Day 646: The Inescapable Laugh Track

originally published October 7, 2013

Though it hasn’t yet been accepted as fact by the Western medical community, there is an adage that claims that laughter is the best medicine. But what if laughter is the disease itself?

Somewhere amid the musty grey pages from the hard-to-reach file of wacky medical history lies the Tanganyika laughter epidemic. It’s a story that reads like a cautionary tale of bad hoodoo, one of those stories the old foreign wise man might spew in a bad movie. But enough people observed and documented this monumental weirdness that we have to accept it as fact.

Optimally there would be a well-polished explanation slapped onto the end of this twisted tale, a rubber stamp that could decree which tome of medical quirkiness this all belongs. But no one is really sure why so many people in this rural African region suddenly started laughing one day and couldn’t stop.

In late 1961, the British released their hold on the portion of German East Africa that they’d snatched up in the aftermath of WWII. The Republic of Tanganyika was formed, sticking around under that name on only two years’ worth of globes before merging with Zanzibar and changing its moniker to Tanzania. But in those two years they made their mark in medical mythology with this little slice of history.

It was the morning of January 30, 1962, a typical day at a mission-run girls’ boarding school in the tiny village of Kashasha. Three girls, somewhere between twelve and eighteen years of age, started laughing. No one knows what set them off, if anything. They simply started with a titter, ramped up to a chuckle, then kept rolling into guffaw territory. Like yawning, laughter can be notoriously contagious, so it wasn’t unusual (though probably somewhat distracting) to see other girls catch on. But it got a little weird when the laughter wouldn’t stop.

After a matter of hours, the laughing girls were seen as afflicted by something and not simply reacting to an astoundingly killer knock-knock joke. When hours turned into days, the school’s staff started to get nervous. The laughter attacks would last between four hours and sixteen days.

Sixteen days. That’s not continuous chortling – there were brief spells of downtime between bursts of symptoms, but still, we’re talking about a tremendous toll on one’s mental and physical being. And it wasn’t just laughing, there was crying, amplified paranoia that someone was chasing them, occasional fainting, rashes, difficulty breathing, sudden and random screaming, and excessive flatulence.

I’d like to make a snippy aside here that the flatulence might have added fuel to the laughter, but I highly doubt anything was being seen as ‘funny’ at this point.

By mid-March, 95 of the school’s 159 students were affected. There was no specific dormitory or classroom that was more susceptible; all a kid needed to do was make contact with a laughing child and they stood a chance of catching it. Some kids had only one cycle of attacks, others had as many as four. None of the staff, which included two European nuns and three Africans, showed any symptoms. It was decided that the best course of action would be to simply shut down the school.

The girls were sent back home. About ten days later, the disease showed up at the Nshamba village complex, where a number of the afflicted girls’ families lived. Throughout April and May, another 217 people – all of whom were teenagers or young adults, though now both sexes were being hit – came down with these bizarre laughing fits.

They reopened the school at Kashasha on May 21, but shut it down again by the end of June. Another 48 girls at the Ramashenye girls’ middle school, located just a few miles away, were similarly stricken. This entire region, clustered along the west bank of Lake Victoria, was turning into a complete mess of hilarity and horror. And flatulence.

The epidemic spread through the town of Bukoba, and all over the neighboring villages. In total fourteen schools were at least temporarily shut down, and as many as 1000 people were affected. The disease (or ‘condition’, or however it makes sense to classify it) carried on for between as many as eighteen months before quietly dying out. No one suffered any lasting effects and there were no fatalities.

But there were still a number of unanswered questions, not the least of which was, “What the fuck?”

Western medicine and empirical science was swooped into the region in hopes of finding a cause or a cure. Seventeen young victims endured lumbar punctures and blood was yanked out of numerous young veins. It wasn’t a virus, and there were no physical abnormalities in any of the samples. So we can rule out disease, but then what’s left?

They tested the food in the area. They gathered up well water, stream water and rain water samples, but nothing showed any shadow of a clue. Locals were blaming fallout from nearby atomic weapon testing. Some suspected the maize flour that many of the locals ate. But nothing added up. Nothing except that nagging symptom that stood out from the laughs, screams and farts… the paranoia.

Victims reported a powerful fear that they were being chased, but were unable to provide any coherent specifics as to the nature of their fear. Experts finally concluded that the entire phenomenon was nothing more than mass hysteria, or what we now refer to as a mass psychogenic illness.

This was a time of tremendous transition for the people of Tanganyika. The young’uns being hit by this laughing madness were uneducated and probably just a little bit terrified. Suddenly there were new nations dotting the African landscape, and not proud new nations made up of unified and cooperating people. This was – and still is – the world’s hotspot for uncertainty and cross-ethnic loathing. The perfect petri dish for a little hysteria.

Today we believe that the pressure of this brave new confusing world just caused these kids to snap. They trace the outbreak to a nail-bitingly similar case at a high school in Virginia in 2007, in which 300 of the school’s population of 1200 students reported headaches, twitching, tremors and dizziness. Could it be that our own little murk of uncertainty and horror might lead the next generation into giggling fits of uncontrollable helplessness? With wars their parents have trouble defining, an economic rift spreading faster than reality-show hashtags, and now a Congress that wants to collect a paycheck without showing up to work, could you really blame them?

A little dark, perhaps, especially after I’ve just written a week’s worth of articles about candy. But the oddball laughing epidemic of Tanganyika must have some lesson to teach us.

Or at least a really killer joke buried somewhere inside it.

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