Those Possessed By Demons?

The weighty Indonesian dictionary compiled by the Education Ministry defines kesurupan as “ possession by Satan or spirits, resulting in strange actions ”. It’s when people shriek and shake, purportedly because they are possessed by malevolent spirits.

Outbreaks of mass possessions are common in Indonesia. Victims are usually schoolgirls and female factory workers. Possessed people might behave like certain animals, or they could collapse in convulsions and speak in tongues.

As a Westerner who subscribes to the view that fairy stories are for people afraid of the dark, it’s hard to fathom supernatural superstitions that are enshrined in socio-cultural rituals. It’s too easy to cherry-pick anecdotes that indicate possessions are phony.

A few years ago, the finance officer of an Indonesian governance reform project decided to embezzle part of the foreign funding. Toward the end of the project, she realised auditors were closing in on her fraud, so she began a few days of increasingly frequent kesurupan antics to provide an alibi. Spinning around on her office chair, convulsing and screaming, she succeeded in freaking out her Indonesian colleagues. If the finance numbers didn’t add up, well, that was down to meddling spirits. The auditors were unconvinced, as the embezzlement had started several months before the acts of possession.

In January, a motorcyclist in Aceh province pretended to be possessed when stopped by police, as he was carrying marijuana, but he gave the game away by giggling. In Surabaya, East Java, a gang of thieves had a young woman pretend to be possessed on a roadside after midnight. When a motorcyclist stopped to offer help, the gang stole his bike. In Lampung, a man on trial for corruption began shrieking and weeping as if possessed, prompting the judge to suspend the trial. Similarly, a woman being tried in Batam for embezzling funds from a community empowerment project decided her best defence was to pretend to be possessed by a demon, resulting in the court summoning a dukun (shaman) to perform an exorcism.

So there are definite phonies, but some people are adamant that evil spirits are real. I once wrote an article on black magic and other supernatural issues in Indonesia. One sentence dismissed kesurupan as fake: “Schools are sometimes hit by possessions – wherein one student pretends to have seen a ghost or been possessed by a demon and starts behaving hysterically, then other impressionable students mimic this behaviour.”

A peeved believer responded: “It doesn’t happen every time, it’s not even once a decade, but at some points in your life. You’ll know someone who gets possessed, get possessed yourself, or at least know someone who witnessed it. And NO, we don’t pretend. I know ghosts are irrational, but what’s the reason behind pretending to be possessed? Do you get money? Do you get attention? Yes a bad one. What do you get anyway?”

Such trenchant questions merit a detailed response.

Why Do Possessions Occur?

1)      People are faking it. Why? To get attention or create a diversion. This may be the case with marginalised females suffering stress or the confines of a patriarchal society. Others might fake possession to avoid an exam or a stifling, repressively managed factory. Some fakers have criminal motives.
2)      People are afflicted by a dissociative disorder (such as a split personality) or some other mental illness. Or they could have epilepsy. Victims of demonic possessions display the symptoms of a recently classified disease called anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis. Categorised only in 2007, this disease is a form of brain inflammation. Symptoms include delusional thinking, disinhibited behaviour and spasms. While this could explain individual cases of possession, it’s unlikely a dozen schoolgirls or factory workers could all be afflicted by the same disease simultaneously. Unless they have all consumed some food or drink tainted by a hallucinogen. Some Indonesian mushrooms cause hallucinations, just as mouldy rye grain was touted as a cause of possession by witches in Salem, Massachusetts, in the 1690s.
3)      People have been raised to believe in ghosts and demonic spirits. This makes them susceptible to performing traditional trance rituals that gain attention and sympathy, and bring business, fame and credibility to healers or exorcists. People suffering societal inequalities or psychological problems may be more prone to acting possessed.
4)      Some Indonesians say factories are hit by possessions because of poor ventilation and stress, and strict foreign bosses,who do not allow sufficient levity or breaks. Others say possessions are due to poor diet (inadequate nutrition), stress, menstruation and insufficient exercise.
5)      Demons and evil spirits are real, lurking in trees, rocks, houses, cemeteries and other locations, eager to enter the bodies of weak females or willing males. This, of course, is preposterous nonsense. Supernatural spirits exist only in fertile imaginations, especially among people brainwashed into such beliefs.

Witchcraft

Spiritual possession is by no means unique to Indonesia. On the contrary, almost every major culture and religion has a history of possessions. There was widespread fear of witchcraft in Europe in the 1500s and 1600s, although skepticism was also strong. Consider the case of a boy named Smith from Leicester. In 1616, he accused nine people of bewitching him. All were convicted of witchcraft and hanged. King James later examined the boy and decided he had been faking possession. The judges were reported to be “somewhat discountenanced” upon learning they had hanged nine innocent people. About 40,000 people were executed for witchcraft during Europe’s possession craze, until rulers and religious leaders decreed possession was impossible.

