“The simplest surreal act consists of going out into the street with a revolver in each hand and, blindly, shooting as much as possible into the crowd”, wrote André Breton. Acts of homicidal madness that leave behind a bloodbath and a trail of pain are becoming more common, but they are not exclusive to today, but have their roots in tribes of centuries ago and are known as Amok Syndrome.
An ancient rage permeates contemporary society
“Among Malays, amok is more than an hangover […] It is madness, a kind of human rage […] A fit of senseless, homicidal monomania, which cannot be compared to any alcoholic intoxication,” wrote Stefan Zweig.
Captain Cook was the first to describe the homicidal rages that occurred in various Malay tribes in the eighteenth century. He told that the affected people behaved violently for no apparent reason and indiscriminately killed or maimed tribal people and animals in a fit of frenzied rage. Amok attacks typically claimed as many as 10 victims and generally only ended when the attacker was subdued or killed by the tribe.
However, the truth is that long before, in 1518, the Portuguese merchant and traveler Duarte Barbosa had already noticed this phenomenon among the inhabitants of Java, “Some of them go out into the streets and kill everyone they come across. They are called ‘amuco’”.
Just as it is difficult to identify the first acts of amok, it is also difficult to find the origin of the word. It probably comes from the Malay word meng-âmok, which means “to run aggressively and desperately” or perhaps from the Sanskrit amokshya, which is used to refer to “one who cannot achieve liberation” or “one who has nothing to lose.”
Over the centuries that followed, anthropologists and psychiatrists tried to give meaning to acts of amok, but little by little interest in this phenomenon as a psychiatric condition waned. The decreasing incidence of Amok Syndrome was attributed to the influence of Western civilization on primitive tribes, so it was thought that the cultural factors that caused the violent outburst had been eliminated.
However, while the amok was disappearing in the remote tribes, until the reports of cases stopped completely in the middle of the 20th century, the frequency of these homicidal acts of violence was increasing in our supposedly developed and civilized societies. The amok returns with more force because in reality that violent fury has never been eradicated from human Psychology.
Amok, the evil tiger who possesses the most vulnerable
According to Malay mythology, going mad was an involuntary behavior caused by the “hantu belian”; that is, the spirit of an evil tiger that entered a person’s body and forced him/her to behave violently. The person possessed by the hantu belian does not stop, does not hesitate or give up, so often the only way to stop it is to end its life. However, it was thought that if it survived, the tiger would disappear without a trace and the person would not remember what happened.
Interestingly, Malay wisdom also stated that the hantu belian possesses only the most vulnerable people, especially those who have suffered a recent great loss, serious injury, or a death in the family. Shamans believed that this loss opened holes, weak points in the soul through which demons or ghosts enter to fulfill their own purposes, taking over the person’s will.
This explanation is not completely wrong
In 1849, Amok Syndrome was classified as a psychiatric illness, indicating that it went from being a mere anthropological curiosity to a more serious and widespread social problem. However, the truth is that Amok is not a psychiatric condition in itself, but rather a violent behavior, probably caused by a previous mental illness.
In fact, its most common form, known as beramok, occurs after a particularly painful personal loss, after an intense period of sadness and melancholy. There is also a less frequent way in which the blind desire for revenge is preceded by a real or imagined offense, which would be the trigger for the attack.
One of the initial theories of anthropologists to explain the Amok phenomenon indicated that it could be a reaction to the powerful taboos against suicide that existed in primitive tribes and that still persist today in many religious communities. From this perspective, losing control and responsibility over one’s own actions would be a “dignified” or “acceptable” way of receiving death and freeing oneself from suffering. In practice, since the person cannot commit suicide, he/she commits a violent act that is punished with death.
However, the truth is that this problem has been seen in alls cultures. Contemporary descriptions of the multiple homicides agree in many details with the old Amok cases. These are usually sudden, unprovoked murders committed by people with a history of mental illness.
The media, witnesses and the police themselves often describe the attacker as strange or angry – suggesting a personality disorder or paranoid delusion – or brooding and grieving acute loss, indicating a possible depressive disorder or post traumatic stress.
Is it possible to avoid the Amok Syndrome?
Obviously, to prevent cases of Amok it is necessary to identify the most vulnerable people early, so that they can receive the most appropriate treatment according to the underlying psychopathological condition.
Most people who engage in Amok-like violent behavior have had recent contact with physicians prior to the homicidal behavior, although few consult a psychiatrist due to the stigma that persists around mental illness and denial of the existence of a disorder.
In general, some symptoms that can set off the alarm are:
• History of a psychotic condition
• Previous episodes of violent behavior or threats
• Serious recent personal losses
• Violent suicide attempts
• Personality disorders
Obviously, the more risk factors come together, the greater the probability that a person will act violently and channel his/her anger against others.
Finally, it should be noted that the treatment of amok will depend on the underlying psychological disorder. Violence is usually the result of multiple factors, so it is important to approach it from a broad perspective and, above all, promote self-control and emotional management to prevent frustration, sadness or despair from leading to violent acts in which other people end up losing their lives.
Imai, H. et. Al. (2018) Amok: a mirror of time and people. A historical review of literature. History of Psychiatry; 30(1): 66–70.
Saint Martin, M. L. (1999) Running Amok: A Modern Perspective on a Culture-Bound Syndrome. Prim Care Companion J Clin Psychiatry; 1(3): 66–70.