Article by our guest writer M. Christian (from "Meine kleine fabrik"). M. Christian writes about odd, weird, and wonderful things - most of them are, just like life itself, as unexpected as possible. Illustrated with art by Mario Sanchez Nevado)

It was all in their minds
Have You Heard The One About … ?

For a topic involving laughter, what you're about to read is not amusing. Creepy and disturbing, yes. Funny, no.

(image source)

1. The Tanganyika Laughter Epidemic

Things supposedly started innocently enough. Kashasha, near Lake Victoria in Tanzania in 1962: One girl in a boarding school there told another girl a joke. Maybe, "Have you heard the one about?" or "A Jew, an Indian, and Herbert Hoover walk into a bar …" or "Take my wife, please … " Whatever the setup, the delivery, or punch line, the result was laughter. Whether it was a giggle, a guffaw, a chortle, a snort is irrelevant. The listener found it funny.

But then things went dark, weird, and creepy: one girl laughed, but then so did another, and then another, and then another, and then another.

After exposure, the incubation period from nothing to hysteria was short, from a few hours to a couple of days. There was no fever, no physical symptoms, just laughter and occasional crying between short moments of exhausted recuperation. When victims were restrained they sometimes became violent.

(image credit: Mario Sanchez Nevado)

No one knew what to do. The school administrators were puzzled, local
doctors were confused. Trying to put a lid on the phenomena, the administrators shut the school down.

But that was too little, too late: Whatever it was began to spread. It infected other schools and worked its way into the village, seemingly carried by infected students. It traveled to another village 20 miles away, and another 55 miles from Kashasha.

Even weirder, it wasn't a constant thing. Like little hysterical explosions, the laughter would pop up, disable small groups for days at a time, then vanish.

Want to know what it was like? Well, it wasn't funny, I can tell you that: one victim in Tanganyik reported watching it spread around him, hitting one neighbor after another: giggles, guffaws, chortles, snorts – horrible, nightmarish laughter. Terrified, he retreated into his home. But then he began to feel it too, a compulsion to join in with the hideous joke. He shouted and cried and – naturally -- laughed throughout the night.

The phenomena is called Mass Psychogenic Illness, more commonly known as mass hysteria, and although the Tanganyika Laughter Epidemic is an extreme version, it's more common than you think. In fact what's really scary about the giggling madness that sprung from one girl's joke in Kashasha isn't that it occurred but that many researchers believe it happens so often, and is so powerful, that we simply aren't
aware of it. Or rather we aren't aware how much the phenomena controls us.

(original unknown)

2. The Mad Gasser of Mattoon

Ever hear the one about the Mad Gasser of Mattoon? In the 1930s -- all the way through to the mid 40s -- the residents of Botetourt County, Virginia, and Mattoon, Illinois, were terrorized by a surreal specter. Also called the "Anesthetic Prowler" or "The Phantom Anesthetist," he was supposedly a dark, mysterious figure responsible for dozens of victims falling ill from mysterious gasses flooding their homes. Whole families reported sudden attacks of choking, dizziness, headaches and various respiratory ailments.

The cops couldn't catch him and doctors were baffled by the mysterious ailments of his victims. The FBI was called in but they couldn't catch him either. Bulletins were circulated, newspapers warned residents to be on the lookout, vigilante groups roamed the streets trying to catch him -- in short, everyone went more than a little nuts trying to catch this gassy assailant.

But evidence suggests that he never existed. Sure, lots of people got sick, dozen and dozens and dozens more reported seeing dark and mysterious figures up to hideous no good stalking the night, and the authorities were run ragged with reports but there were no leads, nothing solid; nothing but suggestion, victims suffering from anxiety and fear, and the bizarre power of mass hysteria.

Here are couple of creative examples, that play on some of the similar phobias:

3. The Monkey Man of New Delhi

Ever hear the one about the Monkey Man of New Delhi? About four feet tall, sporting a metal cap and steel claws, he terrorized many a New Delhi night in 2001. Victims reported being savagely scratched and bitten by the odd ape. What's worse is what happened to people scared of the ape: an unlucky short man was beaten by a mod who suspected him of being the ape, a pregnant woman fell down some stairs because neighbors had shouted that the ape had been seen, and others were said to have seriously injured themselves running away from what they thought was the ape.

The punch line for the Monkey Man is the same as for the laughing girls of Kashasha and the Mad Gasser of Mattoon: it was all in their minds


You might guffaw and giggle about how silly those girls behaved, or how naive the folks of Mattoon were, or how ridiculous the Monkey Man sounds, but before you do too much laughing think about what some researches are hypothesizing: that much of what we believe about the world, about its horrors and mysteries -- including witch trials of every sort, UFOs, some cases of communist conspiracies and so much more -- are nothing but signs of the tremendous power of the human mind, coupled with the drive to become one with the crowd in order to deceive itself.

Now ain't that funny?

(original unknown)

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

The phenomena is called Mass Psychogenic Illness, more commonly known as mass hysteria, and although the Tanganyika Laughter Epidemic is an extreme version, it's more common than you think.

