The Dancing Plague: The Strange, True Story of an Extraordinary Illness by John Waller
Waller provides a pretty straightforward account of the Dancing Plague of 1518, in which hundreds of people in Strasbourg, Germany, started dancing uncontrollably, stopping only when they collapsed out of exhaustion, and picking up where they left off when they woke. Many people died, others spent days or weeks in constant torment. It’s a fascinating story. Here are a couple interesting quotes, along with my commentary:
Deep in the subconscious minds of those familiar with the state of trance and possession, there is a kind of script, specific to their culture, which channels their feelings and actions. And just as importantly, the same beliefs that guide the trance also make the individual susceptible to it. In super-naturalist cultures, people succumb to the trance state because they expect spirits or demons to commandeer their souls. (84-85)
Waller joins many psychologists in explaining this phenomena as a kind of mass hysteria, where the activity itself stems from a cultural expectation. He argues that this particular dance was spurred by a particularly terrible run of harvests which left the poor even moreso, and up to their eyes in debt (often to the church). St. Vitus’ Dance, as the disease was known at the time, was seen as a punishment for the sinful city.
Not surprisingly, when people stop believing in possession and uncontrollable dancing, they stop being afflicted by it:
The demise of St. Vitus’ Dance is at one level easily explained. Afflictions that depend on the power of suggestion cannot survive without the beliefs that underpin them. Deprived of the supernaturalism on which it subsisted, choreomania was starved out of existence. (187)
Waller goes on to trace the path of uncontrolled physical diseases (like hysteria, PTSD, and the like) that manifest psychological distress. He argues these are all of a piece, and that the society one grows up in determines the expression of these illnesses.
Modern possession rituals also reveal how powerfully the participant’s thoughts and actions are guided by their culture’s beliefs and expectations; in fact, some experts argue that trance is nothing more than a state of extreme suggestibility…. The participants in Haitian Vodou rituals adopt the roles of specific deities drawn from a pantheon of gods with verying personalities. (211)
Of course, this is the explanation offered by many for the Haitian zombie phenomenon. Someone dosed with a tranquilizing drug, and raised in a society that believes zombification is possible might very well believe him/herself to be a zombie. But the notion that the expression of this trauma takes a shape determined, at some unconscious level, by the society around us reminds me a lot of the unconscious processes Burton describes in On Being Certain. We don’t know what strange ideas and habits float around below our consciousness.
Dancing through the night, largely heedless of bodily exhaustion, [ravers] reproduce at least some of the bizarreness of the dancing plague. In this limited sense we might see clubbing as the chemical equivalent of the original St. Vitus’ Dance. Certainly, anyone unconvinced that an altered state of mind could have impelled thousands of people in 1518 to dance for days on end will have their doubts dispelled by witnessing the modern-day clubbing phenomenon. (231)
Overall, it’s an interesting book, with solid research and storytelling, and interesting insight into the maladies of the past and the present.