A small group of students started claiming they'd seen a "black figure" lurking around the school. It didn't take long before more students and then teachers said they'd seen the figure or felt a supernatural presence. One teacher said she felt a "heavy" presence hanging onto her. Another said a "black figure" was attempting to enter her body. About 100 people, mostly students at the Malaysian school SKM Pengkalan Chepa 2, were affected in this mysterious incident. "Our students were possessed and disturbed [by these spirits]," a senior staff member told the BBC. "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, using a local reference to ghosts.
Eventually, school authorities shut the school down, sending everyone home. They called in experts—including witch doctors to do prayer sessions and exorcisms. On Sunday, the school reopened and things have since gone back to normal. But there's still intense interest in what happened there from around the world. It's understandable. How can a hundred people see something supernatural, sparked from one initial sighting? Is it psychological? Is it truly an unpleasant spiritual experience? Are the students simply lying?
Mass hysteria, or mass psychogenic illness (MPI) as it's now called, is defined as the spontaneous and quick spread of false or exaggerated beliefs within a particular population. Sometimes it's more than just a belief. Lines blur when symptoms become physical and all the more confusing and terrifying.
Although the phenomenon in this Malaysian school is a rare one, it's by no means an isolated case. Incidents crop up across the world every week. Outbreaks were particularly prevalent in schools and factories in Malaysia and Singapore throughout the 1970s. In one outbreak in a school in 1979, 48 students went hysterical. According to a news report, "Some cried, shivered, and started eating the grass and empty glasses, others stared into empty space with open eyes while performing a Tai Chi type of dance movement called the Kuda Kepang, an ancient Malay wedding dance. Some were restrained from their violent fits by the teachers."
It's happened in the UK, too; in 1965, 85 girls passed out in two hours in a Blackburn school; just last year in Lancashire, 40 students were treated with nausea and dizziness and four fainted. Both of these incidents were treated as mass psychogenic illness.
Robert Bartholomew believes the recent Malaysian school haunting is a classic case of MPI in a country where it is common. Bartholomew is a sociologist who has written a book on MPI in schools. "It doesn't surprise me that this outbreak is in Kedah, one of the more conservative and devoutly religious states," he says."A typical day at one of these boarding schools reads like a page from 1984, where every aspect of living is rigidly controlled and people are treated like numbers. Frustration and anger build over weeks or months. Under these circumstances in the stricter schools, strange behaviors tend to emerge. What is so extraordinary is that these shy, seemingly naive and politically powerless schoolgirls usually get their way, with outbreaks of mass hysteria drawing attention to what they see as unjust rules and poor living conditions. Episodes give a voice to the voiceless as community leaders and government officers will press school officials to ease rules." But it's no manipulation. "I cannot stress enough that this is not a conscious process and the girls are not faking."
Once a need for relief from oppressive circumstances is established, the drama can unfold. It usually starts with one person subconsciously acting out or cracking under the pressure. In the case of this most recent incident, Bartholomew says that the nerves and neurons that send messages to the muscles and the brain began to malfunction. "The result is twitching, shaking, convulsions, screaming, and hallucinations which reflect their cultural beliefs. This does not happen overnight, but slowly builds up over time to the point where they cannot stand it. Typically, the sight of one girl 'going hysterical' is enough to send many of her classmates over the edge."
"The school is abuzz with talk of demons roaming the hallways. Anxiety rises further and more girls enter trances. Classmates react by screaming, crying, and eventually fainting as they get dizzy from over-breathing. What follows is a ritual of rebellion that is part hysteria, part melodrama—a subconscious bargaining between the possessing demons and school officials." As a result of cultural beliefs held by those involved, authorities then act by sending in a bomoh or local witchdoctor. Bartholomew says that inviting them legitimizes the supernatural aspects of the outbreak, which only serves to prolong it.
"I am not going to tell Malaysians that there are not spirits," says Bartholomew. "That is a personal belief. What I would tell them, however, is that what is happening at these schools is unrelated to either religion or the supernatural. It is a psychological phenomena that needs to be treated with psychology. The same types of outbreaks that are happening at the school have happened in schools across Africa and Asia where those affected have an array of different religious and spiritual beliefs."
The wide global reach of MPI proves this. There is always a trigger and it always begins with a singular person or small group. Most outbreaks in western countries do not follow the pattern seen in Malaysia, however. They usually involve the sudden perception of a harmful agent that is deemed to be an immediate threat, for example, the detection of an unfamiliar smell. The students become ill with the symptoms of anxiety—over-breathing, headache, dizziness—and usually recover with a few hours. This is what happened in Lancaster last year. The only way to stop the hysteria from spreading in every case—whether it be a perceived gas leak or poisoned food or seeing a black figure—is to reduce the anxiety. Once fired up, this could take days or even weeks. There is effectively no limit to how far hysteria can spread. There are historical accounts from the latter Middle Ages of it taking over whole European villages of hundreds of people.
Bartholomew says that although this is an unpopular point to make, hysteria almost always involves women. "Some may call me sexist," he says. "But in the over 800 cases I have gathered since 1566, 99 percent of cases are majority female. Why? That is open to debate, but social factors may play a role, such as the way women are socialized. But it is beyond dispute that most victims are female." You can trace MPI back to the 1600s and onwards when women were killed under suspicion of witchcraft because they were showing signs of mass hysteria. In a 2008 article, John Waller, associate professor of the history of medicine at Michigan State University and author of A Time to Dance, A Time to Die: The Extraordinary Story of the Dancing Plague of 1518, wrote: "Most experts now think that… girls and women are more likely to succumb due to the frustrations of living in families and societies dominated by men. Others argue that hysteria offers distressed women a legitimate reason to 'check out' from the indignities of daily life."
Could there be something more that hasn't been learned from hundreds of years of these episodes? Do we need to pay more attention? In Le Roy, New York in 2012, a group of cheerleaders developed tics, swinging their arms and twitching. No one could agree on what had started the outbreak. Some blamed an old spillage from a train crash in the 1970s; others were suspicious of the new HPV vaccine. Eventually, the New York state department decided it was a conversion disorder type of MPI. "Conversion disorder really refers to people who've developed symptoms like paralysis, or movement disorder, so some kind of neurological symptom," Dr. Jon Stone, a professor of neurology and expert on functional disorders, told VICE. "The dominant idea over the last century has been Freud's: that the patient has converted psychological distress into a physical symptom. And they're presenting the physical symptom, instead of the psychological distress." Hence the conversion. As Stone is keen to press, conversion disorder is usually something that happens to a singular person. The idea that one or two people had conversion disorder which was passed from one to another through a form of mass hysteria is rare and unusual.
Interestingly, women are considerably far more likely to have conversion disorder, as well as have had MPI. Later reports on the Le Roy case claimed that the girls were under considerable stress at school and home.
In addition to this, any form of media coverage—as with the whirlwind around the Le Roy case—seems to exacerbate the symptoms. When kids at the school were discussing the girls and their symptoms and who was faking and who wasn't on Facebook, again, symptoms got worse.
Bartholomew has pressed the importance of understanding the mechanisms of MPI. He warns for the "potential for a far greater or wider global episode unless we quickly understand how social media is acting as the primary vector for conversion disorder. It's just a matter of time before we see outbreaks that are not just confined to a single school or factory or even region." In a world where Snapchatting footage of what may or may not be mysterious figure or a victim having a fit of tics would now be the norm, a school playground or singular village is no longer the limit.
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Thumbnail photo by Bibliothèque de Toulouse from Toulouse, France (Bâillement hystérique) [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons