Sometimes things happen that we can’t explain. I recently read an obscure reference to the “Dancing Plague of 1518.” I needed to learn more about this! 

Historical records document the growing epidemic of a dancing mania in Strasbourg. The phenomenon started in July 1518 with one woman, Frau Troffea silently twisting, twirling and shaking in the street for nearly a week. Soon other residents were pulled into fits of public dancing. By August, this dancing epidemic counted as many as 400 victims, many collapsing from sheer exhaustion, with some fatalities. The dancing plague in Strasbourg didn’t end until September when the remaining dancers were taken to a mountain top shrine to pray for an end to their suffering.

Across Europe in the 16th century, historical records recount similar dancing plagues in Switzerland, Germany and Holland, as well. Theories for the unexplained frenzy and physical movements included summer fevers, malnutrition, religious mania or even ingestion of a toxic mold that grows on damp rye grains and can produce spasms and hallucinations. In later years, theories for the dancing plague ranged from mass hysteria to neurological disorders.

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Saint Vitus, a young Christian martyr born in Sicily and persecuted to death by Roman Emperors in the year 303, was credited with helping people suffering from epilepsy. The term St. Vitus Dance was used in the Middle Ages for people afflicted with involuntary movements.  In time, Saint Vitus became known as the patron saint of dancers, actors and performers.

Across the Atlantic Ocean, young women and adults exhibiting strange behaviors were accused of witch craft. The Salem Witch Trials of 1692-1693 document more than 150 people arrested and charged with a variety of crimes. Were these people really possessed by evil spirits or was a mix of personal grievances, religious intolerance and mass hysteria involved?

In 2012 in the small Western New York State town of Le Roy, more than 18 high school students developed twitches, tics and fainting episodes for months. Theories for the odd phenomena ranged from conversion hysteria to possible toxins in the water and soil from the sites of old factories. Strange!

Luckily, some unusual phenomena can be explained. Have you heard about the fainting goats in Tennessee? The breed of Myotonic goats first appeared in the U.S. in the 1880’s. The goats are bred for meat and milk but this particular breed is characterized by a hereditary condition, myotonia congenita, which causes the goats to stiffen or fall over when startled. Also known as Tennessee Fainting goats, Stiff-legged goats or Tennessee Wooden Leg goats, the muscles in their back legs tighten up and they topple over when something surprises or frightens them!

Just before the holidays, several news reports of homeowners hearing voices turned out to be hackers talking through the home’s doorbell and security cameras. Little children were frightened when strange male voices claimed to be “Santa” and “wanted to be their friend.” Creepy!

Last month, a husband and wife in North Carolina heard noises on the first floor of their home just after midnight. They called the police to report burglars rummaging around downstairs. The couple locked themselves in the upstairs bedroom and waited for the police to arrive. The officers searched the home and discovered that the Roomba robot vacuum had turned itself on and was repeatedly bumping into a wall at the bottom of the staircase!

This was not an isolated incident. Last spring, a woman in Oregon called police to report that someone was locked in her bathroom and making noises. Police officers responded, broke down the bathroom door and discovered a Roomba vacuum zooming back and forth across the floor. Weird!

Kim Kovach finds writing ideas and inspiration in surprising places.