According to reports, it all began on December 16, 2017 at Hun Sen Ang Sdok High School in Cambodia's Kampot province. A 17-year-old student named Pen Kunsotheara reported feeling faint. The episode worsened and the ninth-grader felt her hands become numb, she then struggled to breathe before falling unconscious.
Soon afterward, fourteen other girls in the same classroom began experiencing similar symptoms as the epidemic spread. Not a week passed without at least six or seven new cases and, on one day in January, 31 girls collapsed. As the fainting epidemic continued, medical doctors ruled out any environmental factors that might be causing the epidemic and instead suggested that the girls might be collapsing due to low blood sugar. As well, comparisons have been made to similar epidemics in other countries involving female factory workers which have proven to be due to mass psychogenic illness.
But local villagers have suggested that the faintings may have a supernatural cause. Since the school is located next to a Khmer Rouge burial site containing thousands of bodies, they suggest that an angry spirit may be responsible for what is happening. Given the strong belief in spiritual possession in Cambodia and neighbouring countries, it hardly seems surprising that some of the fainting girls have been showing signs of possession in addition to their other symptoms.
According to Pen Kunsotheara, who has since collapsed several more time since that first episode, classmates told her that she appeared possessed prior to her latest fainting while other students have reportedly spoken in a sinister voice making various demands relating to cleaning the school or holding an exorcism. To exorcise the school, administrators held a prayer ceremony involving seven monks from seven different pagodas but, during the ceremony, one of the student dancers fainted and demanded that traditional dancing be held earlier during the day. Administrators are mulling whether to do as the spirit demanded.
In trying to explain what was happening, Australian sociologist Robert Bartholomew has suggested incidents such as these can be seen as a form of "ritualised rebellion" allowing females, who are otherwise taught to be demure and submissive, to speak out about things they might not otherwise be allowed to say. In his research looking at thousands of cases of mass psychogenic illness around the world, Bartholomew has found many common factors including the predominance of young females among the ones affected. He also suggests that these incidents are often due to stress resulting from strict new rules or tension in the local community. And, in many cases, the mass psychogenic episodes have led to positive changes including better working conditions and relaxed school rules.
As for the Kampot outbreak, Bartholomew points out that the "demands" of the spirits mostly involve breaking up the monotony of the school day. "“It sounds to me like they need to just relax,” Bartholomew said in a recent interview. “If [the school officials] want these outbreaks to go away, they need to compromise and they need to have a little more fun in their lives. I think if they do that, this will go away.”