The Strange Origins of 5 Historical Manias

The causes of these mass hysterias baffled physicians and scientists.
Villagers dancing in a painting by Pieter Breugel the Elder.
Villagers dancing in a painting by Pieter Breugel the Elder. / Pieter Breugel the Elder, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In 1841, the Scottish journalist Charles Mackay wrote, “Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one.” That observation formed the basis of his social science classic, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, and partly describes the five historical manias below—which came on disturbingly fast, and disappeared just as rapidly.

1. The Dancing Plagues

In 1374, dozens of villages in present-day western Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, and northeastern France were visited by an unexplained dancing plague. By the hundreds, villagers took to the streets leaping, jerking, and hopping to music no one else could hear. They barely ate or slept, and danced while crying out for deliverance from their torment. Some danced for days until they perished.

The plague disappeared as suddenly as it had arrived. But in July 1518, in Strasbourg, a woman named Frau Troffea began dancing involuntarily, and within a week, she was joined by 34 people; by the end of the month, the crowd had swelled to 400. Dozens perished, having literally danced themselves into heart attacks, strokes, and exhaustion. And, just as before, it simply went away.

Historians, psychologists and scientists have tried to unravel its cause. One theory was that the dancers had eaten bread tainted by ergot, a mold that grows on the stalks of damp rye. When consumed, it can cause convulsions, shaking, and hallucinations, among other symptoms. (Ergot poisoning has been proposed as the force behind the strange behaviors leading to the Salem Witch Trials, though that theory is controversial.)

In his 2009 book A Time to Dance, a Time to Die: The Extraordinary Story of the Dancing Plague of 1518, John Waller notes that all contemporary accounts suggest the sufferers were dancing, not convulsing. He theorizes that the dancing plagues were mass psychogenic illnesses, sparked by fear and depression. The manias of 1374 and 1518 were preceded by periods of devastating famine, crop failures, dramatic floods, and other catastrophes. Anxiety, fear, depression, and superstition—in particular, the belief that God was sending down plagues to persecute the guilty—made people susceptible to falling into a kind of involuntary trance state.

And dancing plagues were the calling card of St. Vitus, an early Christian martyr venerated with dance parties, meaning that the idea was already in the victims’ heads. All it took was one person to start, and then everyone else followed.

2. The Tanganyika “Laughter Epidemic”

When dozens of students at a girls’ boarding school in Tanganyika (now Tanzania) began laughing uncontrollably, forcing the school to shut down for two months, it wasn’t a joke.

The laughing epidemic began on January 30, 1962, at the school in a rural village in northwest Tanganyika, according to a 1963 report in the Central African Medical Journal. It started with a bout of uncontrollable laughing among three pupils, which turned into a crying jag attended by anxiety, the fear of being chased, and in some cases, violence when the girls were restrained. The symptoms spread through the school, apparently transmitted by contact with an infected person; onset was sudden, and lasted from a few hours to 16 days.

The school was forced to shut down in March after more than half the students—95 out of 159—were affected. And then, 10 days after the closure, the phenomenon emerged in a village 55 miles away and affected more than 200 people. The disease then spread through the countryside; each time, the vector was a person who had either been at the closed girls’ school or had come in contact with them.

There was nothing physically wrong with the affected people. They exhibited no fevers or convulsions, and their blood work produced nothing interesting. Dr. Christian Hempelmann, a professor at Texas A&M University who studies humor, calls the laughing epidemic a mass psychogenic illness.

3. The “Mad Travelers”

Views on Prague
Scenes of Prague, the first stop on Jean-Albert Dadas’s grand tour / brandstaetter images/GettyImages

Most people like to take a holiday now and again. Some people, however, just can’t stop. Dromomania describes the compulsive urge to travel, and it was all the rage in France between 1886 and 1909. The man who exemplified dromomania for the European medical establishment was Jean-Albert Dadas, a gas-fitter from Bordeaux. Dadas was admitted to the Saint-Andre Hospital in 1886 after he had just returned from a truly epic journey—and could not really recall where he’d been.

Dadas was exhausted, naturally, but also confused, vague, and foggy. A doctor at the hospital, Philipe Auguste Tissié, managed to piece together his story and published the case report as “Les aliénés voyageurs” (“The Mad Travelers”). Dadas’s compulsive traveling allegedly began after he deserted from the French army near Mons in 1881. From there, he walked east to Prague, then to Berlin, then through East Prussia, and finally to Moscow. There, he was arrested—a czar had just been assassinated and Dadas had the misfortune of being mistaken for a member of the responsible political movement—and forced to march to exile in Turkey. In Constantinople, he was somehow rescued by the French consulate and put on the road to Vienna, where he again took up work as a gas-fitter.

Dadas’s story publicized several other cases of dromomania in France, Russia, Italy, and Germany at the time, but the epidemic seemed to die out by 1909, when psychologists started to actively investigate it. Canadian philosopher Ian Hacking, author of Mad Travelers: Reflections on the Reality of Transient Mental Illness, suggested that the compulsion to travel was an instance of dissociative fugue, a type of dissociative disorder in which a person experiences amnesia and ends up in a place with no memory of how they got there.

4. Koro, a.k.a. Genital Retraction Syndrome

People with koro have an irrational fear that their sex organs are retracting into their bodies. (Western medical literature often uses the term genital retraction syndrome.) A 2023 study in the journal Health Psychology Research reports at least 12 koro epidemics since 1969. Psychologists consider koro a “culture-bound” syndrome, meaning that it’s more prevalent in societies that place importance on sexual virility and reproductive ability, and where sexual performance is linked to social and marital value. Symptoms include severe anxiety (unsurprisingly) and the feeling of impending death or loss of sexual ability.

Most of the cases have occurred in Africa, China, and Southeast Asia. A koro outbreak in 1967 in Singapore affected about 500 people and lasted roughly 10 days. According to a later report in the Singapore Medical Journal, “It became a common sight to see men appearing at admission rooms with chopsticks and other mechanical aids tied to their sex organs to prevent retraction” [PDF].

Women have experienced koro and often manifest the fear that their breasts or vulvas are disappearing into their bodies, but for obvious reasons, men are the most likely sufferers. The epidemics tend to follow periods of social tension or widespread anxiety, but in some societies, the causes are more mythical. Chinese folklore warns that female fox spirits can steal a man’s virility, and some African cultures have blamed witchcraft.

5. Motor Hysteria

From about 1400 to 1700, in convents across Europe, epidemics of “motor hysteria” erupted among the nuns. Women allegedly exhibited signs of demonic possession, others acted out in sexually disturbing ways, and the inhabitants of one convent took to mewling like cats and trying to claw their way up trees.

One of the final outbreaks even ended in death. In 1749, a woman at a convent in Würzburg, Germany, was beheaded on suspicion of being a witch after a period of mass fainting, foaming at the mouth, and screaming. Usually, however, these episodes ended in someone calling in a priest for an exorcism.

Sociologist Robert E. Bartholomew attributes the waves of medieval motor hysteria to factors common to the isolated religious communities [PDF]:

“Young girls typically were coerced by elders into joining these socially isolating religious orders, practicing rigid discipline in confined, all-female living quarters. Their plight included forced vows of chastity and poverty. Many endured bland near-starvation diets, repetitious prayer rituals, and lengthy fasting intervals. Punishment for even minor transgressions included flogging and incarceration. The hysterical fits appeared under the strictest administrators.”

The motor hysteria usually occurred as a culmination of stress and anxiety building up over time in the pressure-cooker environment of the convents.

A version of this article was originally published in 2012 and has been updated for 2024.