There have recently been a number of instances of mass hysteria in South African schools. In this episode, about 51 pupils in one school were admitted to hospital, behaving if they were "possessed by demons", and in Pretoria 25 pupils were treated for hysteria.
Every time something like this happens, there is much talk of Satanism and demon possession. This is understandable. Such events are incredibly scary and mysterious, and they seem to confirm the common belief that there is a supernatural realm, consisting of supernatural creatures and magical forces, that has influence and power over us. Some African cultures, for example, hold the belief that traditional medicines (called muti), prepared by witchdoctors, can be used to ward off evil, curse adversaries with bad luck, or assist in finding love.
As a skeptic, I've always been quite fascinated by episodes of mass hysteria, claims of demon possession, and stories of curses and spells. Two things have always interested me: (1) the fact that such episodes are generally experienced by specific people who share particular beliefs; and (2) that such episodes can be controlled by 'secular' interventions, such as medication and counselling.
Regarding the first point: I've spoken to a few of my black colleagues about the use of muti in their respective cultures, and one thing that has arisen in these conversations is the perception, among those I've spoken to, that muti isn't very effective on white people. One has to ask why this is the case. Most whites don't consider belief in muti as part of their culture, so could it be that muti only 'works' for those who believe in it?
The second point revolves around something like demon possession. In the past, demon possession was quite widespread, but now we know how to control epilepsy with medication. One has to ask: why are demons scared by few pills of Epilum? Could it be that possession is not caused by the supernatural, but by chemical problems in the brain?
I've often wondered if the supernatural does indeed have power over us. I think it does, but humans are the ones that give it power. In other words, the power that magic, demons, ghosts, and spells have over us doesn't stem from the supernatural itself, but from our belief in such things.
What do you think?