Mass hysteria: Students need a break, not a bomoh

APRIL 25 ― Don't you think there's a lot of anger flowing around this island? Kind of a pubescent volatility? ― Nicolas Cage

It could happen to any one of our children, too.

Throughout history, there have been many cases of what’s commonly known as mass hysteria. Here’s some I found online:

― 1566 ― Amsterdam (Holland), over two dozen boys and girls have strange fits and violent spasms

― 1673 ― Hoorn (Holland), group of children start screaming, shouting and barking like dogs

― 1893 ― Valle (Austria), girls have convulsions and scream

― 1973 ― Singapore, 33 female employees went hysterical in a factory, followed by another incident in another factory in which 12 female workers also suffered hysteria; a similar outbreak occurred in the same factory again in 1979 with 20 women affected

― 1977 ― Singapore, 16 female telephonists started screaming inside the Telecoms HQ

― 1980 ― Singapore, 48 students went hysterical in a secondary school

― 2005 ― Melbourne Airport, 57 workers hit with nausea, heart palpitations and dizziness

― 2004 ― Buffalo, New York, 31 choir members (then, later, 26 students and 4 teachers) fell sick apparently due to a “strange odour” which was eventually shown to be non-existent

― 2005 ― Iowa (USA), about a tenth of the student population of an elementary school suffered fatigue, headaches and dry throats for no apparent biological reason; in Missouri, 29 students had to be sent home when red blotches appeared on their upper bodies. Again no cause was ever found

The pattern?

Well, imagine hundreds of puberty-pumped girls stuck in classrooms (or ergonomically weak work places or nunneries) day in day out, with every authority figure warning them about the dangers of not performing well in exams or productivity, with strained friendships, with sexual/identity issues, with loads of tight-ass rules restricting their behaviour and ― of course ― with a morbid upbringing of folk tales about pontianaks, pochongs and spectres.

What will we have? Voilà! An increased likelihood of at least some of them experiencing the phenomenon we’re seeing in Pengkalan Chepa ― mass hysteria.

What is actually “happening” to the victims?

In virtually all the above cases, stress is severe and continuous, without adequate outlets for release. In 1906, there was an outbreak of hand tremors at a school in Chemnitz, Germany. Guess when the cases started happening? After hours of repetitive writing drills. Duh, and heads-up Chinese schools.

Also, many cases in Malaysian schools happened a) during or near examinations, b) right after major events or catastrophes (e.g. floods, Sports Day, etc.) and c) in religious schools where ― sorry, but I’m going to say it ― repression and rules are tighter.

Medical sociologist Robert E. Bartholomew even recounts an outbreak in Alor Setar in the mid-1980s involving 36 students suffering for about five years until their parents transferred them out of their religious school.

But this isn’t a solely Islamic problem at all. In 1491, a group of nuns in Cambrai, France, scampered through the fields barking like dogs. Something similar happened in the Spanish town of Xante in 1560, where nuns bleated like sheep, tore off their veils and had convulsions in church.

Maria, in The Sound of Music, is one of the lucky few advised by her superior in the nunnery to “climb every mountain.” We can be assured that adventures in the outside world aren’t exactly a regular thing at such places. I kinda doubt our religious schools teach their kids to “follow every byway, follow every rainbow, until you find your dream”?

I’m not saying let’s ban every monastery and religious school, but let’s face it not everyone can handle strict discipline, rules, devout behaviour enforced with punishment and so on.

Least of all, mass hysteria victims, who are usually adolescents or workers in high-pressure situations (which suggest a more vulnerable class.). In many cases, the onset of puberty and the psychological conflicts associated with identity-formation may make a stressful situation even worse. Throw in the tendency of adult know-it-alls to say, “Stop the BS and just act like matured kids!” each time young people rant or vent, and we have a recipe for disaster.

Like a wound-up spring, stress can reach a point where our motor neurons are affected and we basically lose control of our ability to maintain “socially acceptable” behaviour. This (at least partially) explains the screaming, shouting and crying often associated with mass hysteria.

