Reports of a ghostly figure and a demonic presence in a Malaysian school have triggered what seems like mass possession – but could cultural pressures be to blame?
Last week, a school in Kota Bharu, Malaysia shut down after reports of a “black figure” stalking the corridors. An image of the supposed apparition, caught by a student, circulated on social media, while more reports of supernatural incidents spread. Speaking to the local newspaper Sinar Harian, a student explained how he felt numbness in his limbs and his mind “was all over the place”. A teacher claimed she felt a “heavy” presence hanging over her, while others said a “black figure” pursued them.
Approximately 100 students and staff members at SKM Pengkalan Chepa 2 school in Kelantan are said to have been affected in what is being reported as an incident of ‘mass hysteria’. “Our students were possessed and disturbed (by these spirits),” said another student. “We are not sure why it happened. We don’t know what it is that affected us.”
“But the place is a bit old, and these children can be disobedient and sometimes throw their rubbish around the school grounds. Perhaps they hit some ‘djinns’ and offended the spirits,” she added (djinns is local language for ghosts).
The school was closed and Islamic authorities were called in to perform prayers to contend with the mysterious presence, while the education board brought in counsellors to deal with both students and staff. SKM Pengkalan Chepa 2 reopened last Sunday, but Free Malaysia Today reports continued incidents of screaming and shouting.
Mass hysteria, also known as mass psychogenic illness (MPI), is characterised by more than one person spontaneously developing hysterical physical and emotional symptoms, manifested out of false or exaggerated beliefs within their group. This isn’t to be confused with collective behaviour, like fans fainting at Beatles concerts in the 60s or people speaking in tongues in the megachurches of Bible Belt America. Nor is it concerned with false beliefs in things like the moving statues in Ireland or Romany gypsies performing alleged miracles in eastern Europe. How we catch common colds, conjunctivitis or chlamydia is all easily explained by simple science. But illness brought on by near-impossible events – demons, anthrax, mass gassing – on a large population? It’s a little more contentious.
Outside of Malaysia, there have been countless cases over the last century. Belgium saw a plethora of schoolgirls faint after drinking Coca-Cola, prompting the company dumped over half a million drinks, despite the fact that the products came from several different manufacturers. In 1962, Tanzania was hit with a ‘laughter epidemic’, with more than 90 students affected over the course of a year. And of course, the Salem witch trials illustrate one of the best-known and deadliest cases of social paranoia, where girls’ seizures couldn’t be explained by contemporary science and were blamed on witchcraft. The seizures ended after 20 people were executed and more than 100 imprisoned.
What’s happening in the Malay state isn’t an isolated incident. Simon Wessely, a British psychiatrist and director of the King’s Centre for Military Health Research at King’s College London, reflects on the “hundreds” of similar episodes he has come across in Malaysia across 30 years of studying the psychological phenomenon. “These incidents come in waves, actually, and I think we might be in the middle of another one. I would think hundreds is certainly a correct word,” says Wessely. Despite ‘hysteria’ being a term etymologically rooted in chaos and panic, mass hysteria follows a very curious sense of uniformity.
Wessely explains: “The background is always terribly familiar in that it’s Malay girls who live at home and then, at 12, are sent some distance away to Muslim, single-sex boarding schools. They’re separated from their families and in a very regimented environment – it’s like reading 1984. From time to time, girls start to express dissatisfaction, but they don't have any normal ways that you might have of communicating displeasure, to either the teachers or the parents.”
This is when the symptoms begin: “Fainting, collapsing, funny neurological symptoms, but also more culturally bound conducts like possession, with djinns and spirits.” Wessely says schools are a natural habitat for mass outbreaks of conversion disorder, as they’re a fairly closed environment, populated by close-knit cliques. It usually begins with one person collapsing or exhibiting unusual physical symptoms, from there rumours spread and anxiety mushroom clouds itself through the hallways. Symptoms of anxiety include a racing pulse, chest pain, breathlessness. The rumour mill doesn’t help this, though, and the probable cause becomes shrouded in chaos and hysteria as one fit turns into dozens, or hundreds.
