Dancing Hysteria: June 24, 1374

A group of people in the medieval German town of Aachen begin dancing wildly and soon others join them in a bizarre incident that lasts for days, then spreads to nearby communities in the Rhine River Valley. According to eyewitnesses, “people join hands, dance, leap, scream and shake for hours” and many of them appear to “see visions.”  Even though their feet are bloody and bruised, most dance until they collapse from exhaustion. Some actually die from heart attacks or strokes.

Onlookers believe the dancers are possessed and exorcisms are performed on some of them. People in the town also pray to St. John, who some believe may be responsible for the strange behavior. Musicians are encouraged to play along with the dancers, then slow the music down with the hope that that will get them to stop. But it actually spurs more people to join the dancing.

Some dancers roll around in the dirt, squealing and acting like animals; others rip off their clothing and begin having sex with other dancers. Some scream for people to beat the bottoms of their feet while they writhe on the ground, or they beg people to throw them high in the air.

What caused this madness?

There have been several theories. One explanation that has been suggested is ergot poisoning. Ergot is a parasitical fungus that grows on grain, and that, when ingested, can cause hallucinogenic effects, similar to the impact of LSD. But that doesn’t explain why it would cause people to dance and affect everyone the same way.  Others believe it may have been staged by members of a religious cult, that it was some kind of ancient banned Greek or Roman ritual that otherwise would have resulted in harsh punishment or death. Those who subscribe to this theory point out that many of the dancers did not actually live in the towns, but were passing through on a pilgrimage.

But the most popular explanation is that the dancing mania was one of the earliest recorded forms of mass hysteria related to communal stress. That region of Germany had suffered terrible flooding a few months earlier. Once people saw others dancing, they felt compelled to join in. Almost two centuries later, a similar dancing outbreak occurred  in Strasbourg, France,  a town that had been ravaged by syphilis, smallpox, leprosy, the bubonic plague and starvation. It started with just one woman, named Frau Troffea, who started dancing nonstop in the street.

This went on for days and soon others joined her dancing frenzy until almost 400 townspeople were involved.  It lasted almost a month and doctors, who believed the dancers were suffering from “hot blood,” recommended that the best treatment was to let them to dance it out. Places were created in the town’s market to allow this to occur. But once again the dancing hysteria took its toll—several  people died of heart attacks, strokes or exhaustion.

A more recent case of inexplicable mass hysteria occurred in Tanganyika in 1962. It started with three young girls  giggling and laughing uncontrollably and spread through their school. Over the next several months, more than half the school’s students were affected and it had to close.  Then the laughing epidemic spread to nearby villages and ultimately 14 schools had to close because students were unable to go to class.  Almost 1,000 people, mostly school aged children, were affected.  The hysteria lasted off and on for more than a year.

Research by Purdue professor Christian Hempelmann found that it most likely was caused by what’s known as Mass Psychogenic Illness or MPI. He believes it stems from shared stress in a community.  “It usually occurs in a group of people who don't have a lot of power,” he explained in an interview with the Chicago Tribune.“MPI is a last resort for people of a low status. It's an easy way for them to express that something is wrong. That may be why it has come to be associated more often with women.”

Hempelmann pointed out that Tanganyika had just won its independence and that at least some of the young girls affected had reported they were feeling a lot of anxiety over the profound changes occurring in the country.

More Slices of History

1st Kidney Transplant: June 17, 1950

The Birth of AA: June 10, 1935

Heimlich Manuever Introduced: June 1, 1974

Penicillin Works!: May 25, 1940

Toothpaste in Tubes:  May 22, 1892