Other cases, though, involve itches, rashes, nausea, dizziness, i.e. symptoms of physical sickness.

In 1982, 57 students in West Virginia (USA) suffered itching and rashes which disappeared when students left the school but returned when they re-entered the building. Same thing in South Africa, in 2000, where more than 1,400 students affected by itching and rash, most of which ended when they returned home.

That’s psychosomatic to the core. The scars in the mind are reproduced in the body.

I have a friend whose skin turned white after he and his family had to run down from one of the still-standing Highland Tower blocks in 1993 for fear of it collapsing. A similar term is called conversion disorder, where mental stress is converted into physical symptoms.

So in the case of West Virginia and South Africa, clearly those students associated their school with high trauma, such that the act of physically leaving the premises helps.

How does it spread?

Finally, mass hysteria victims are usually enclosed within close proximity.

Notice that the afflicted are always insiders ― never outsiders. To use the Pengkalan Chepa example, it should be telling that the journalists themselves are never prone to fits, screaming or seeing a black Spiderman behind the pillar.

This gives us an idea about how such disorders spread i.e. by suggestion and mimicry. Less extreme examples are like how gossip turns a group of individuals into a monolithic blob (with everybody acting alike) or in a bus or plane when there are problems, always a good chance of a mob effect taking place.

When a few dozen people are “primed” to go mad, all it takes is one or two individuals to trigger everything off.

In a sense, mass hysteria is a mob effect in which instead of folks wanting to destroy things, we have folks expressing anxiety and sadness through their unusually alienated bodies.

Even if I’m only, say, 70 per cent stressed up, merely witnessing a close friend of mine suddenly have red blotches all over, or hearing another claim that a long-haired girl demon was seen in Room 3.6 or seeing two people shake all over like bad copies of a Jennifer Lopez dance routine can push me over the edge, too.

So maybe “spreading” is a less accurate word than “triggering”?

De-hystericalising schools?

So, bottom line: Pent-up stress, sadness, anxiety and “all work no play” leads to a higher risk of (young) people who lose their minds, a dire message “displayed” via the body.

The thing is, we’re not going to get mass hysteria from kids visiting Legoland or Petrosains anytime soon. I doubt we’ll see mass hysteria from kids in home-schools (where the learning environment is presumably more relaxed, casual and flexible) or private international schools (where there are loads of activities).

It’s also rare to see managerial executives suddenly howling like wolves at a meeting (unless they’re in a team-building workshop which, yeah, does resemble mass psychosis at times…).

This is because in the corporate world, whilst work-related stress is high, there is much autonomy involved i.e. folks can take a 20-minute vaping break almost whenever they want or look forward to a two-week vacation in Sapporo.

Of course, there are cases where executives do “snap”, but my point is that it never leads to collective snapping due, again, to better work conditions, better pay, greater independence, etc.

If educators learn nothing else from such events, at least remember that if institutional learning isn’t at least a little bit fun and independently motivated, we risk our children acting like the non-humans in Jungle Book.

Parents and teachers, time to check on our children’s psychological environment. Do they get sufficient play? Can they vent safely? Are they being made to follow rule after rule after rule without which they are sent on guilt trips?

Are they pressured to perform and/or made to feel as if the difference between scoring 80 and scoring 90 for Maths is life and death?

I’m guessing our Education Ministry needs to take these questions seriously, too. Deputy Minister of Education Chong Sin Woon ― in commenting about the Pengkalan Chepa incident ― said that when it comes to allowing any schools to close, the first priority is whether it will affect the students' studies.

I’m like, maybe the pressure of studies is what caused the problem in the first place?

Further reading

Teoh, J., Soewondo, S., & Sidharta, M. (1975). Epidemic hysteria in Malaysian schools:  An illustrative episode. Psychiatry, 38(3), 258.

Bartholomew, R. E. (2012, July-August). “Mystery illness” in Western New York: Is social networking spreading mass hysteria? Skeptical Inquirer, 36(4), 26+

Bartholomew, R. (2014). Strange Tales from the Classroom. Skeptic, 19(3), 28-31, 64.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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