Running amok

Running amok

Running amok, sometimes referred to as simply amok[1] (also spelled amuk, from the Malay meaning "mad with uncontrollable rage") is a term for a killing spree perpetrated by an individual out of rage or resentment over perceived mistreatment.

The syndrome of "Amok" is found in the DSM-IV TR.[2]

The phrase is often used in a less serious manner in relation to someone or something that is out of control and causing trouble (e.g., a dog tearing up the living room furniture might be said to be running amok). Such usage does not imply murderous actions, and any emotional implications (e.g., rage, fear, excitement) must be gleaned from context.[3]


Malay origin

Amok originated from the Malay word mengamuk [4] , which roughly defined means “to make a furious and desperate charge” much like the ancient Norse berserker warriors practiced before going into battle. [5] According to Malay culture, amok was rooted in a deep spiritual belief. They believed that amok was caused by the hantu belian [6] , which was an evil tiger spirit that entered one’s body and caused the heinous act. As a result of the belief, those in Malaysian culture tolerated amok and dealt with the after effects with no ill will towards the assailant.[7]

Although commonly used in a colloquial and less-violent sense, the phrase is particularly associated with a specific sociopathic culture-bound syndrome in Malaysian culture. In a typical case of running amok, a male who has shown no previous sign of anger or any inclination to violence will acquire a weapon, traditionally a sword or dagger, but presently a variety of weapons are used, and, in a sudden frenzy, will attempt to kill or seriously injure anyone he encounters. Amok typically takes place in a well populated or crowded area. Amok episodes of this kind normally end with the attacker being killed by bystanders, or committing suicide, citing theories that amok may be a form of intentional suicide in cultures where suicide is heavily stigmatized. For those who do not commit suicide or are killed typically black out and upon regaining consciousness, claim amnesia.

The western world was made known of amok upon reading the journals of Captain James Cook, who was a British explorer in the mid to late 18th century. He discovered firsthand the practice of amok in 1770 during his voyage around the world. He wrote about witnessing individuals behaving in a reckless, violent manner, without cause and “indiscriminately killing and maiming villagers and animals in a frenzied attack.” [8]

A widely accepted explanation links amok with male honor (amok by women is virtually unknown). Running amok would thus be both a way of escaping the world (since perpetrators were normally killed) and re-establishing one's reputation as a man to be feared and respected. Some observers have related this explanation to Islam's ban on suicide, which, it is suggested, drove Malay men to create circumstances in which others would kill them.

Contemporary syndrome

"Running amok" is used to refer to the behavior of someone who, in the grip of strong emotion, obtains a weapon and begins attacking people indiscriminately, often with multiple fatalities. The slang term going postal is similar in scope. Police describe such an event as a killing spree. If the individual is seeking death an alternate method is often suicide by cop.

Amok is often described as a culture-bound (or culture-specific) syndrome,[9][10] which is a psychological condition whose manifestation is strongly shaped by cultural factors. Other reported culture-bound syndromes are latah and koro. Amok is also sometimes considered one of the subcategories of dissociative disorders (cross-cultural variant).

Link between amok and mental health

Amok is traditionally thought to be a culture bound syndrome specific to Malaysia, but upon further investigations and research of various case studies has lead many experts to believe that it is in fact not a culture bound syndrome, but rather a result of mental health issues. Dr. Pow Meng Yap, a psychiatrist for the Hong Kong Government, wrote that since amok is typically preceded by a period of reflection and brooding, and if the attacker wasn’t killed or killed themselves in the process, they would collapse and upon gaining consciousness, would cite amnesia. Thus leading him to conclude amok is a type of “depressive disorder or a dissociative disorder.” For a condition to be fully culture bound it cannot be found in any other distinctive culture and the culture must be indispensable to its pathogenesis, which in the case of amok, has never been true. A similar study by Jin-Inn Teoh, of University of Aberdeen in London, stated that amok or amok-like behavior has occurred in all countries around the world. There were small discrepancies and variances in the weapons and techniques used. Teoh says that culture has a distinct role in how the act is manifested, but no role in if the act occurs or not. Teoh’s study was the last of its kind in major psychiatric literature, but since its publishing, the spread, or reporting of amok worldwide has only grown. [7]

