Sunday, November 28, 2010

Sunday Reading: The Dancing Plague of 1518

dancing-robot_bigDo you like dancing?  I do, and I bet even perennial wallflowers bop their heads to “Single Ladies” in the car. 

But what if you couldn’t stop?  And what if your dancing caused other people to dance, one by one, until your entire town was swept up in some sort of Fossy-like hell, condemned to death by rhythmic gyration?

Almost five hundred years ago, such an affliction struck the French town of Strasbourg.  Reports suggest nearly 400 people succumbed to the “disease,” with many dying from heart attack or exhaustion.  The cause remains unknown, though John Waller , in his 2008 book A Time to Dance, A Time to Die: The Extraordinary Story of the Dancing Plague of 1518, argues that a mass psychogenic illness is the most likely candidate.  This MPI could have been brought on by preceding years of intense hardship and distress, which manifested as spiritual despair strong enough to move hundreds of people to involuntary bumping and grinding.

Spontaneous, irrepressible dancing is not the only form of mass hysteria.  A Discovery News piece run just in time for Waller’s book explains koro – “an irrational male fear that one's genitals have been stolen or are fatally shrinking into the body” – as well as the freaky Tanganyika Laughter Epidemic of 1962:

“Triggered by a joke among students at a Tanzania boarding school, young girls began to laugh uncontrollably. At first there were spurts of laughter, which extended to hours and then days.

The victims, virtually all female, suffered pain, fainting, respiratory problems, rashes and crying attacks, all related to the hysterical laughter. Proving the old adage that laughter can be contagious, the epidemic spread to the parents of the students as well as to other schools and surrounding villages.

Eighteen months passed before the laughter epidemic ended.”

Laughing to death?  Uncontrollable dancing?  How am I ever to have good times again with the knowledge that enjoying myself can kill me?

Thanks to Jim Rossignol over at Rock, Paper, Shotgun for sharing this.