The Tanganyika laughter epidemic: The outbreak of mass hysteria lasted for around 6 to 18 months

The Tanganyika laughter epidemic

Back in 1962, there was an outbreak of mass hysteria in the village of Kashasha on the western coast of Lake Victoria in Tanganyika, now known as Tanzania.

The outbreak began in a girls’ school where three students started to laugh. It was as such: they would start to laugh and abruptly stop and this would last   from a minute or two or could go up to several hours.

 Subsequently, it started to spread and other girls started to laugh uncontrollably. Slowly, it spread in other communities, making around a thousand of victims and causing the temporary closure of 14 schools. This laughing epidemic spread to other schools and lasted between 6 and 18 months.

According to researchers, this psychogenic illness case started with a one schoolgirl who probably fell into a fit of anxiety-induced laughter. This created a chain effect, where girls around her were also overwhelmed in frantic laughter.

“On the one hand it sounded too good to be true, and on the other hand, people were citing it in support of all kinds of things, across the spectrum, and contradictory things. So, I thought—I’ve got to look at this again and see, did this actually happen and what does it tell us about humour.” Said Linguist Christian F. Hempelmann, who researched the incident.

He also highlighted that the students also had fits of pain, fainting, crying and in some cases even rashes. “The bad news is, it had nothing to do with humour. There was no merriment. Laughter was one of many symptoms” Hempelmann added.

He explained that stress was the reason behind the uncontrollable giggles. The boarding school which the patient zero attended was a very strict one.