By the time Fachruzio Alfarisi graduated high school last year, he'd seen a lot. There's nothing more memorable, however, than seeing six of his classmates collapse on the ground, sob uncontrollably, and shout at the top of their lungs in his senior year. Fachruzio knew immediately what was going on: his friends were possessed by an evil spirit.
Students being possessed is strangely a common occurrence in Indonesia. It happens everywhere from bigger cities like Jakarta, Bandung, and Yogyakarta, to small towns like Lingga, Payakumbuh, and Malili. These incidents get in the way of school activities, sometimes to the point where students are told to stay home instead. At-school possessions usually happen to only one to a handful of students at a time, but there have been instances where hundreds of students were allegedly overcome by evil spirits at once. Often, school officials respond by inviting a cleric to conduct exorcisms.
That day, Fachruzio helped carry his possessed friends to the school’s mosque. After they regained consciousness, Fachruzio returned to class but began to feel a strange sensation all over his body. At this point, he was convinced he should do nothing but read verses from the Holy Quran.
“I told my friends that I was being possessed too, but no one believed me, probably because I looked really calm," he told VICE. "After that I called my mom and had her read me the Kursi verse, because it was really hard for me to read it myself at the time.”
Soon after, he said that he lost consciousness. According to his friends, Fachruzio was shrieking and writhing for a half hour, until he finally calmed down and opened his eyes.
Fachruzio said many believed that the incident that day was caused by a ghost from a nearby university who had also possessed female students from the high school at a dance competition a few days earlier. But psychologists think there's another force at play here: stress-inducing standardised tests.
When psychologists from the University of Indonesia conducted a study in 2007 on a high school in Bandar Lampung where four students had been possessed, they found that each of the students had experienced varying degrees of anxiety and depression at the time of the incident. To the experts, the students' mental health condition was probably a more likely explanation to why the students fell into a hysteria.
Siswanto, a psychology professor at Soegijapranata Catholic University in Central Java, came to the same conclusion after years studying mass hysteria cases in Indonesian schools. He said that what Indonesians call a demonic possession is really a symptom of Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), as outlined in the World Health Organization’s International Classification of Diseases 11.
“In areas with a strong religious influence and a strong belief in the supernatural, possessions are understood to be caused by external factors like spirits,” he told VICE.
So why does this happen so often in schools? Siswanto said the timing and the victims of these incidents offer a clue. So-called possessions usually happen to final year students in high schools between September and February—the six-month period before the exams that take place in March.
The exam season is a highly stressful time for students, because failing the tests means having to stay in school another year to retake them. Each year, the pressure from these tests are so high that last year some students even wrote, on the comment section of the Ministry of Education and Culture's Instagram account, that the tests made them want to die. Though incidents of possessions can happen anywhere and to anyone, Siswanto said that middle and high school students face an enormous pressure during their senior year because the country's education system relies heavily on students' test scores.
“With students, becoming possessed can be a reaction to the harsh environment,” Siswanto told VICE. “Remember the time when the national exams was the sole determining factor of graduation? Each district put pressure on teachers, who put pressure on students. They were forced to study every day. They were all stressed out. They faced more pressure at home, too, so they didn't have anywhere to channel their stress."
The terror of national exams nearly ended in 2015, when former Minister of Education and Culture Anies Baswedan, who is now Jakarta's governor, ruled that passing the exams were no longer the only graduation requirement. When Muhadjir Effendy replaced Baswedan as minister in 2016, the exams were almost cut entirely. But the plan was canceled because the government was afraid that students wouldn't be motivated to study if the national exams were abolished.
Judging from how rampant these incidents of possessions are in Indonesian schools, it seems like what the students need are not mass prayers before an exam, or exorcists on stand by. But unless the government comes up with new, less-stressful ways to test students, there will always be stories just like Fachruzio's.