The digital reincarnation of a national bestseller by KIT LEEE (now known as ANTARES)

Saturday, October 27, 2007

The Hysterical Hostellite

It's one of those things you occasionally come across in the papers. A group of teenaged girls fresh from some kampong are put in a hostel. Often they're students in a religious school; sometimes they're assembly line workers in an electronics factory. But the reports are predictably similar: for no apparent reason the girls break out in hysteria, screaming and yelling and kicking out at anyone who tries to calm them. The attacks usually last an hour or so; then comes a bout of uncontrollable weeping, followed by sheer exhaustion. In most cases a bomoh has to be called in.

Ask the kampong folk or the bomohs what causes these outbreaks of spontaneous hysteria and they'll tell you solemnly that the girls were temporarily possessed by a local datuk - which, in this instance, refers to a regional spirit inhabiting an ancient tree*. The standard prescription for cases of spontaneous hysteria is a ritual cleansing of the place and, perhaps, appeasement of the restless datuk. Usually, this seems to do the trick. The victims return to normal and life goes merrily on. At least until the next attack.

Psychologists, of course, have tried to explain the phenomenon in Freudian terms with libido theory and whatnot. Since the syndrome apparently affects only post-pubescent girls living or working in somewhat regimented conditions, there may be a basis for this 'repressed sexuality' argument. There are famous case studies of young ladies in French convents who experienced similar attacks, requiring the urgent services of priest-exorcists. Demonic possession may sound a bit mediaeval to most of us - but not very long ago we had reports of mass hysteria among teenage girls in the U.S. Only the media dubbed it Beatlemania. It's pretty obvious, though, that hysteria has something to do with ovulation (in Greek hustera means 'womb').

Does hysteria occur among men? Yes, but it manifests differently with different social groups. At the bottom rung of male 'hysteria' is the amok tendency. The English once believed only Malays knew how to run amok. Not anymore. British soccer fans have put an end to that myth; and so have well-known cases of American males going berserk with high-powered rifles. And then there are the quiet, methodical berserkers who chop their wives into little pieces and make curries out of them. Others display symptoms of disciplined 'hysteria' by losing astronomical amounts at the races or in the stockmarket; or by ruining entire countries with bad government. With males the trouble seems to stem not from eggs but from ego.

What corollary can we draw from the Hysterical Hostellite's affliction? When dealing with difficult datuks you have to exorcise if you can't appease.


kampong - village
bomoh - traditional healer, witch-doctor
datuk - also written as dato': literally, 'grandfather'; the tutelary spirit of a particular keramat or sacred spot. Not to be confused with the more common, secular species of datuk whose influence on human affairs is more fiscal than metaphysical. 'Datukship' in this latter context is merely an honorific title bestowed on a select number of enterprising individuals.

*At the foot of most old trees you're likely to find a shrine. This marks the spot as 'keramat' - a power point - and usually denotes the private residence of a datuk. Be courteous and watch your thoughts when taking shelter under such a tree. Interestingly, the idea of old trees as repositories of spirits is encountered in all cultures, despite the efforts of orthodox ideologists to dismiss it as pagan superstition.

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