A school in northern Malaysia was forced to temporarily close after an outbreak of "mass hysteria" saw both pupils and teachers afflicted by fainting spells, numbness and weeping.
Sightings of a ghostly figure dressed in black were reported, as were screams coming from the grounds of the SKM Pengkalan Chepa 2 school, situated in the staunchly religious state of Kelantan.
Kamariah Ibrahim, a teacher, told the Astro Awani: “I saw a black figure, like it was trying to enter my body, but my colleagues were surrounding me, reciting verses from the Al-Quran.
“I felt like my head was bloating, I felt numb and tears kept pouring down my face.”
School principal Siti Hawa Mat told Free Malaysia Today the disturbances began last Monday, with 25 pupils suffering attacks and another 50 pupils and 11 teachers experiencing the same on Wednesday.
The school was closed from Thursday to Sunday and a number of Islamic traditional experts, scholars and witchdoctors were called to recite prayers and Quranic verses in the main hall, The Star reports.
But eight more pupils have been hit by the same hysteria since then, with one named Ina telling the channel: “I can’t explain how I got possessed, but I couldn’t move and fainted before I was revived by an uztaz [teacher].”
A senior school staff member told the BBC: “Our students were possessed and disturbed [by these spirits]. We are not sure why it happened. We don’t know what it is that affected us.
“But the place is a bit old, and these children can be disobedient and sometimes throw their rubbish around the school grounds. Perhaps they hit some ‘djinns’ and offended the spirits.”
Djinn are supernatural, invisible spirits mentioned in the Quran and Islamic mythology.
Also prevalent in Indian, Arab and Persian storytelling, the djinn are said to manifest in animal and human form at will and are largely hostile.
Sometimes spelled "jinn", the legend claims God made humans from mud and clay, angels from light and djinn from smokeless fire. It is claimed the djinn live in a parallel world where they can see humans but remain invisible to us.
Sociologist Robert Bartholomew told the BBC the incident was a “textbook outbreak” of mass hysteria, which tend to occur in small groups in enclosed surroundings including schools, orphanages and factories.
He added: “Malays are susceptible because of their belief in an array of spirits.”
Psychiatrist Scott D Mendelson believes the phenomenon of "mass hysteria" - often diagnosed as "conversion disorder" - is a psychiatric, rather than neurological disorder and occurs more often in women rather than men.
Blogging for the Huffington Post, he said: “It arises out of the way one uses his or her brain rather than from some lesion, infection or injury of their brain tissue. Yet it is critical to understand that victims of conversion disorder do not fake symptoms. They are convinced their physical symptoms are true, and their suffering is genuine.”
Referring to a 2012 case which affected 15 students afflicted with similar symptoms at Le Roy High School in New York [blamed variously on the HPV vaccine and a previous chemical spill], he wrote:
“The most famous incident of conversion disorder and mass hysteria may have been the series of Salem Witch trials in colonial Massachusetts. In that case, a group of young women began to exhibit symptoms very similar to those of the Le Roy girls. However, the religious and social beliefs of those times lent credence to the conclusion that witchcraft, not Big Pharma, was the cause of the girls’ symptoms. The girls even supplied names of those who were consorting with Satan, and as time went on the list of names grew longer. During the trials themselves, the intensity of their screaming and writhing in court was taken as evidence of the certainty of which the accused were actually witches. By the time it was through, the events in Salem led to the arrests of hundreds of citizens, the hangings of 19 innocent women and men, the deaths of four individuals in jail awaiting trial and the death of one very unfortunate Mr. Giles Cory, who was slowly crushed to death by rocks, whose placement was unsuccessfully used to coax him into testifying in court. The victims also included two dogs who were tried and hanged for being witches.”