When a crowd of students came bustling in, a few boys in the lead carrying someone on a stretcher, I didn’t blink an eye. Though there is a small nurse’s office at my school, often students who have passed out (which happens quite frequently here due to the omnipresent sweltering heat) are instead brought to dewan guru (the teachers’ room), to be revived and then allowed to rest on the couches there. I barely looked up from the materials for my English Corner which were strewn about my desk; I knew from experience that the students had things under control.
Then the screaming started.
It was the kind of screaming I generally associate with the haunted houses and scary movies that friends in the States usually drag me to every October (I’ve never seen the sense in willingly subjecting yourself to fright). Shrill. Piercing. It was the kind of screaming that gets into your skull and paints everything a shade of pure, unadulterated terror.
I set down my construction paper and scissors, and looked up at the crowd of students. Usually once the student is safely placed in the teacher’s office the rest of the class, excepting a few close friends, return to the classroom, but this was not the case here. At least sixty students—which meant that more than one class was present—were clustered around one of the couches. I could not see the affected student. But I could hear her.
A few students I teach from a classroom near the teachers’ room came in to make sure I was okay (someone must have told them I was in there—this is the sort of selflessness I am undeservedly the recipient of every day). They explained that the student was kesurupan (possessed), which I had begun to suspect, as my experience seemed to match one I remembered hearing about from another ETA last year. Their explanation and my subsequent searching in the dictionary to ensure I understood them properly (possession is not a word I use all that often in my Indonesian conversations), led to a discussion among those students and the remaining teachers (all of this happened right after school) as to whether they actually believed in what was happening. Some did. Others said it was caused by stress, and that she was having some kind of breakdown or anxiety attack. Others, casting furtive glances to the other end of the room, said they were not sure.
Meanwhile, the student (I do not know exactly who she was because she was not from a class that I teach) was still screaming. Several students were reading from the Qur’an, having selected particular verses that are considered suci (pure or holy), in order to mengusir (chase away or drive out) the setan (devil or evil spirits, depending on who translates) they thought had entered the student. I know from the little studying I’ve done of monotheistic religions that some Muslims do practice exorcism, and according to my dictionary that is what mengusir setan translates to, but I cannot actually be certain that this concept applies to what was going on in the teachers’ room that day.
I joined a few of the teachers in trying to control the chaos. I stayed away from the end of the long room where the student was, because I did not think having the foreign teacher so obviously present would help calm the situation at all (there are times here when I can become fully involved, and there are times when I need to recognize the position I am in and sit on the sidelines). However, I did shoo away any students trying to enter the room, reprimanding them for being kepo (nosy). Whether this was an actual possession or some kind of anxiety attack, I was fairly certain having dozens of students swarm around her in an already hot room would not help her in any way, and many of the other teachers seemed to be thinking along the same lines (others offered to help me to get closer if I wanted to see, but again, I was not there to add to the mayhem).
Eventually the student became quiet, and most of the other students left; only a few close friends remained. The girl—who I could see for the first time now —appeared to be unconscious, so her friends took turns fanning her and trying to wake her up.
I went back to working on the parts of the new English Corner. The teachers’ room was almost empty at this point (as they left some of the teachers told me that I should leave to, lest I become possessed myself—I’m not entirely sure if they were serious or if they were just trying to scare me). I was beginning to worry that the girl’s parents (whom I confirmed had been called) would not arrive before all the teachers had left. I still had plenty of work to do, so I would probably still be there when they arrived, but I did not imagine I would be very helpful, as the one teacher at the school not fluent in Indonesian. I cut out photos of winter-themed words and waited. The room was nearly silent, except for the low whirring of one of the fans, and the whispers of the few students who remained.
I nearly jumped out of my skin when the screaming began again. With so few students remaining in the room, I now had a full view of everything that was happening. The student lashed out at her friends, now trying desperately to hold her down. One male student repeatedly asked her, “Siapa? Siapa?” (“Who? Who?”), but I could not understand the response she spat back in his face. Another student frantically whispered for someone to get help, something I had already sent my students to do, and a few students sprinted out the door in response to her plea.
A few teachers from one of the other offices—a troop of stern but kindly Ibus whom I would not mess with, even if I were a spirit—marched swiftly into the room and took over. “Sudah!” they shouted at the student (a word which often is used to mean “already,” but which can also mean “enough”). The girl reacted by fighting her way free from her friends and swinging the blazer that is part of the school uniform in the teachers’ direction, screaming all the while.
Her hair was wildly tangled, her eyes wide, her skin gleaming with sweat. In an environment where the girls are usually so demure and are required to wear a jilbab, it was certainly a shocking sight.
Having escaped the hold of her friends, the student was tackled to the ground by the teachers and then dragged—still kicking and screaming—out of the teachers’ room. While I could no longer see what happening, I could hear that the student continued to scream and the teachers continued shout of “Sudah!”
It must have worked, because eventually everything became quiet again. One of the other students came in to collect her backpack and when I asked her how her friend was, she told me she was calm now and was on her way home.
I finished the last pieces of my project and went home myself. The entire incident took about an hour and a half, from start to finish.
I have since learned from other teachers at the school that this is not the first kesurupan to have occurred at our school. Not all episodes are as violent as the one I witnessed, but even those seem to be fairly commonplace. Often, students who are possessed eventually change schools; I was unable to elicit from students or teachers exactly why this happens, but from our conversations I have developed a theory that there are two potential reasons. The first is that it may be because the parents are worried it will happen again if the students remain at the school (often places that are considered haunted here are believed to only affect certain people, which is why everyone else is able to live normally in that place). The second is that it may be because of the teasing I am sure will result from this event. I’m sure the reason is different for every student and their family.
When I told an Indonesian friend of mine about the kersurupan at school, she informed me that she herself experienced a sort of possession about two years ago while on a hiking trip. According to the friends and family with her at the time, she screamed incoherently for hours and tried to hit her parents and siblings, whom she did not seem to recognize at all. At one point she apparently demanded that someone call her parents, so that they could come and find her. Since her own parents were right there in front of her, her friends and family believe that she was possessed by the spirit of a girl who had died in the forest, and who was trying to tell her parents where her body was. Once this was all over, my friend awoke from her altered state, exhausted and with no recollection of what had happened.
I don’t know what causes kesurupan. I am not an expert in either the supernatural or in the kind of stress that may cause a similar experience, and so I do not seek to offer any explanations. One thing is for certain though: I will never forget my first kesurupan.
Grace Wivell is a 2014 graduate of Ithaca College, where she studied English Education. She is a second year ETA. Her first placement was in Malang, East Java, and she now lives, learns, and counts cows in Gorontalo, Sulawesi. You can follow her blog at https://allfortheloveofwandering.wordpress.com/.