It’s then that this strange behaviour becomes a subconscious bargaining technique, one that has become a quite successful means for negotiating strenuous living conditions with authority, according to Wessely. The Malay territory of Kelantan is strictly religious, and spirits and demonic entities are a widely accepted belief. In this case, the school has allegedly performed exorcisms and prayers – more or less giving authority to the supernatural claims. “It’s become an almost recognised way of dealing with their concerns without either side backing down, as it were, and it’s become ritualised,” says Wessely. He recalls an incident where students held a Malay teacher hostage at knifepoint, but they were released without charge when they blamed the supernatural. Another incident saw a prolonged case of mass hysteria when a principal was sexually abusing female students, only ceasing when he was sacked. School children’s qualms are legitimised, without consequences for their behaviour that’s meant to be beyond their control.
Elsewhere, mass hysteria has been linked to deeper structural problems: experts are certain what was first thought to be widespread illness among garment workers due to contaminated water in a Bangladeshi factory was an incident of MPI. It began with 450 workers and spread to other factories with up to 1,000 employees falling ill, spurned by psychological stress and vulnerability in questionable working conditions. The building collapse in Rana Plaza in 2013, which killed more than 1,000 workers, has contributed to an environment of sheer fear.
“It’s become an almost recognised way of dealing with their concerns without either side backing down” – Simon Wessely, psychiatrist
Mass hysteria cultivates as “transient and benign”, according to Wessely, where there tends to be a subconscious means to an end. But there’s always a ‘stressor’ that triggers the first reaction.
Others are sparked by outside rumours of epidemics, spurned from hearsay and consequences of the local political or social climate. In the western world, Wessely’s research has shown that many alleged instances of chemical poisoning in the last few decades could be attributed to mass hysteria – “as much as ten per cent,” he says. They fit with cultural fears of society: “Chemical warfare, terrorism, Bin Laden, were high on the list. And certainly, after 9/11, there was an increase in these episodes in America, then there were the white powder incidents of alleged anthrax poisoning.” A huge epidemic of unexplained illnesses in 1983 that ended up involving the UN closed dozens of schools in the West Bank, after claims that Palestinian schoolgirls were poisoned by Israeli soldiers.
Mass psychogenic illness has also been more and more linked to teenage girls, with one of the most famous incidents playing out in the film The Falling, starring Maisie Williams. The Carol Morley-directed film bases itself on similar accounts of mass hysteria, tracing a fictional epidemic that akes hold following the death of a student at a London collegiate school in the 60s. In a piece in the Guardian, Morley examines the power of the ‘group activity’, recalling an incident of overbreathing at a school in Blackburn in 1965 that hospitalised 85 girls, initially blamed on poisonous gases and food poisoning. The Falling explores the nuances of the female collective, the pressures of conforming in school, and how the repression of sexuality contributed to their fate. Wessely attributes the high numbers of women to the imposing pressure placed upon young girls in single-sex schools, as well as “different kind of gendered reactions”. “There’s a known bias,” he explains. “But, then again, there are male episodes happening in army camps.”
Social media and the power of the press are also certainly responsible for some widespread inflation of mass hysteria. A 2012 incident in LeRoy, New York – or the ‘ticking town’ as it became known – saw a group of cheerleaders putting videos of their fits on social media after they began developing twitches, tics and slurred speech. “The girls went on (local TV) and had their tics, and every bloody neurologist in America starts in, so what was happening became more entrenched,” observes Wessely. A New York Times article delved into the lives of each individual girl, revealing the not-so-happy veneer that was originally portrayed before they developed their tics. Health officials had ruled out environmental issues – investigated by environmentalist Erin Brockovich – and a 1970 chemical spill. Doctors later diagnosed one of the girls with Tourette’s syndrome, the likely precursor for the mass illness. But with the strength afforded to the recent case in Malaysia with Snapchats and tweets providing so-called proof of demonic intent, MPI can travel beyond the close-knit groups it once plagued.
Wessely points to the most known recent case at Ripon School in Yorkshire, where 40 pupils were treated after an Armistice Day service. Speaking to The Guardian about the ‘domino effect’, David Winspear of the North Yorkshire fire service said that a handful of children fainted, with the rest developing symptoms driven by anxiety that rippled through the school. Wessely says: “The fire service summed it up: ‘I think people got a bit stressed out’ which is a beautiful way of describing it, and it all stops. Mass hysteria is a popular phrase – mass sociogenic illness would be more suited, but that doesn’t sound quite as bad then, does it?”