The Laughter Epidemic of 1962 Was No Joke

A laughter epidemic sounds like a it would be a lot of fun, but it’s not as joyful as it sounds. In fact, it can be a signal of distress, spurred by anger or sadness or intertwined with mania. The most famous example of a laughter epidemic happened in Tanzania in 1962. The outbreak began in a girls’ school and then spread to other communities, with uncontrollable laughter affecting approximately 2,000 people. It lasted several months and caused the temporary closing of 14 schools. One girl fell into a fit of anxiety-induced laughter, setting in motion a chain effect, until all the girls around her were engulfed in desperate laughter. Slowly, it spread beyond the school and into other regions. Sufferers’ symptoms included recurring attacks of laughing and crying that lasted from a few hours up to 16 days. These fits were accompanied by restlessness, aimless running, and occasional violence, but there was no evidence of organic causes. Eventually, an official diagnosis was given: mass hysteria. About two years after it began, the epidemic subsided and everyone recovered.