By Chris Martin
When my phone rang, I had just stumbled into the teachers’ office from the blaze of the mid-morning heat. Even for Banjarmasin, a city known for its sweat-inducing temperatures, it was looking to be a hot one. Prior to the call, my school had stood at attention for an extended flag ceremony. It had lasted an hour and a half, but felt far longer. Like wilting flies, a swarm of limp female students had been carried off in stretchers by a crew of male students dressed in uniforms that resembled a cross between the boy scouts and military police.
The display read that the caller was Bu Mei, my counterpart. I pressed my phone against my damp ear, expecting to hear her gravelly voice through the speaker, but instead I heard a muffled sound, like thick pieces of cloth being rubbed together, and then screaming: high-pitched screams that startled me from my heat-induced stupor. It sounded both familiar and yet inhuman. Finally, Bu Mei’s voice replaced the screaming, “Hey, you want to see kesurupan (spirit possession)? Come now to the library!”
Approaching the library, I was met with a crowd of students pressed against the doorway, their attention frozen on whatever was happening inside. Taking a deep breath, I pushed myself through the thick curtain of sweating bodies and took in the sight: four female students, each pinned against the floor by a team of students. Two lay on the floor lifelessly, like balloon animals whose air had escaped, while the other two continued to scream, thrashing against the students holding them down. The humid air was sparked with a thick, silent tension- teachers either bustled back and forth or stood in small groups and talked in hushed tones. Bu Mei finally caught my eye and came over. “Look at my arm,” she ordered, revealing a rash of goosebumps, “Woooh, I’m so scared!”
Eventually, an electrical engineering teacher named Pak Dasuki entered the room and as if on cue, the two screaming female students quieted down. Kneeling down beside one of them, he pressed his hand on her forehead and began speaking in quick succession, causing the student to writhe furiously, and she began to shout in Indonesian. Curious, I asked a teacher next to me named Pak Subiyan what she was saying. Cocking his head to the side, he listened for a while and then said, “She says, ‘why do you cut down my tree?’” Noting my confusion, he explained to me that recently, the branches of one tree on school campus had been cut off. “The jinn [evil spirit] that lived there, he is not happy. That is why this happened.”
A second teacher arrived, Pak Abdul Hakim the religion teacher, and he began working on the second female student, pressing his hand against his head, and speaking words over the flailing girl in a commanding voice, which a nearby teacher explained to me were passages of the Qur’an. And then without hesitation, the girls quieted down, their once-taut limbs now limp in the hands of their classmates. Whatever traumatic event that just occurred was now over and the girls sat up, sweeping strands of hair back under their jilbabs (head coverings) and were led outside of the room to perform ceremonial ablutions and then return to class.
As disconcerting as the events of the morning had been, they were by no means rare; virtually every teacher I spoke to concerning the incident readily admitted to having witnessed a student spirit possession or in some circumstances had been victims themselves. Nor were such events unfamiliar to other schools in the region. Approximately a month ago, The Borneo Post posted that students at SMAN3, a public high school on the other side of the city, had broken out in a mass trance. “Yes, most of our male and female students [are] possessed again,” stated the high school principal, the last word underpinning the regularity of spirit possession among students.
Coming from a Western worldview that places paranormal activities like spirit possession in the same category as the occult or classic horror films such as The Exorcist, I was intrigued to understand how spirit possession, was understood by my Muslim-majority community, what caused it, and ultimately what role it played within their society.
Recently, I sat down with Pak Robin Hood, an unassuming, plump-faced electronical teacher who doubled as my school’s resident exorcist when the occasion arose. He explained that the belief that jinns, or spiritual creatures, have the ability to inhabit humans and cause them physical or mental harm- spirit possession. Further research revealed that this is a widespread belief shared by other Muslims throughout the world. The belief in jinns is anchored in Islamic writings, such as the Qur’an and Hadith (sayings of Prophet Mohammed). In fact, the word jinn finds its meaning in its Arabic root word that can be translated as “hidden from sight”. Within the Muslim tradition, people possessed with jinns can display a broad range of symptoms that are often “physical, include fevers, convulsions, utterances in strange, unheard of languages, and altered tone of voice.”
Concerning his method of removing a jinn from the body of a student, Pak Robin Hood’s explanation was straightforward: “While I press on the center of their head, I read the holy Qur’an… I pray to my God and then read the holy Qur’an because it is the holy religion.” I asked him why the top of the head was part of the process. His explanation was that the jinn entered a student’s body through the top of the head or the heel of the foot and would exit the same way.
As to why some students were possessed and others were not, he replied, “Maybe the student doesn’t have breakfast, doesn’t drink water before going to school- their mind doesn’t work well.” He further noted that the student victims were generally females, a phenomenon I had observed in other reported cases of Indonesian student possessions. “Usually the girl is weak,” he explained, “Maybe they have menstruation. Because of this, it is easy for the spirit to go into their body.”
His statement underpins the dilemma of diagnosing a student as spiritually possessed opposed to suffering from some other mental, psychological, or physical illness. In many cases, the symptoms of reported possessions vary little from those who suffer from various mental illnesses. In an article, the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine states that possessions can be interpreted various ways: “a combination of biological, anthropological, sociological, psychopathological and experimental perspectives.” Acknowledging the difficulties in diagnosing a possessed person, Pak Robin explained that sometimes it was genuine, which he could observe through their eyes, but other times it was possibly students faking it.
“But why would anyone fake spirit possession?”, I asked him. Pak Robin did not have the answer to that. However, one anthropological article concerning spiritual possession among an ethnic Micronesian group offered an explanation: “It wins her sympathy, for the victim is treated as a sick person, a special kind of sick person… It also gives her a platform from which to speak.”
Possibly this explained why spirit possession was so commonplace among students, a stage of life that is both stressful and unstable. Although still unsure of what to make of it all, I walked away from my discussion with Pak Robin with a better understanding of the beliefs of the members of my community, which I respect. Rather than existing as terrifying and unknown, spirit possession is accepted as part of one’s reality and simply dealt with as it arises, a common approach to difficulties I have seen time and again during my time here in Indonesia.
As for the four female students, they did not recall anything that occurred to them during their period of possession. Like other students I had questioned concerning their possession, they remembered nothing from the point it occurred until when their trance ended. The students simply regained consciousness, performed ablutions and went back to class, once again returning to another day at an Indonesian high school.
About the author: Chris Martin is a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Banjarmasin, South Kalimantan. He currently is a graduate student at Brooklyn College.
 The Borneo Post “Mass Trance at SMAN3 Banjarmasin”. (Posted September 25, 2014) http://www.theborneopost.com/2014/09/25/mass-trance-at-sman3-banjarmasin/.
 Yaseen Ally, “Cultural Perceptions of Psychological Disturbances: The folklore beliefs of South African Muslim and Hindu Community Members” (University of Witwatersrand), 20. 41. http://mobile.wiredspace.wits.ac.za/bitstream/handle/10539/5969/AllyY_0203828K.pdf?sequence=1
 Najat Khalifa and Tim Hardie, “Possession and Jinn,” Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine 98, no. 8 (2005): 351-353. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1181833/
 Francis X. Hezel, SJ, “Spirit Possession in Chuuk: A Socio-Cultural Interpretation” Micronesian Seminar, http://www.micsem.org/pubs/articles/socprobs/frames/spiritposschkfr.htm