There is a movie, not a good movie, but a movie none the less, called THE WILD WILD WORLD OF BATWOMAN. The movie revolves around an evil guy called Rat Fink trying to steal an atomic hearing-aid. Like I said, it isn’t good. In the movie, there is a subplot about a pill that makes people dance uncontrollably. The craziest thing about the people unable to control their dancing is that it is the most believable part of the movie, because it happened.
On a Summer day in 1518, a woman we know only as Frau Troffea, began to dance through the streets of Strasbourg. Reports differ in how long Frau Troffea danced for – some say a few days, others say a week – but all agree that it was way too long to not be creepy. Adding to the creepiness were the 400 other people who began to dance wildly throughout the month of June. Some danced until they collapsed from exhaustion. Some danced until they died. The smarties of the day decided that these dancing fits weren’t being caused by supernatural means, but because those afflicted were suffering from “hot blood.” You read that right, these people were hot blooded, physicians checked it and saw. The answer, as agreed on by doctors and other authorities was to let these people dance until they could dance no more. The town even paid to have musicians play around the clock in guildhalls, hoping that it would tire out the dancers faster.
This wasn’t the first time a town found itself host to a dancing plague. Strasbourg has the best record of the event, but the problem started long before Frau Troffea was even born. Strasbourg was at the tail end of one of the last known outbreaks that first began in Aachen, Germany in 1374, lasting well over a hundred years.
Reports of a dancing plague go back to the 7th century, and they continue to pop up across Europe into the 17th century, when they suddenly stopped. Over time, more information has come to light – for a while, historians thought this plague only affected women, but reports of children and monks being afflicted have come to light.
Writer Robert Bartholomew, who has studied the phenomena for years, has found some interesting oddities in multiple accounts. The dancers would sometimes attack people who watched them, and found joy in having their feet hit. He also found reports that the dancers would become enraged if they saw the color red, though in his book A HISTORY OF MADNESS IN SIXTEENTH-CENTURY GERMANY, H.C. Midelfort notes that his research suggests that the dancers were unable to see the color red.
One thing is known, and that is that no one knows how it started, or why it ended, but there are plenty of theories as to why this ten century long dance-a-thon, but that hasn’t stopped people from theorizing.
Some believe it was a cult messing with people, cursing people to bust a move until they busted a lung. Some suggest that these people were fully in control of themselves the entire time and had planned these events, something akin to a Dark Ages flash mob.
Another theory is that the people who were infected by the groove had become so despondent that they entered catatonic states and danced as a way to escape the economic pains of the time (there are no reports of the dance plague hitting the upper classes, only those living in extreme poverty). Maybe these people were all just like Jennifer Beals in FLASHDANCE, all maniacs, maniacs on the floor, dancing like they never danced before. People way smarter than me have looked at ergotism, encephalitis, epilepsy, and typhus as possible answers, but none of them quite add up – they all share some symptoms, but not enough for historians and others to agree on.
To me, that is the scary part. For roughly a thousand years, people just started dancing and wouldn’t stop until they collapsed, leaving many dead, and we will never know why. Maybe tonight, as you lay in bed, looking at the glow of your phone, making sure your alarm is set so that you don’t wake up late, as you think about your finances, and how much time you’ll need to save up enough loot to buy that house, that car, that 4k TV, you’ll suddenly feel a twitch in your leg. A twitch that won’t stop. A twitch that spreads through your body, shooting you out of your bed and into the streets, gravel cutting up your toes, cars swerving to keep from hitting you. For days you roam the streets, convulsing uncontrollably. Sooner or later, you collapse, or maybe someone actually does something to help and calls for an ambulance. Maybe you survive. Maybe you die. Either way, your life would never be the same again.
I know, the chances of it happening are pretty low, right? I bet Frau Troffea thought so too.