It started last week with several students and teachers of the school in the city of Kota Bharu claiming that they had seen spirits or had supernatural experiences. School authorities shut the school and called in Islamic traditional experts, scholars and even witch doctors in prayer sessions and “exorcisms”.
By Sunday, the school had reopened and school officials said things had gone back to normal – but questions remain and the case continues to generate intense interest in Malaysia. What happened? The school, SKM Pengkalan Chepa 2, is located in the highly traditional and religious state of Kelantan.
Last week, a small group of students began claiming they had seen a “black figure” lurking in the school. Soon, more students and even teachers claimed to have seen the same figure or experienced a supernatural presence. One teacher told local news channel Astro Awani that she felt a “heavy” presence was hanging on to her, while another claimed that a “black figure” was attempting to enter her body. A student meanwhile told newspaper Sinar Harian (in Malay) that he felt numbness in his hands while his mind “was all over the place”. About 100 people, mostly students, were affected, a senior school staff member confirmed to the BBC.
“Our students were possessed and disturbed [by these spirits]. We are not sure why it happened. We don’t know what it is that affected us,” she said.
“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. In a picture taken on August 16, 2010 a Malay Bomoh, or witch doctor, Pak Su holds up a bottle said to contain spirits to treat his patients on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur.
The school shut on Thursday and invited Islamic preachers to recite the Koran and conduct prayers in the school. Local education authorities are also sending counsellors to the school this week.
The Kelantan state education department did not respond to queries from the BBC. What is mass hysteria? Based on the media reports, Robert Bartholomew, a sociologist who has researched mass hysteria in Malaysia, called it a textbook outbreak in an email to the BBC. Mass hysteria or collective delusions are defined as the spontaneous and rapid spread of false or exaggerated beliefs within a population. Outbreaks usually occur in small, tight-knit groups in enclosed surrounding such as schools, orphanages and factories.
How common is it? Several famous cases of mass hysteria or collective delusion have been documented throughout history all over the world – including “dancing mania” centuries ago, in which people reportedly would start dancing uncontrollably for hours.
In 2012, LeRoy, New York made headlines with high school students developing strange tics and verbal outbursts with no obvious cause. Eventually the New York state department of health found that those involved – mostly girls – were suffering from conversion disorder, a form of mass hysteria.