The mystery of screaming schoolgirls in Malaysia
Well, it's no accident that it's called "hysteria". (Is that still a PC term to use in medical settings, I wonder?)It was a quiet Friday morning last July when pandemonium broke out at a school in north-east Malaysia. Siti Nurannisaa, a 17-year-old student, was at the centre of the chaos.
This is her account of what happened.
The assembly bells rang.
I was at my desk feeling sleepy when I felt a hard, sharp tap on my shoulder.
I turned round to see who it was and the room went dark.
Fear overtook me. I felt a sharp, splitting pain in my back and my head started spinning. I fell to the floor.
Before I knew it, I was looking into the 'otherworld'. Scenes of blood, gore and violence.
The scariest thing I saw was a face of pure evil.
It was haunting me, I couldn't escape. I opened my mouth and tried to scream but no sound came out.
I passed out.
Siti's outburst triggered a powerful chain reaction that ripped through the school. Within minutes students in other classrooms started screaming, their frantic cries ricocheting through the halls.
One girl fainted after claiming to have seen the same "dark figure".
Classroom doors slammed shut at the Ketereh national secondary school (SMK Ketereh) in Kelantan as panicked teachers and students barricaded themselves in. Islamic spiritual healers were called to perform mass prayer sessions.
By the end of the day, 39 people were deemed to have been affected by an outbreak of "mass hysteria".
Mass hysteria, or mass psychogenic illness, as it's also known, is the rapid spread of physical symptoms such as hyperventilation and twitching among a substantial group of people - with no plausible organic cause.
"It is a collective stress response prompting an overstimulation of the nervous system," says American medical sociologist and author Robert Bartholomew. "Think of it as a software problem."
The mechanisms behind mass hysteria are often poorly understood and it is not listed in the DSM - the manual of mental disorders. But psychiatrists like Dr Simon Wessely from King's College Hospital in London view it as a "collective behaviour".
"The symptoms experienced are real - fainting, palpitations, headaches, nausea, shaking and even fits," he says. "It is often attributed to a medical condition but for which no conventional biomedical explanation can be found."
Transmission, he adds, "is largely due to psychological and social factors".
Robert Bartholomew spent decades researching the phenomenon in Malaysia. He calls the South East Asian country "the mass hysteria capital of the world".
"It is a deeply religious and spiritual country where many people, especially those from rural and conservative states, believe in the powers of traditional folklore and the supernatural."
But the issue of hysteria remains a sensitive one. In Malaysia, cases have involved adolescent girls from the Malay Muslim ethnic majority more than any other group.
"There's no denying that mass hysteria is an overwhelmingly female phenomenon," says Mr Bartholomew. "It's the one constant in the [academic] literature."
There's lots of photos from Malaysia to go with the story so you should follow the link, but can't miss this one:
An "anti-hysteria kit" costs more than $2000