Bangka Bewitchment

Rather than drum common sense into Indonesian students by explaining there’s no such thing as ghosts or evil spirits, schools often respond to possessions by calling in dukun or preachers to vanquish the spirits.

On Bangka Island, off the southeast coast of Sumatra, classes have been disrupted for over six weeks at State Junior High School 4 in Pangkalpinang city.  The trouble started in mid-February when dozens of girls in grades eight and nine suddenly started behaving hysterically during a morning break, causing staff and other students to panic. Fearing the possessions could spread, the principal, Arman, sent the students home early.

Over the following days, the possessions continued, usually affecting 10 to 20 students, including a few boys. The seizures lasted for only a few minutes and only took place only on school days.

Arman tried to solve the problem by having the troubled students home-schooled temporarily. He said the school was consulting with community leaders, education officials and religious scholars in an effort to stop the possessions.

Pangkalpinang Education Office head Suwardi urged the school to increase religious activities to equip students with faith. The local chairman of the Indonesian Ulemas Association, Zayadi, also called for more prayers and al-Qur’an recitals. He said religion would help to drive away the negative elements of the supernatural world.

In Australian schools, we never had any possessions. Instead, we had plenty of compulsory sports. And there were always crazes: marbles, yoyos, throwing tennis balls at each other. In Indonesian schools, there may be less emphasis on sport and fitness. This seemed evident a few weeks ago when I entered a school’s five kilometre foot race, open to students, parents, staff and friends. There were over 600 entrants. Despite being a middle-aged boozer lacking expensive sports shoes, I won without any serious exertion. I’m not suggesting there’s a definite correlation between possessions and a lack of sport, I just like boasting.

Perhaps fidget spinners could provide sufficient assistance to divert the attention of kids who might otherwise be possessed. Or perhaps with exams causing anxiety, being possessed is a good way to explain poor results or lack of inclination to study?

Tree Trouble

In North Sumatra province, dozens of students at a junior high school in Medan went into a mass possession during a Monday morning flag-raising ceremony in October 2017. According to a paranormal, a spirit was upset that a banyan tree at the school had been cut down, so it summoned its fellow spirits to enter the students.

The school’s headmaster admitted he had ordered the removal of the tree on the previous Friday because he felt it disturbed the aesthetics of the playground.

Financial Motives

In November 2017, a group of female students at a junior high school in Jogjakarta experienced almost daily possessions for almost two weeks. Numerous dukun and psychics volunteered to vanquish the evil spirits in return for payment. Officials rejected their efforts to commercialise the case.

Local Education Office head Edi Heri said the presence of the dukun did not solve the problem but only complicated matters. His office instead deployed a team of motivators to assist the students so their mid-term exams would not be disrupted.

Horseplay

On January 12, a Friday, seven students at a junior high school in Banyumas regency, Central Java, started screaming hysterically. Some ran toward a nearby highway. Parents and religious leaders were called. The students calmed down and were sent home.

Back at school on Saturday morning, 15 students started behaving as if possessed. The evil spirits took a break on Sunday because there was no school, but on Monday they were back as 17 students went into noisy trances.

One teacher told local media the possessions might have stemmed from students who had been learning a traditional trance performance called ebeg, outside the school. Unique to Banyumas, ebeg involves people dancing on woven bamboo hobby horses (kuda lumping) as if in a trance. It’s a popular form of entertainment in which the performers are supposedly possessed by the spirits of ancestors or animals. The teacher said one student had a toy horse with a spirit that could enter bodies. The school’s principal decided to bring in a psychologist, who deemed “psychological influences” had caused the children to seek attention.

Semarang Sorcery

On March 9, dozens of female workers at a garment factory in Semarang regency, Central Java, were possessed en masse. The incident occurred on a Friday at around 2pm, when one woman suddenly began behaving hysterically. About 50 other workers started acting in a similar manner. Police were summoned and all staff were sent home for the rest of the day.

In late March, a video went viral of a Grab car driver removing a spirit from a possessed female passenger. Some netizens suspected the video was staged, but the driver insisted it was real.

There’s not much hope when Indonesia’s leading online news portal, Tribunnews.com, runs a story headlined “Here’s How to Detect if there’s a Genie” and then provides advice that suggests evil spirits are real. The media should endeavour to make people smarter, rather than feed them lies that foster ignorance.

 

 

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Kenneth Yeung is a Jakarta-based editor.