"Several children from different classrooms fainted at the same time. I got nauseous and started vomiting. I heard voices. A man in black chased me and wanted to touch me."
With these words, provided in an interview with local media in Peru, an anonymous 15-year-old girl described how she and close to a hundred other students like her have become part of a mystifying epidemic at a school in northern Peru.
Beginning in April, schoolchildren at the Elsa Perea Flores school in Taraponto, Peru have been displaying seizures, muscular contractions, and fainting. Some of students also report visions of a "man in black" chasing them and trying to strangle them. Though frightened parents rushed the stricken children to the local hospital, medical doctors have failed to determine any physical cause for the symptoms. Most of the affected students are between the ages of eleven and fourteen.
Though experts suggest that this is a case of contagious mass hysteria stemming from fear and anxiety over upcoming examinations, there is no shortage of alternative explanations being offered by locals. One persistent rumour is that the school was built on mass graves of torture victims that were reportedly found as the school was being built. Other locals suggest that the epidemic is a "demonic attack" caused by some children experimenting with Ouija boards and other occult practices.
According to teachers at the school, the first episodes occurred on April 29 and involved students in several different classes. In all cases, the affected students were able to return to school shortly afterward. Media attention on the affected students has likely played a factor as well with graphic videos showing students convulsing and frothing at the mouth being widely available. Affected students giving media interviews are telling very similar stories.
One student described a menacing figure chasing her from behind. "It was a tall man all dressed in black and with a big beard and it felt like he was trying to strangle me," she said. "'My friends say I was screaming desperately, but I don't remember much." Another student reported having trouble breathing and was holding her neck as if being strangled. Friends reportedly said that she kept screaming, "Take it out!"
Cases of mass psychogenic illness involving vulnerable people in a closed group, often young females, have been frequently reported around the world and throughout history. Epidemic such as this are often fueled by rumours and hysteria surrounding perceived threats that are often exaggerated. A similar epidemic was reported in Malaysia in April when a school was temporarily closed due to reports from students and teachers of a mysterious "black figure" stalking students and attempting to possess them. The Malaysian epidemic subsided after a few weeks and the school later reopened.
As for what is happening at the Elsa Perea Flores school in Peru, medical experts and school authorities continue to monitor what is happening and are hoping things will eventually return to normal.