KUALA LUMPUR, August 12 — A medical sociologist has dubbed Malaysia as the mass hysteria capital of the world, with Kelantan seen as the state most prone to outbreaks.
Robert Bartholomew, a United States medical sociologist and author who has reportedly spent decades researching mass hysteria in Malaysia, told BBC that mass hysteria was a “collective stress response” that leads to overstimulation of the nervous system.
“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,” Bartholomew said of Malaysia.
“It is no coincidence that Kelantan, the most religiously conservative of all Malaysian states, is also the one most prone to outbreaks.”
Kelantan on the east coast has been governed by Islamist party PAS for almost three decades since 1990.
BBC observed that mass hysteria in Malaysia affected Malay-Muslim adolescent girls more than those of other ethnic groups.
“There’s no denying that mass hysteria is an overwhelmingly female phenomenon,” Bartholomew was quoted saying. “It’s the one constant in the [academic] literature.”
Dr Simon Wessely, a psychiatrist from King’s College Hospital in London, United Kingdom, told BBC that transmission of mass hysteria was mostly due to psychological and social factors.
“The symptoms experienced are real – fainting, palpitations, headaches, nausea, shaking and even fits,” he was quoted saying. “It is often attributed to a medical condition but for which no conventional biomedical explanation can be found.”
BBC interviewed a 17-year-old student from SMK Ketereh in Kelantan named Siti Nurannisaa, who talked about fainting when she, while feeling sleepy in class, saw an “otherworld” filled with “scenes of blood, gore and violence”, and a “face of pure evil”.
Siti’s outburst reportedly triggered a chain reaction throughout the school as students in other classrooms started screaming within minutes, while one girl fainted after she claimed to see the same “dark figure”. A total of 39 people were affected by the “mass hysteria” outbreak last year at the government secondary school by the end of the day.
A Muslim spiritual healer, Zaki Ya, reportedly “treated” Siti.
“I’ve been guiding Siti and she has been getting better with my help,” Zaki Ya, who believes in jinn (shape-shifting spirits in Middle Eastern and Islamic cosmology), was quoted saying.
He reportedly showed a video of a girl he treated, who was depicted screaming and thrashing on the floor before she was restrained by two men. Zaki Ya then holds her head and chants Islamic verses, which appear to calm her down.
“Women are softer and physically weaker,” he told BBC. “That makes them more susceptible to spiritual possession.”
Zaki Ya reportedly acknowledged the role of mental health in many of his cases, but stressed the importance of the power of jinn.
“Science is important but it can’t fully explain the supernatural,” he said. “Non-believers won’t understand these attacks unless it happens to them.”
Clinical psychologist Irma Ismail from Universiti Putra Malaysia told BBC that Malaysian culture had its own take on mass hysteria, saying: “A more realistic approach is integrating spiritual beliefs with adequate mental health treatment.”