Officially classified as a psychiatric condition

Amok was officially classified as a psychiatric condition in 1849 based on the numerous reports and case studies which showed that the majority of individuals who committed amok were, in some sense, mentally ill.[7] However, DSM-IV-TR does not break amok down into two official categories. The two forms are; beramok and amok. Beramok is considered to be the more common of the two and is associated with the depression and sadness resulting from a loss and the subsequent brooding process. Loss includes the death of a spouse or loved one, divorce, loss of a job, money, power, etc. Beramok is associated with mental issues of severe depression or other mood disorders. Amok, the rarer form, is believed to stem from rage, insult, or a vendetta against a person or society for a wide variety of reasons. Amok has been more closely associated with psychosis, personality disorders, bipolar disorder, delusions.[7]

Historical and cross-cultural comparanda

Early travelers in Asia sometimes describe a kind of military amok, in which soldiers facing apparently inevitable defeat suddenly burst into a frenzy of violence which so startled their enemies that it either delivered victory or at least ensured what the soldier in that culture considered an honourable death. This form of amok appears to resemble the berserker of the Norse, the cafard or cathard (Polynesia), mal de pelea (Puerto Rico), and iich'aa (Navaho).[11]

In contemporary Indonesia, the term amok (amuk) generally refers not to individual violence, but to apparently frenzied violence by mobs. Indonesians now commonly use the term 'gelap mata' (literally 'darkened eyes') to refer to individual amok.

Norse berserkers and the Zulu battle trance are two other examples of the tendency of certain groups to work themselves up into a killing frenzy. The 1911 Webster Encyclopedia comments:

In 1634, the eldest son of the raja of Jodhpur ran amok at the court of Shah Jahan, failing in his attack on the emperor, but killing five of his officials. During the 18th century, again, at Hyderabad (Sind), two envoys, sent by the Jodhpur chief in regard to a quarrel between the two states, stabbed the prince and twenty-six of his suite before they themselves fell.

See also


 This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed (1911). "Amuck, Running". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.,_Running. 

  1. ^ Carr JE, Tan EK (November 1976). "In search of the true amok: amok as viewed with the Malay culture". Am J Psychiatry 133 (11): 1295–9. PMID 984220. 
  2. ^ "Appendix I: Outline for Cultural Formulation and Glossary of Culture-Bound Syndromes". Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition, Text Revision (DSM-IV-TR). 1. 2000. doi:10.1176/appi.books.9780890423349.7060. ISBN 0-89042-334-2. 
  3. ^ (definition 3b)
  4. ^ "Pusat Rujukan Persuratan Melayu: mengamuk" (in Malay and English). Malaysia: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka. Retrieved 6 November 2011. "mengamuk" 
  5. ^ Hempel, A. A., Levine, R. D., Meloy, J. D., & Westermeyer, J. D. (2000). Cross-cultural review of sudden mass assault by a single individual in the oriental and occidental cultures. Journal of Forensic Sciences, 45(3), 582–588.
  6. ^ "Pusat Rujukan Persuratan Melayu: hantu belian" (in Malay and English). Malaysia: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka. Retrieved 6 November 2011. "hantu belian" 
  7. ^ a b c d Saint Martin, Michael (1999). "Running Amok: A Modern Perspective on a Culture-Bound Syndrome". Journal of Clinical Psychiatry 1 (3): 66–70. ISSN 0160-6689. PMC 181064. PMID 15014687. 
  8. ^ (Jackson, Y. (Ed.).(2006). Encyclopedia of multicultural psychology . University of Kansas: Sage Publications)
  9. ^ Saint Martin ML (June 1999). "Running Amok: A Modern Perspective on a Culture-Bound Syndrome". Prim Care Companion J Clin Psychiatry 1 (3): 66–70. PMC 181064. PMID 15014687. 
  10. ^ Gaw AC, Bernstein RL (August 1992). "Classification of amok in DSM-IV". Hosp Community Psychiatry 43 (8): 789–93. PMID 1427677. 
  11. ^ "Medical Antropology: Culture-bound syndromes". Retrieved 2009-04-29. [dead link]

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