During 1962 in Tanzania, then known as Tanganyika, there was an outbreak of mass hysteria. This phenomenal outbreak is known as the ‘Tanganyika Laughter Epidemic’ – it started in school. 30 January, in a mission run boarding school for girls. During the day a group of three girls started to uncontrollably giggle, soon the laughter spread through the school haphazardly until by the end of the day 95 out of the 159 students were affected, afflicted with intermittent uncontrollable fits of laughter. The students reportedly had difficulty focusing in lessons, much to the chagrin of the teachers. The teachers who were, I may add, unaffected.
The school being a boarding school meant that the epidemic was contained, some recovered after a few hour whilst others were affected greatly for 16 days. Thanks to recurring incidents of laughter the school was forced t close in March. When the students were sent home the contagious laughter further spread. By May, 217 people had experienced the laughing fits and they even spread to another school. The boarding was opened and then closed again. 14 schools had to close due to the severity of the condition, those who came down with laughter were incapacitated for the entire duration of each fit.
And so did the epidemic spread, affecting 1000 people in the locality of the school, thousands more were affected indirectly. The whole affair lasted for between 6 and 18 months before finally ceasing. Like any epidemic though, there were remainders. People directly influenced experienced: fainting, random screaming, pain, rashes and attacks of crying among others. The original school was sued; for it was their students and their families who spread it to the surrounding area.
Laughter epidemics, whilst not unheard of are rarely seen on this scale. This scale is nearly unprecedented and was of great interest to researchers in laughter. In related news scientists have confirmed that laughter is contagious. We knew that of course, but now we know it with science which is more assuring.