I work in an area of medicine closely related to this, and I can tell you that the existence of MPI is not a given. If it does exist, it is a lot rarer than you make out.

Like a lot of psychiatric 'diagnoses', it is not reliable, and depends heavily on the subject bias and preconceived views of the diagnostician.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm very sorry if this comes out as a double post, but after waiting for a while and not seeing it published I re-posted this kind-of-a-sort-of-a-rant.

My area of expertise and academic backround is in culture history and there's nothing new to me about this. We all live in a a very fragile state of, let's call it, existential fear. Fear for our body, our inner thoughts, our surroundigs, the dark spirits of our soul (if you choose to believe in one). We very well know on some level or another that the world around is (or seems to be) more than is told or taught to us or simply something we can concieve.
Before you say it, of course it's not that simple. Most of us go thru this life happy in knowledge that everything is quite like it's supposed to be: everyday life, love, reassurance that everything is the way it's supposed to be. So why do we get hysterics? Why do we cry even when nothing is supposed to be wrong?
Maybe, and this is just a maybe, there are so many feelings and questions anaswered in our lives that when something catches us anawares it resonates thru crowd. Hidden fears or need to get release thru laughter just catches fire.
How about mass hysteria masquarading as national pride that results in death of millions? It exists.
There's always an untapped hidden potential in us for everything: mass suicide to catch a ride on a UFO, to kill your neighbour with a suitable posse of friends and likeminded, to laugh at the same joke all across the globe.
We are to some extent a horde. We share mass psychology (being human). If you think I mean we're but a hive of drones, please don't. I only mean this is a potential in all of us. It has served us well as a human race, to come together and share enough to to work as a tribe, an ethnic group or a nation.
Let's cut down to the chase: conformity keeps us sane and it's a good thing, otherwise we would propably not even exist (even after the nutrional value of eating our neighbour).
Then again this world and along it our shared psyche as a human race has had to forget so many things that could harm us (our fears, absurdity of existance, the inherent sense of dark humour that permeats our lives, fear of our selves, our bodies (just ask David Cronenberg or Freud), or a fervent fear for napkins.
We more or les live in mass hysteria at all times whether it involves consumer goods we buy, TV-shows we watch or a lifestyle we all subscribe to. However, aforementioned is what we call normal everyday life.
I hate to say it: Monty Python got it right; to make jokes of our most insane existential fears is going to stick around a whole lot longer than the last lightbulb-joke.
Oooops... some post I've just made.
Well. I'm waiting for a crunchy frag (Okay, that was cheap).
As far as we go as humanity, something tells me we won't stop laughing or fearing or hating in hordes for the unforeseable future.
Let's just agree to laugh, hmmmm.
We culture historians at least won't mind.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anonymous Said: "it's more common than you think."

And I totally agree on that one. iPhone Anyone?? That was a classic case study of "Mass Hype"

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Check another wonderful example - so called Seattle windshield pitting epidemic. In 1954 in Washington state people started to freak out, because in the windhields of their cars they started to see small pits of unknown origin. UFO, nuclear tests etc. were mentioned and people started to panic. After couple of weeks things started to settle down, as those markings are just normal signs of using a car and probably you have them in your car right now. Please check full story here

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow...sounds like the "Global Warming/Environment Change" phenomena.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Don't forget the "Toronto Blessing" which was an outbreak of the same sort of hysterics only a few years back.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I will never understand the compulsion of people to troll clever, interesting, well-written blog posts like this with anti-iPhone comments. It's just bizarre.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

>Wow...sounds like the "Global Warming/Environment Change" phenomena.

Oh yeah. The mass march of flora and fauna up mountains all over the world to avoid the rising average temperature of the planet is mass hysteria. Let's not forget about the mass hysteria of giant chunks of the ross ice shelf breaking off and melting into the ocean. Oh yeah, that mass delusion we share that the polar bear is about to run out of habitat.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I hardly think Global Warming and the iphone constitute mass hysteria. The iphone is a really nifty gadget that has a unique interface and great marketing. Global warming is a scary problem that faces the world today. Both of these are much more real than the mad gasser or the monkey man. Don't confuse trends and current events with mass hysteria

Anonymous Anonymous said...

what about all the penis theivery that has been going on in the congo?

Blogger Unknown said...

Don't forget Y2K...

Blogger Carol said...

RadioLab did a great segment about the Tanganyika epidemic, and came up with an interesting theory as to why it happened there:

Episode Notes

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post, although you missed a fantastic one: Popobawa, the sodomizing bat-monster of Zanzibar.

I s*** thee not.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Also include one thats killed many poeple, war on terror, iraqi freedom and osama bin laden.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I had this happen to me, in a summer camp 10+ years ago. A guy ran into the room laughing, and it took over. I ran out into the hall, near crying and my gut wrenched in pain from the laughter. It was one of the scariest uncontrollable things thats ever happened to me tbh. Everyone didnt get it, about 3 or 4 people out of 15-20 in the room.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds"

Charles Mackay, 1841

-an excellent read.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

the first instance was actually reported to have been caused by gases from a nearby lake

Anonymous Anonymous said...



