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Not Funny: The 1962 Tanganyika Laughing Epidemic Struck Hundreds Of Children

1960s | May 28, 2021

Portrait of schoolgirls laughing. (Getty Images)

On January 31, 1962, a trio of giggly girls at a boarding school in the Tanzanian village of Kashasha started laughing—and didn't stop. As the girls failed to control themselves, they seemed to infect other students, who continued laughing for weeks as their schools closed and teachers struggled to understand what was happening. What was so funny?

The 1962 Tanganyika Laughing Epidemic

Although what became known as the Tanganyika laughing epidemic started with only three girls, it spread to 95 of the 159 students at their mission-run, all-girls boarding school for students aged 12–18 in the Tanganyika region. The laughing attacks, which lasted between six hours and two weeks, became so disruptive that teachers at the school were forced to cancel classes and send the students home. That's where it got really weird: As their parents came to pick them up, they also began to laugh uncontrollably, even though none of the teachers or adult staff members at the school were affected. As the laughter spread throughout the village to as many as 1,000 people, 14 schools were forced to close temporarily while everybody got ahold of themselves.

The laughing epidemic was more than just a bad case of the giggles. During laughing fits, which struck without warning, victims reported lightheadedness, respiratory issues, fits of screaming and uncontrollable crying, rashes, restlessness and the urge to run around aimlessly, and even extreme flatulence. About a year and a half after the initial reports, however, the laughing epidemic died out as mysteriously as it arrived. Fewer people experienced laughing fits that grew shorter and shorter until they stopped altogether, schools and other businesses reopened, and the people of the Tanganyika region got back to their lives.

"Dancing Mania On A Pilgrimage To The Church At Sint-Jans-Molenbeek," a 1642 engraving by Hendrick Hondius after a 1564 drawing by Pieter Brueghel the Elder. (Pieter Brueghel/Wikimedia Commons)

What Caused The 1962 Tanganyika Laughing Epidemic?

At the peak of the laughing epidemic, doctors ran a battery of medical tests on its victims with the hope of finding the cause of all the mirth, but no explanation emerged. Today, experts believe it was a case of mass hysteria, like the dancing plagues of the Middle Ages, possibly brought on by the stress of recent political developments. About a month earlier, the Tanganyika region won its independence from Britain, ushering in a time of transition and uncertainty for the people in the area. Young people in particular were anxious about their unknown futures, and the turmoil happened to coincide with an overhaul of the local school systems that resulted in a lot of pressure on students to perform well, which must have stressed out parents, too. Let it be a lesson to us all: It might seem like a good idea to unwind by having a few laughs with some classic comedy, but be careful. You might not be able to stop.

Tags: 1960s | Africa | psychology

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.