I wrote this post almost a year ago, but never got around to putting it up. We haven’t reached “exorcism season” yet at my school, but I have heard from some friends that it has already started up at their schools. For more background on this, check out this article when you finish the post.
As I mentioned in an earlier post, my school experienced an epidemic of students becoming “possessed by evil spirits” during this past semester. Seriously. It began happening shortly after the carnival parade. That following Monday at school, I had this exchange with some fellow teachers:
Teacher: Where were you?!
Me: Uh..right here in the teacher’s office. Why?
Teacher: You missed it!
Me: Missed what?
Teacher: The student…he fell and his brain became empty and something entered his brain.
Teacher: A spirit entered his body and someone had to come remove it.
Me: You mean, he was possessed?
Teacher: Yes! You missed it.
Me: Why didn’t anyone come get me! The next time a student is possessed, I want to see it!
It then continued happening throughout the next month. And, yes, I finally got to see it. The student laid on the floor in paralysis while other students attempted to ‘temporarily exorcise’ the demon by pushing and pulling and smacking his body until he woke up. It was pretty jarring to see this and I have been in search of what is going on ever since.
When I asked my fellow teachers why the students were becoming possessed, I was told that during the carnival parade some students did a traditional Javanese performance of Kuda Lumping. To perform Kuda Lumping, a special mineral is burned and the smoke is then spread on the performer and wooden horse in order to welcome the spirits that put the performer in a trance to perform the dance. According to my fellow teachers, some of the performers were still under the control of the demons by the time we returned to school on Monday. It was also suggested that possibly a student had brought some of the mineral to school and burned it around other students. When I asked why they would burn this mineral to begin with since, you know, it brings evil spirits, I was told that it was because it was part of the traditional performance, so they had to.
Over the following months, I have continued to think about this strange phenomena and what the possible cause of it was. Was it the mineral causing some odd mental reaction? Was it purely psychological? Were the kids just not drinking enough water?
Amy and I were rereading some old issues of the New York Times Magazine (next to Mexican food, NYT Magazine is the thing I miss most about home), and we came across an article from last spring that discussed the group of girls in New York that were suddenly expressing signs of Tourettes with a number of other facial, vocal and expressive tics. The article gave a number of physical potential causes for this outbreak, but also mentioned a possible psychological cause: Conversion Disorder.
Conversion Disorder is the manifestation of stress, or other outside influences, into physical disabilities. After further reading on Conversion Disorder, many of the symptoms that my “possessed” students show, are the same temporary physical disabilities caused by Conversion Disorder, such as fainting and stiff limbs. Conversion Disorder also is found to affect mostly teenage girls, which is the majority of the cases we’ve seen here.
My reaction after reading about Conversion Disorder is that it seems like the Javanese culture and its hundreds of years of belief in “demon possession” and animism has created an environment where children believe that possession is real, believe in its causes, symptoms and effects, and allow those beliefs to manipulate their bodies when triggered by one of the “causes,” stress, or an outbreak of other students experiencing this.
I haven’t been able to find any specific research on this phenomenon in Java, yet; but I think it would be a gold mind for psychology researchers.