News of the mass hysteria at SMK Pengkalan Chepa 2 in Kota Baru, Kelantan, has made headlines around the world. Social media sites have been abuzz with postings of a shadowy ghost-like figure taken on a mobile phone, which stoked fears and helped trigger the scare.
Some foreign journalists and bloggers have used the opportunity to criticise Malaysian society for their widespread belief in ghosts and spirits.
As a medical sociologist who has spent several years in Malaysia researching supernatural beliefs, nothing could be further from the truth. Studies in the United States consistently show that about one-third of the population believe in ghosts, and significant portions of Americans believe in Bigfoot and alien abductions.
Every society has a belief in otherworldly beings. To single out Malaysia is hypocrisy.
Shakespeare wrote: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
As a scientist, I require definitive proof of the existence of supernatural beings, but I must admit that there are happenings that 2016 science cannot explain. So who knows, perhaps there are jinn, toyol and hantu. Who am I to say?
Certainly, their existence is no less plausible than Western beliefs in similar beings.
However, I am confident that outbreaks of mass hysteria are not caused by any of these beings, if they exist. It is a well-known psychological phenomena caused by pent-up stress and coloured by cultural beliefs. The only way to stop it is to pinpoint the cause and eliminate or reduce the stress.
Mass hysteria is more common than most people realise. Western outbreaks are often hidden from view. Over my career, I have investigated five cases and published the results in scientific journals. Three outbreaks were in the US, one was in Canada; the other happened in Australia. In each instance, there was an effort by authorities to cover up the outbreak and keep it out of the media due to the stigma that is often attached to such episodes.
The point is: outbreaks are far more common in Western countries than are reported in the media or journals.
There are two main types of outbreaks. The first is anxiety hysteria, which is common in Western countries where there is a lack of pre-existing tension, and occurs frequently in schools and factories.
Most cases are triggered by an unfamiliar odour that is thought to be toxic and pose an immediate health threat.
Symptoms include headache, difficulty breathing, dizziness, fainting and fatigue.
Victims usually recover within hours. Symptoms commonly reflect the perceived cause. Incidents of suspected chemical exposure may result in itchy eyes, headache and over-breathing.
If there is no odour and food poisoning is suspected, complaints of stomach pain, nausea and diarrhoea are common.
Episodes typically persist from a few hours to a day, but may recur in waves if it is believed that authorities have not taken steps to reduce or eliminate the threat.
In non-Western countries, motor hysteria is common. The term comes from what doctors refer to as motor function. Under prolonged stress, the nerves and neurons that send messages to the muscles and the brain, malfunction.
The result is twitching, shaking, and convulsions that affect motor skills.
Hallucinations reflect cultural beliefs and may take the form of ghostly figures.
Occasionally, some students exhibit spirit possession. This age-old phenomenon has been recorded in all parts of the world and in different religious settings. It is a sign of extreme, long-term anxiety.
Outbreaks of motor hysteria build up slowly over time. As a result, they usually take several weeks to subside. Typically, the sight of one girl going hysterical is enough to send many of her classmates over the edge.
I cannot stress enough that this is not a conscious process and the girls are not faking it. These outbreaks signal to the wider community that something is amiss at the school; often it is unhappiness with what the students view as overly strict rules.
Summoning bomoh often proves to be effective, especially in small outbreaks.
However, if they fail, the effort can backfire because by inviting them in, they legitimise the supernatural origin of the outbreak.
Their presence can also undermine the credibility of the medical model.
There are several historical cases in Malaysia that have flared up and persisted for several more weeks or months, when bomoh were unsuccessful.
The most notorious outbreak in Malaysian history occurred at a girls’ school in Kedah in 1983, and endured in a waxing, waning fashion for five years until 1987, when former prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman went to the school and saw to it that the girls were transferred to a more liberal school. The outbreak quickly subsided.
Separating the students and closing the school for a few days while emotions cool down, has been the most common and successful strategy in countering cases in different parts of the world.
Actions that calm outbreaks include confident, firm reassurance by authorities as to the psychological nature of the episode, and countering rumours by keeping open communication with the affected community through responsible journalism.
In recent years, the use of social media has been influential in spreading fear during several hysteria incidents.
This also appears to be the case in Kota Baru.
The posting of a vague, shadowy figure on sites like Facebook appears to have stoked fears and led to the rapid spread of panic through the school.
The authorities should consider monitoring or temporarily shutting down social media at the school until the outbreak settles down.
Students should be cautioned against posting images of allegedly supernatural figures due to the potential emotional upset that they can cause.
In the past, students’ symptoms often subsided once they left the school grounds.
Nowadays, in the Internet and mobile phone era, they can access information and images from home. This can cause outbreaks to persist.
Studies of mass hysteria show that those affected are normal and mentally healthy, but under extraordinary stress.
Authorities should try to identify any underlying pre-existing tension that so often incubate outbreaks. Once the anxiety-generating stimulus has been addressed, and their concerns and fears have been reduced, life should slowly return to normal.
Above all, Malaysians should not have to feel that outbreaks somehow reflect negatively on the government or society.
Malaysia is a developed, 21st-century country. Mass hysteria is not a Malaysian issue, it is a global problem.
Outbreaks cannot be eliminated, but through education, we can make people aware that the answer to these outbreaks lies not in the supernatural world, but in the human mind.
Dr Robert E. Bartholomew teaches history at Botany College in Auckland, New Zealand. He holds a PhD in medical sociology from James Cook University in Australia, and is the author of ‘Mass Hysteria in Schools: A Worldwide History Since 1566’ (McFarland, 2014)