Strange Stories of: Mass Hysteria

St. Vitus’ Dance, was a strange social phenomenon involving a type of mania that gripped mainland Europe between the 14th and 17th centuries. During the outbreak, afflicted people would dance hysterically through the streets for hours, even days and months, until they collapsed due to exhaustion or died from heart attack or stroke. The number of participants at any one outbreak could reach into the thousands.

In modern literature, women are often portrayed as being victims of the St. John’s Dance, although medieval accounts record that men, women and children were equally likely to be affected. These were not isolated events, but occurred numerous times throughout Medieval Europe. Outbreaks occurred in Italy, Luxembourg, France, Germany, Holland, and Switzerland over the following three centuries.

Many people believed that this dancing mania was a curse sent by Saint Vitus, a Christian saint who was persecuted by Roman emperors and died as a martyr in AD 303. Saint Vitus is considered to be the patron saint of dancers, hence the name of the condition. Those suffering from this condition would travel to places dedicated to St. Vitus in order to pray for deliverance. An incident in Germany in 1278 occurred where a group of 200 people were dancing so vigorously on a bridge over the Maas River that the bridge collapsed, killing many of the dancers. Those who survived were taken to a nearby chapel dedicated to Saint Vitus, and many of them were reported to have been restored to full health.

Several hypotheses have been put forward to explain this phenomenon. For instance, poisoning has been considered as the mania may have coincided with wet growing seasons, suitable for the growth of a toxic and psychoactive fungus. This fungus is usually found on cultivated grain such as rye and may cause nervous spasms, psychotic delusions, and convulsions.

Another explanation is that those participating were followers of different religious sects. Many people made pilgrimages throughout Europe during the years following the Black Death in order to gain divine favor. As they were involved in prolonged dancing, fasting, and emotional worship, symptoms as such as hallucinating, fainting, and trembling uncontrollably would have been common.

The healing power of the saint's relics was thought to be especially efficacious for the sick with “unsteady step, trembling limbs, limping knees, bent fingers and hands, paralyzed hands, lameness, crookedness, and withering body”.3 5 The signs and symptoms in this grouping mimicked the movements of a dance, and thus the linkage of Vitus and his dance acquired a popular coinage. Saint Vitus' dance (also known as triste mal) became an umbrella term for an assortment of conditions with movement disorder.

Modern science has St Vitus’ dance as identified Sydenham's chorea, a disorder characterized by rapid, uncoordinated jerking movements primarily affecting the face, hands and feet. It results from a childhood infection with Group A beta-haemolytic Streptococcus and is reported to occur in 20–30% of people with acute rheumatic fever. The disease is usually latent, occurring up to 6 months after the acute infection, but may occasionally be the presenting symptom of rheumatic fever.

It has also been argued that the majority of those engaged in the dance did not actually suffer from any of the symptoms. Instead of a mental disorder, it may be considered as a social phenomenon, sometimes referred to as a mass psychogenic illness. This is where similar physical symptoms with no known cause begin to affect a large group of people as a form of social influence. It was suggested that some of those engaged in the St. John’s Dance did so out of religious fear, while others may have danced in order to fit in with the crowd.

The Tanganyika laughter epidemic of 1962, was an outbreak of mass hysteria in Tanganyika (now Tanzania) in which uncontrollable laughter spread from a group of school girls to their entire school. The fits of laughter continued to spread through neighboring schools and to entire villages; affecting perhaps 1,000 people, many of them young women and girls, lasting several months and causing the temporary closure of 14 schools.

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, respiratory problems, and occasional violence. Families and governments enlisted all kinds of experts to give them a clue about what was going on, but there was no evidence of organic causes. The local Bahaya people called it Endwara Yokusheka, or “the illness of laughing.” Later Tanzanians would call it omuneepo, “the laughing disease.”

One leading researcher on the incident described the laughter epidemic as a case of mass psychogenic illness; a malady that has the capacity to strike in a variety of high-stress settings. Typically beginning with a single individual, in this case the laughter started with three girls and spread haphazardly throughout the school, until the girls around her were also engulfed in desperate laughter, eventually affecting over half of the school.

Laughter can also be a signal of distress, spurred by anger or sadness or intertwined with mania. The stress factors may have included the unfamiliar expectations imposed in the British-run schools and the uncertainties created by Tanganyika’s independence, achieved only one month before the incident. Slowly, the laughter spread beyond their school and region and into other at-risk populations.

One prevailing sociological hypothesis points out a culture-specific epidemic hysteria. It finds that occurrences of mania may be prevalent in missionary schools in a society ruled by strict traditional elders. Thus, the laughter was a manifestation of the cultural dissonance between the “traditional conservatism” at home and the new ideas challenging those beliefs in school.

A radical biological perspective was that the fits of laughter could be traced back to viral infection. They argued that it was too improbable that a purely psychological mass reaction would last so long and be so widespread. They cite that abnormal laughter occurs when structures in the basal part of the brain are damaged. Based on this model, they suggest that a viral infection, probably some kind of encephalitis in the basal part of the brain, provoked the epidemic.

The laughter episodes continued on and off for about one year, and then mysteriously ceased. Unfortunately, no good records were kept on the outbreak at the time, so reliable information is scarce. Although no one was permanently affected by the mania, its full cause was never discovered. “This was laughter like a curse” a local Muslim cleric told an American journalist 50 years later, “it was as if the spirits of the ancestors were showing their power.”

A baffling case of mass hysteria gripped a secluded convent in France, sometime in the 15th century, where many of the nuns had inexplicably begun meowing.

In the 1844 book ‘Epidemics of the Middle Ages’, an account is given of a nun in a very large convent in France who inexplicably began to meow like a cat. Soon after, other nuns around her began exhibiting the same behavior, until the whole convent was plagued with meowing nuns. The noise became structured; all the nuns would meow together for several hours at the same time every day.

Some of them even began to scratch at the bases of trees for days at a time. This concerned the surrounding neighborhood, and soldiers were called in to try to contain the situation. Eventually the nuns quieted down after being threatened with a beating by soldiers. To contain the situation soldiers were brought in and tasked with whipping and beating the nuns until they promised to stop.

During this era, belief in possession by animals or demons was common, and cats in particular were suspected of being in league with Satan. These outbreaks of animal-like noises and behaviors usually lasted anywhere from a few days to a few months, though some came and went over the course of years. In modern times, mass hysteria is known to be easily spread among people in strict social settings that live together for extended periods of time. However, no one understood this phenomenon or knew how to deal with it at the time and thus, it was never discovered why the nuns had developed such a bad habit.