All around the City today you will hear laughter, bubbling up in sporadic episodes across districts. Deep belly laughs emanate from within apartment blocks; folks hanging out their laundry on balconies suddenly grasp the railing, doubled over and letting out rasping chuckles; whole underground carriages are raucous exhibitions of mirth. Things that would normally illicit a titter or amused grunt result in great profusions of laughter. It’s been going on for 430 years.
In 1587, two years after a plague which wiped out a fifth of Buentoillitants, the City had still not fully recovered. There was a short period of economic stagnation due to the lack of workers, and constant fears that the plague would return. Plague districts were kept cordoned off for many months after the disease receded, and plague doctors were routinely monitored. The literature of the time is gloomy and apocalyptic, filled with depictions of societal collapse. It must have been a stressful time for everyone, especially the young who had little true understanding of matters. It’s thought by many cultural historians and scientists that this latent stress was a large contributing factor in the first Buentoilliçan laughter epidemic.
It started on the second day of March, in Dane Maleouwytzch’s School for Excellent Students, in a maths class. A young girl, reported variously as ‘Anna Iterna,’ ‘Jain Hytte,’ and ‘Kirsten Loveridge,’ began hysterically laughing to the point where she began to shed tears. Two other students, a girl and a boy, began laughing in a similar manner. Their teacher initially excluded the children from the class for disruption, making them sit outside as he thought that they were laughing at his expense, but he realised that there was something more deeply wrong when the rest of the class began to join in, and could not be stopped, no matter the exhortation or threat.
The laughter lasted for two weeks, coming in uncontrollable fits and bursts, and in that time it spread throughout the City, affecting almost everybody therein. At first it was reported by the papers as a fabrication by students, an attempt to get out of maths class, but the tone changed quickly when it began to affect adults too. In a particularly poignant example, a memorial for a number of plague victims was stuck by the epidemic, the entire congregation doubled over with maniacal laughter and tears streaming down their faces. The epidemic eventually stopped at the end of the two weeks, passing naturally after many religious rituals, blood lettings, potions and more conventional depressant medications such as laudanum had failed. It returned again the next year, on the same day, but this time did not last as long.
In the papers in the days leading up to the second laughter epidemic, there were various pieces written reminding City dwellers about the strange events of the previous year, leading to a sense of nervous anticipation surrounding the second of March. This was compounded by the annual mindset, excellent cultural memory and propensity for commemoration that Buentoillitants have, leading to the resurgence of the epidemic the second time around. By the third year there was no question; the laughter would return.
Today, with over four hundred years of distance, the epidemic is less potent, thanks in large part to the methods of control that have been honed over those years. Yet, as Dr Alice Lambers, head of medical science at de Geers University, explained last year to Scientific Buentoillitant Magazine, the event will probably continue to persist long into the future:
‘Laughter of this sort is usually a reaction to extreme instability and stress, and this is most likely the explanation for that first epidemic back in 1587; the children in that class were expressing subconscious psychological distress, especially as many of them would have lost parents and loved ones in the recent plague. The City had not yet come to terms with the enormity of the tragedy, and this, in combination with the sympathetic responses that we all have (think about how people mirror body language, especially in situations of social anxiety), would have enabled the spread of the mania. As for the repeated instances of the epidemic, anticipation produces very similar levels of psychological arousement to stress, especially when the subject of the anticipation is potentially worrisome. Alongside the effects of behavioural confirmation (i.e. laughter has happened every other year and therefore will this year), and the unique nature of the Buentoilliçan psyche, this anticipation leads to further epidemics each year, unfailingly.’
Nowadays the laughter is far less debilitating, and all Buentoillitants are taught coping strategies at school. The trick is to master the laughter by directing it towards something genuinely funny, thereby making it a ‘deep and true’ laugh, rather than one that is uncontrolled. Whilst this initially makes the laughter stronger, it means that the sufferer takes control of their symptoms and they eventually recede, rather than continuing on for days. Through a sustained campaign of information, the epidemic is usually contained to a single day a year, during which the City is no longer brought to a standstill. Other methods of treatment are ‘laughter exercise’ sessions held in many public spaces, where a leader has a large group laughing in unison, and many television comedies are released today, approved by the Municipal Health Service.
Today is also the festival day for the Union of Hilarious Persons, the group that represents stand-up comedians and other comic artists. The Union organises a number of shows in public spaces across the City, their own contribution to the health of Buentoille.
Other festivals happening today:
- The Festival of Hilarious Persons
- Forman Matreus’ Day of Half Price Comic Goods
- The Cult of the Dour Face’s Day of Seclusion