The dancing plague, biting mania and other bizarre epidemics and outbreaks in history

It’s true, people have literally danced and laughed to death and we still don’t know why. In most of the cases, no infectious agents were found.

Myupchar January 24, 2020 18:49:20 IST
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The dancing plague, biting mania and other bizarre epidemics and outbreaks in history

There is no doubt that the word epidemic is pretty heavy. It brings with itself the images of dread, sickness and death. Fortunately, modern medicine has always managed to find a solution to every problem. In the past, we have beaten the plague, influenza and recently Ebola. On the other hand, though, we are still not on top of every other medical condition, we don’t yet have a treatment for most viral diseases and there have been a few epidemics in the history of mankind that we still haven’t even found the cause of. 

It’s true, people have literally danced and laughed to death and we still don’t know why. In most of the cases, no infectious agents were found.

Some researchers classify these conditions as mass psychological illness or mass hysteria. In mass hysteria, a group of people start to experience the same symptoms and illness. It is believed to occur due to anxiety, stress or fear of certain things prevailing in the society.

The dancing plague biting mania and other bizarre epidemics and outbreaks in history

Representational image. Image source: Getty Images.

Here are 5 such bizarre epidemics and outbreaks that are attributed to the class of mass psychogenic illness.

1. The dancing plague

The dancing plague of France is probably one of the most famous epidemics in history. The mania took over the entire city of Strasbourg sometime in the year 1518, and hundreds of people mindlessly danced themselves to death. Though it claimed the most lives, the France incident was not the first one. Incidents of dancing plague were also seen in Germany in the year 1247 and 1374 where people have hopped, leapt and danced for days on end without stopping to eat, drink or rest only to die of exhaustion. There have been incidences of people having danced for half a year and dying of a broken rib. Isolated incidences of the dancing epidemic were seen as late as the 1600s where a person or a whole family would die of it.

2. The laughing epidemic of Tanganyika

In January 1962, three schoolgirls in Tanganyika, East Africa started to laugh and cry uncontrollably. What felt like normal laughter spread to half of the whole school by the end of the day and the school was forced to shut down. The condition quickly spread through the village and some of the surrounding areas too. Unlike the dancing plague, this laughter came in fits that lasted for 7 days on an average.

Though it is called the laughing epidemic, Dr Christian F. Hempelmann from Texas A&M University explained in his paper, The laughter of the 1962 Tanganyika ‘laughter epidemic’, that the condition may not just be about laughter but extreme emotions. Similar cases of emotional outbursts were also seen in 1963 in two other areas in Uganda, Africa, where hundreds of people started to run aimlessly and exhibited violent and general hyperactive behaviour. 

3. June bug outbreak

In June 1962, a lot of workers in a textile factory in the USA reported signs of nausea, dizziness, vomiting and numbness due to a mysterious bug in the factory. On checking, the health authorities found nothing that could cause the said symptoms and tagged it as a hysterical contagion.

The term hysterical contagion is used to describe a condition in which a group of people start to show symptoms of a disease that has no physical basis and is actually psychological in nature.

4. Biting mania among nuns

In the 15th century, a biting mania took over some of the nuns in Germany. It began when a nun at a convent started to compulsively bite her fellows. Soon all nuns at the place fell into biting. The disease spread to nearby convents and gradually to the other cities in Germany and Rome. 

5. Sleeping sickness of Kalachi

This is a fairly recent one. In 2013, people in the Kalachi village of Kazakistan started to randomly doze off into deep sleep and kept on sleeping for days, only to wake up for short periods to eat or use the bathroom. After waking up, none of them could recall what had happened to them. A lot of people were hospitalised and treated for what was thought to be some form of encephalopathy but many got repeated episodes even after the treatment. People have various theories on what may have caused the condition and they range from gases released by nearby mines to the psychological effect of stress but the real reason is still unknown.

For more information, read our article on Mania: Symptoms, Causes, Treatment and Prevention.

Health articles in Firstpost are written by myUpchar.com, India’s first and biggest resource for verified medical information. At myUpchar, researchers and journalists work with doctors to bring you information on all things health.

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