7864-0997-5.
- Bartholomew, Robert; Evans, Hilary (2014). Outbreak! The Encyclopedia of Extraordinary Social Behavior. McFarland & Company. ISBN 0786478888.
- "Information on MPI". Archived from the original on 20 June 2010.
- Article from CBC News
- WNYC radio program with a section discussing the epidemic