Anonymous Anonymous said...

I got caught up with a 'spiritual teacher' in the 1980's. He could make people see incredible things - like turning into Buddhist and Hindu Dieties, levitating, disappearing, with no lighting special effects. In his presence people had amazing spiritual experiences. He gave lectures to thousands of people who shared these experiences. Later on it turned out that he was a lying phony who manipulated people into giving him large amounts of cash. I myself witnessed him telling lies on national TV. However, the *experiences* he gave me (and thousands of others) really was something that is hard to explain outside of some type of mass 'hallucination'.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Morgellon's anyone?

Blogger Descartes said...

What is real anyway? Reality, according to some, is just what you believe it to be.

Anonymous Anonymous said...


In the case of The Mad Gasser, there was evidence recovered from at least one fo the scenes. A woman's footprint and a rag with an unidentified chemical on it. (The chemical evaporated before any tests could be carried out to determine what it was.)

Also, there was a suspect. A man who had the reputation of carrying out weird chemistry experiments. Some believe that when he became the suspect his sister began doing copy-cat crimes in order to take the heat of her brother, which explains why many of the witnesses claim they saw a female figure flee the scene of the crimes.

There was also a rash of similar incidents in a small town 10 years earlier and it's likely that residents hadn't heard of these cases.

So the key to so-called 'Mass Hysteria', is that it may or may not exist and that it might be based on real or imagined threats.

What we do know is that 'Mass Hysteria' is of itself never an explanation for anything.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

The image of the girl in this post from http://community.livejournal.com/vintagephoto/
where abouts on this site is the photo from? Do you know the date it was posted, who posted it, who took the photograph, or who the girl is? I really would like to find the original source.

Blogger Avi Abrams said...

We'd like to know this too, this is a great image.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

The girl in the first image is Andrée Rolane. She appeared in several films in the the 1920s including L'Occident (1927) (aka 'The West'), Les Misérables (1925) and La Fanciulla di Pompei (1925). I am still unsure where this photograph is from, but it is also shown at http://killerbeesting.blogspot.com/2007_08_01_archive.html

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have to say... watching Mystery Science Theater 2000 doesn't help.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

The mad gasser's name way Farley Llewellyn.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Watching Mystery Science Theater "2000" definitely wouldn't help. 'Cuz if that's what you're doing, then it's already too late for you. You're mind is gone.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Don't forget Y2K" comments really honk me off, almost as much as the Global Warming deniers. Y2K was a no-show because millions of hours of labor went into staving off impending disaster. Word got about about how serious the problem was, and people FIXED it. It wasn't mass hysteria or some false mental phenomena. Neither is global warming.
I've lived in Minnesota since 1993. When I moved here, winter snow piled up four feet high along the roads, higher at intersections. To deny something serious is happening is simply to buy into what Exxon Mobil spent $80,000,000 to make you believe. Follow the money. Those who have the most to lose are driven by their own psychotic personalities to do anything they can to stay in power, and since climate change is such a world-changing event, they HAVE to deny its existence, even though it could eventually kill them. Human society has evolved this personality type over millenia. So they can't help what they are and they'll continue to tell lies and pay others to do so.

Blogger Unknown said...

hmm, lets not forget the biggest example... Religion. :0

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Global warming isn't mass hysteria; it's just not as visible in the States as it is in Canada. The further north one goes, the more noticable it becomes.

Here in the Interior of BC, an estimated 80% of our pines (last I heard) have died. For literally hectares, there's great swathes of red, standing dead pines. The cause? The Mountain Pine Beetle, which our trees have no propection against.

Traditionally, they haven't needed it, because it's been too cold for them up here. But it hasn't gotten cold enough to kill them since the winter of 03/04. That year, weather here dipped down into its usual -40/-50c range, but the next year it only got down to -30c. And that was the last year we saw -30 for more than a day or two.

Last year it barely broke -25, and rarely got below -20c (-30f). Now, this might sound exceedingly cold to you, and yes, it is cold, but it's unusually warm for up here. And it isn't just scientists saying, "Oh noes! It's warmed up by three degrees!!" It's a phenomenon that everyone here can actually see, because it's been an increase of 30 degrees in only the last five years.

Don't try to tell Canadians that global warming/climate change is mass hysteria. It's already hitting us hard.

You can see pictures here, if you're interested. Scroll past the images of the bloody little buggers themselves, and you'll see what I mean about "swathes".

And this is directly of the BC's Ministry of Forests' web page.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ah, but climate study was started during a cold period in time, what was known as the 'little ice age'. It occurred shortly after the medieval warm period, where the temperature globally, was much higher than it is now. The Earth runs in cycles, there's no way it can be consistent.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

So how do we protect ourselves from mass hysteria?

the moral of the story: DON'T FALL INTO THE HYPE




Anonymous Anonymous said...


Blogger Avi Abrams said...

HAHAHAHAHAhahaha..ha..ha.... ha?

Anonymous Anonymous said...

What is the picture of the people wrapped in green and blowing up balloons? Where can it be found?


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