As a teen growing up in the 1990's of course I was in love with Buffy the Vampire Slayer. There was an episode on season 6 I believe it was called 'Once more with feeling'. It was a musical episode and people would just randomly burst into song. One of the 'side effects' was that some people got a little over zealous and would dance a little too hard and would spontaneously combust. Seems like a fitting story for the supernatural themes of Buffy the Vampire slayer. What may surprise you however, is that there was an actual document account of what has since been caused 'The Dancing Plague' where people danced their way to death.
In July 1518, there was a woman called Frau Troffea stepped into a narrow street in Strasbourg, France and began to dance. She didn't stop. She just kept on dancing until she eventually collapsed from exhaustion. After she mustered up enough energy, she got back up and went right on dancing. Her dance a thon apparently lasted between 4-6 days. By the end of the week, people started to join her. Maybe they thought they were missing out on some sort of party and by the end of the week, 34 people had joined her. They danced in the street, to no music, for absolutely no reason. They danced until their bodies couldn't dance anymore. People would dance until they dropped dead from heart attack, stroke or exhaustion.
Not knowing what to do, the authorities which were made up of civic and religious leaders thought that the best way to beat this problem was more dancing. (I feel a strong need to watch the movie Footloose right now). They arranged for people to join in, for musicians to play music and even professional dancers to help those suffering keep dancing. This made things worse as it is thought that up to 400 people were now consumed by the dancing bug. Quite a lot of them died.
By early September, people started to lose interest and it wasn't really a problem anymore. Historical records confirm this event actually took place. The question of course, is why? Why were there people so compelled to dance?
Of course given the timeframe, there are some that believe the people were suffering from a case of demonic possession which led to their demise. It was a very superstitious time and remember back in these times, anything that was not understand, was considered to be the work of the devil as people were also highly religious.
American medical historian John Waller author of "A Time to Dance, A Time to Die: The Extraordinary Story of the Dancing Plague of 1518" has done quite a lot of research into this incident and has come up with some possible explanations. Waller believed that it was caused by a form of stress induced psychosis. This was a time where people were suffering from extreme famine. People were dying of starvation and were forced to beg for food on the street. There were also diseases such as small pox and syphillis. All of this stress contributed to what Waller believes was a psychological illness. The locals also very much believed in a local legend of Saint Vitus who was a Sicilian martyred in 303 A.D. They believed if upset they would be cursed and he would send down plagues of compulsive dancing.
Another theory others have put forward relates to an ergot fungus which is the organic version of LSD. The problem with this theory is that it is a highly poisonous substance and would be more likely to kill someone than inspire them dance to death. If you think this was an isolated incident, you would be wrong. There are thought to be at least another 7 cases of a dancing plague with the latest being in 1840 coming our of Madagascar.
Waller believes his idea is supported by another strange plague which was dubbed as the 'laughing epidemic'.
In 1962 on the 30th of January in Tanzania, at a mission run boarding school for girls in Kashasha where 3 girls started laughing. They couldn't stop and it soon spread throughout the school. 95 of the 159 students became affected. People would laugh uncontrollably from a few hours to up to 16 days. No teachers were affected but students were not able to concentrate on their schooling. The school eventually was forced to close on March 18 1962. The students were all sent home (as it was a boarding school) and the epidemic soon spread to a village which was a home to a few of the girls. People from young adults to school children would have spontaneous laughing attacks that would not end when the joke was no longer funny. They didn't even know what they were laughing at. Between 6 to 18 months after it started, it eventually died on. Strangely similar to the dancing plague. This too was thought to also be induced by stress induced psychosis.
So what do you think? Do think a stress induced psychosis can really make you dance or laugh for hours on end? Have you heard of this or other bizarre plagues or epidemics?
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