The curious case of the 'Phuket poltergeist'

A group of 22 students who collapsed _ screaming and shaking violently _ at school believe they were paying for upsetting a spirit, but doctors contend it was merely a demonstration of the power of mass hysteria

Last Monday, 22 students in Phuket were taken to Patong Hospital after they collapsed, screaming and convulsing, following morning assembly. Many tied the incident to an alleged supernatural event which took place during a camping trip to Phangnga province from June 26 to 28. More than 200 Matthayom 1-3 students from Wat Suwan Khiri Wong School made the trip to Ban Namsai community in Khao Lak for drug awareness training and other activities.

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Phittinan ''Nonny'' Fritch, a 12-year old Matthayom 1 student, was one of those said to have been ''cursed'', and the only patient remaining at Patong Hospital when Spectrum visited on Tuesday. She explained that girls from Matthayom 2 and 3 stayed at one house and Matthayom 1 girls stayed at an adjacent one. The boys stayed in a separate house behind the other two. ''As we arrived at the camp, the border patrol police _ our trainers _ told us to behave and not make a lot of noise,'' said Nonny.

''There was a spirit house between my house and the older girls' house. On the first night, my friends and I saw a sarong fall down on the spirit house from a hanger on the second floor of the house where the older girls were staying. Soon after that, a Matthayom 3 girl came out to pick it up. Later that night, I had a dream about the spirit house,'' said Nonny.

''The next morning, our teachers told us that if we wanted to dry our clothes, we should pin them to a hanger, otherwise something might fall down and get dirty, and also, it wouldn't be appropriate if something happened to fall on the spirit house _ like it did that night.

''After the meeting, we walked back to our house to take a break. My friends and I heard a group of boys talking, saying they didn't believe in ghosts _ even daring any ghost that was around to come and show itself.''

On the second night some of the girls in her house started to develop a fever, and some said they saw a shadow of a ''big man''.

''When the teachers heard of this, they told us to go apologise at the spirit house. We all did, but it didn't help. Some students dreamed about the man again that night,'' said Nonny.

The next day the students left the camp and travelled back to Phuket.

''Everything was fine during the weekend,'' said Nonny. ''But on Monday morning after assembly, as we walked back to class a few girls started to cry and then passed out. A short while later they came to, but they were crying and their bodies were shaking hard.

''One of them shouted, with a man's voice: 'You offended me, you must die!'

''After that lots of girls started to get the same symptoms. They shook, cried, screamed and were breathing hard,'' said Nonny, adding that she could feel her chest getting tight.

''I had trouble breathing and started to get dizzy. That's the last thing I remember before I passed out.''

HOSPITAL RECOVERY

SPIRITED AFFAIR: Staff at Patong Hospital attend to 12-year-old Phittinan ‘Nonny’ Fritch, who was brought in after she and others collapsed during morning assembly at her Phuket school.

Nonny was rushed to Patong Hospital with 20 other girls and one boy. After she regained consciousness she saw teachers and monks gathered in the hospital room where she and some other girls were staying.

''The monks were chanting. I felt calm, but some of my friends were still crying and shouting,'' said Nonny, adding that a teacher later told the students the monks would also go to the school to chant.

When asked about the group of boys who dared the ghost to appear, she seemed surprised, then said: ''Those boys were totally fine, no problems. This is so weird.

''Some teachers told us that girls have more sensitive minds than boys, so they're more vulnerable to spirits.''

The school has nonetheless made arrangements to take the boys back to the camp to apologise to the spirits.

Nonny said what happened to her and her friends had frightened their families.

''My mum said she does not want me to go camping any more. She also told me to wear a Buddha amulet at all times.''

Rattana Siriphun was at the hospital with her sick son when the students were brought in.

''When I first saw those kids I had no idea what had happened to them. I saw them crying, shouting and screaming. I was a little frightened,'' she said.

''Doctors, nurses and other staff quickly took them into the emergency room. I saw one doctor wearing a vest with the words 'crisis manager', and I realised this must be some kind of major problem.

''Later I heard from other people in the hospital that the students were cursed. I believe that is true. I have heard about this kind of thing before.

''My friend's child was in a similar situation when he was young. He told us he felt like someone was inside him and he couldn't control himself. He felt that he was possessed,'' said Ms Rattana.

SHARED EXPERIENCE

This is not the first report of spirits supposedly haunting students in Phuket.

In 2006, a group of Matthayom 4-6 students from a well known high school in Thalang district collapsed during morning assembly, screaming and writhing on the ground.

A similar incident occurred in 2010 when eight students began screaming in Chinese while in class. Some believe they were possessed by the spirits of dead Chinese people.

However, Dr Ruangsit Netnuanyai, the resident psychiatrist at Vachira Phuket Hospital, said such incidents were the result of mass hysteria brought on by the students thinking they were exposed to a supernatural phenomenon.

''Mass hysteria is usually the result of stress brought on by a shared experience, but the physical manifestation of the stress often does not occur until the victim sees another person suffering,'' said Dr Ruangsit, who is also the only psychiatrist for all government hospitals on the island.

''When someone starts to shake, cry or shout, these actions could affect people nearby who have been through the same stressful situation,'' he added.

Patong Hospital director Dr Sirichai Silapa-archa, who was wearing the ''crisis manager'' vest when the students were brought in, agreed with Dr Ruangsit that the incident was the result of hysteria.

Dr Sirichai said victims of mass hysteria need instant attention, as they hyperventilate and bring excessive amounts of oxygen into their lungs.

''We had the children breathe into plastic bags so that their bodies could take in more carbon dioxide.

''We also separated them and tried to keep them relaxed. We tried to calm them down by holding their hands and asking basic questions like where they live, how old they are, how many brothers and sisters they have and what they like to do in their free time.

''Most of them started to calm down after talking with us for a while. We gave a light anaesthesia to some who could not calm down,'' said Dr Sirichai.

Nineteen of the students were discharged from the hospital on Monday. Three were kept for observation overnight and sent home the following afternoon.

Dr Sirichai said this case was not considered serious because all of the students recovered relatively quickly.

In some instances, sufferers of mass hysteria injure themselves while they are out of control. If they aren't supervised, they might run into traffic, for example. Sufferers of mass hysteria have even been known to cut themselves with knives.

Dr Sirichai urged the school to follow up with the students in case they have a recurrences of the hysterical episode or experience lingering effects from the incident.

He also recommended that teachers take care in finding suitable places for students to go for future camping trips and ask them how they feel about a particular location or if they have problems with any of the planned activities.

''The camp does not have to be far away, and it should be someplace they are familiar with,'' said Dr Sirichai.

About the author

Writer: O Nara