Thursday, 29 May 2014

St Vitus Dance and modern hysteria

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There’s an interesting connection between hysteria and hardship, the two are often joined hand in twitching hand, inciting chaotic displays of macabre oddity.

One such hysteria was the dancing plague, or St Vitus’ Dance. People were overwhelmed by a compulsion to dance and would jig endlessly for days. The dance compulsion spread like a virus, a mania transmitted to cloud the unclouded and force them to move.

Some sufferers would travel from town to town, dancing and picking up more participants, caught in the thrall, infected by inexplicable hysteria.

Musicians were often called in to play, in the mistaken belief it would ward off this mania, which may well be the origin for the Pied Piper of Hamelin’s tale.

The image of joyful, compulsive dance rasps against the reality of sick people, compelled to join the muddled throng, dancing almost without volition. It sounds not unlike raves I’ve attended. There was always that toxic hour at a rave when the chill out tent teemed and the dancefloor thinned – but a determined core of the afflicted remained, a grunting and shuffling congregation who didn’t appear to be enjoying themselves but were hostage to their bodies’ determination to keep dancing on and on.

Testimony from two major European outbreaks in 1374 and 1518 suggest St Vitus’ dance outbreaks were violent, fatal affairs. Passersby who didn’t voluntarily join in were forced, even assaulted, if they attempted to deny the frenzied, unrelenting dance. Participants were herded into fields and halls as the musicians played on. Almost everyone kept dancing until they collapsed from exhaustion or succumbed to injuries. One person died with broken ribs – suggesting the outbreaks were less a rave and more a medieval mosh pit.

St Vitus' dance was not the only form of hysteria known at the time. Legend has it that a group of medieval French nuns developing a meowing and biting hysteria and others went into trances and screamed in response to the strict, sparse confines of convents.

We’ll never know what the St Vitus dancers felt while they were bopping along to pipes and lutes. Perhaps they found a moment of entrancement, not unlike the Sufis who whirl in a form of ecstatic meditation and reverence. It could have been a blessed release from their hardship, or may at least have originated as such.

Thought of this way, it makes sense that hysteria is hardship’s twisted reprieve. When we think of hardship, there’s a sense of enduring hopelessness, a cruelty or deprivation without end. No one ever really understands the reasons for their own suffering, but we all know that it always takes far too long to ease.

The dancers of 1374 and 1518 were beset by hardship. The 1374 St Vitus dance plague came on the heels of a catastrophic flood; in 1518 it emerged from the shadows cast by smallpox and starvation. Life was short and brutal, mere bleak flickers of futility.

Seen in such a grim light, hysteria almost looks like a holiday from awareness of our own mortality. It energises, and gives focus to lives dominated by unremitting misery. The human mind is astoundingly inventive under pressure. The Dancing Plague is just one of many outlets it has discovered for unbearable consciousness.

No joy or hope in life? Dance until you die.

Terrified that demons abound to torment humans to dance to their deaths? Dance to your death and hope where there are demons, so too are angels.

Bristling against restrictive societies that leave you without choice? Writhe rhythmically until you get relief from life itself.

Death and mania are the reprieve life couldn’t bring, or at least a confirmation that it will all soon be over.

Even without dances that cross days and towns, our mental and physical health are still highly sensitive to the community surrounding us, reacting unpredictably when under duress. 

The heighted stress wrought from extreme poverty, starvation, restriction, deprivation and catastrophic environmental damage is a known precursor to hysteria. While a community may be able to manage a single person in this state, it becomes an entirely different problem when large groups suffer under such duress.

When the community can’t step in to alleviate the trauma, the collective make themselves more susceptible to outbreaks of hysteria, and it can replicate like a virus through a weakened group, hell-bent on destroying them.

There are obvious parallels with today (without the meowing and dancing). Grandiose displays aside, the connections between extreme deprivation and plummeting mental health remain, as do rising concerns about climate change catastrophes and extreme poverty.

Perhaps we should put on our best dancing shoes.


Amy Gray

Amy Gray is a writer and broadcaster from Melbourne, Australia.

Follow her on Twitter @_AmyGray_