What Was the Tanganyika Laughing Epidemic?

The great writer Charles Dickens once said that “There is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter” and he is right. Most of us may have been in a situation where a person’s laugh is so hysterical that is causes a chain reaction of laughter that eventually affects the rest of the people in the group. At first, the term laughter epidemic may sound like a nice, happy, fun, and joyful event, but the truth is, a laughter epidemic is not a joke. In fact, it can quickly intensify and become a severe medical condition.

Even if laughter is somewhat considered as a natural form of medicine and it has been used as a therapeutic tool for several years, there are still some negative aspects in laughter. Laughing excessively can lead to extreme elation, cataplexy, and unpleasant laughter spells. That is why the laughter epidemic that happened in Tanzania in 1962 where over a thousand people laughed hysterically for over a year is not a laughing joke. Let’s take a look at how and why this mass hysteria happened.

How Did the Laughter Epidemic Start?

A strange phenomenon that we now know as the Tanganyika laughter epidemic started on January 30, 1962, at a mission-run boarding school for girls. It has been reported that the laughing started with three girls and it spread chaotically throughout the boarding school. At first, it affected 95 of their 159 pupils and these pupils were aged 12 to 18 years old. The symptom lasted from a few hours to a total of 16 days in those affected by the epidemic. The faculty of the school was not affected but they said that their students had a hard time concentrating on their lessons because of the laughter epidemic. This phenomenon forced the school to close down in March 1962.

After the school was closed down and the students were sent home to their parents, the laughing epidemic started to spread in Nshamba, a village where several of the girls from the school lived. Almost 217 people from the village had laughing attacks in April and May of 1962 and most of the victims were school children and young adults. The laughter epidemic spread further from Kashasha to the village of Nshamba, through a school near Bukoba and even on the borders of the country which was known as Tanganyika back then.

People who were affected of the laughing epidemic experienced symptoms such as recurring attacks of laughing, crying, flatulence, fainting, pain, rashes, and respiratory problems which were accompanied by occasional violence, restlessness, and aimless running. The laughing epidemic lasted for a good eighteen months after it eventually died off. Up to this day, no one still knows why the laughing epidemic started or what made it stop. But as usual, people have their theories.

Theories Behind the Tanganyika Laughter Epidemic

A professor from Purdue University named Charles F. Hempelmann has theorized that the laughing epidemic was stress-induced. Because back in 1962, the country of Tanganyika just gained their independence and students said that they are feeling stressed because of high expectations from their parents and teachers.

While psychology professor Robert Provine had another theory where he said that the laughter was a sort of social glue and the laughter epidemic that happened in Tanganyika was a dramatic example of the power of infectious laughter. While Provine’s theory that laughing can become infectious, a few (or maybe none of us) have experienced the contagious laughs so severe just like what happened in Tanganyika.

Other theories state that the Tanganyika laughter epidemic is probably a culturally determined disease. Because of the high population in Africa, schools in their area are more prone to outbreaks of mass motor hysteria.  

No one knows exactly how the Tanganyika Laughing Epidemic began and the truth behind it remains lost in the shadow of history. In fact, the name of the three girls who started the epidemic was not even written on the record. Different reports and news tell us how long the epidemic actually lasted, how many people were involved, and what is the cause of their contagious laughter.