As recently detailed in Providence, since late November cases of alleged chemical assault using unknown poisonous gases have been endemic amongst Iranian schoolgirls, 5,000 of whom have now been hit or even hospitalized by vomiting, dizziness and fainting fits. 

Interpretations range from the idea elements within the hardline Shia regime are punishing female students for their prominent role in recent anti-government protests, in which they have removed their mandated hijabs and publicly extended middle-fingers to framed portraits of the ayatollah, to the more skeptical view it is all just an outbreak of mass hysteria. 

Gas Hysteria

Events strongly recall another such panic in the Israeli-occupied West Bank in 1983, when 1,000 Muslim schoolgirls fell similarly ill, something attributed by many Palestinians at the time to attacks by Jews. The outbreak began at Arrabah Girls’ School when a 17-year-old pupil underwent genuine breathing difficulties. Seeking explanation, fellow students apparently mistook the hydrogen sulfide-like smell from nearby well-used toilets for Israeli nerve-gas. Soon, other pupils (and a few adults) became hospitalized, and events hit the media, causing widespread international alarm.

Unfortunately, at the time a popular regional rumor, tapping into centuries of anti-Semitic slander about supposed Jewish poisoners, had it that Israel plotted to facilitate a ‘silent genocide’ in Palestine by quietly rendering all local Muslim women infertile by devious medical means – for instance, by pumping them full of invisible gas? 

Subsequent investigation by Israeli authorities concluded no poisonings had occurred, blaming mass hysteria for the panic. Yet the Arab League refused to accept this, before US, UN, Red Cross and WHO staff were dispatched to the West Bank, medically confirming initial Israeli findings. Most schoolgirls were not inventing their symptoms, just falling prey to the endemic paranoia of the period. At one point, 64 inhabitants of the Palestinian town of Jenin fell ill after a ‘Jewish’ car supposedly belched poison at them, this in fact just being normal smoke from a faulty engine. 

A Playground for Evil

The common symptoms of mild poisoning and of mass hysteria can be extremely similar, making them hard to distinguish. Sometimes, however, local religious, historical and political culture can influence hysteria epidemics in such a way that their symptoms can be immediately identified by medics as being purely psychological in nature – when schoolyard trees begin spawning armies of living skeletons in rural Uganda, for instance. 

In 2010, a fascinating paper entitled Demon Attack Disease appeared in the African Journal of Traumatic Stress, showing how many contemporary outbreaks of mass hysteria in Ugandan schools have occurred in areas where military violence has occurred in the nation’s recent unstable past. Consider events at the remote rural Layamo Agwata Primary School in the war-ravaged north of the country. Here, in February 2009, pupils ran amok, shouting, fighting, biting and beating each other with sticks, under hallucinatory assault from an army of demons. The headmistress, and many other attendant adults, were so afraid of being attacked by evil spirits themselves that they initially left the pupils to riot unchecked. 

The source of the problem here was not a physically unclean toilet, but a spiritually unclean tree on the school grounds. This hell-mouth was said to be a spawning-point for devils which would descend from its branches in human form, then rot away into zombie-like living skeletons. Attacking individual children, the revenants would then order them to bite another child; once that child had been bitten, their teeth-marks would mean he or she would not be subjected to any further undead assault. However, in return for protection, that pupil then had to chomp into the flesh of another pupil and so on ad infinitum, chain-letter-style. At the height of the crisis, 47 girls and 7 boys were affected.

Eventually, the school’s headmistress gathered enough courage to attack the haunted tree, chopping it down and setting fire to it. The District Education Officer (after running away in terror) ordered the school be closed down while village elders sacrificed goats and spread blood all over the grounds to appease the spirits, whilst Christians from the Catholic relief NGO Caritas Internationalis also came to pray for the school’s deliverance from Satan. Some more skeptical pupils and their families, concerned about passing looming exams, threatened to sue over this closure. 

Meanwhile, a psychiatrist from the local hospital clinically isolated the two index cases (those most socially influential pupils amongst whom the hysteria began) in the outbreak, noting they were both showing clear signs of suffering Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). But from what?

Skeletons in Uganda’s Closet

The skeleton key to the whole mystery was war, which always unleashes psychological demons of some kind. In 1991, Ugandan government forces in the National Resistance Army (NRA) launched a huge offensive against the region’s notorious Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebels who were then using Layamo Agwata Primary School as a base for operations, having ordered the teachers and pupils to stay away or be shot. During the battle, the school buildings were utterly destroyed and many persons killed. It was not until 1997 that the institution was finally rebuilt and lessons resumed. 

Unwisely, however, the classrooms were erected on the precise same site, which now featured two large unmarked mass graves full of bodies – some of which belonged to the children’s close relatives – just outside the premises. These acted as a constant reminder of the mass violence and deaths to the pupils, and acted as an ominous threat military bloodshed may return again in the future (the LRA still not being fully defeated). 

Local tradition stated that, unless corpses were buried immediately after they had died, with all due ceremony, their angry spirits would roam the area looking for revenge against the living, making the children even more nervous. Accordingly, the local psychiatrist recommended memorials to the dead be built over the mass graves and an annual ceremony of remembrance be held in which prayers should be said for the peace of their souls. These measures had a calming psychological effect and no more demons – whether literal or figurative – visited the school afterwards.  

Mind Over Matter?

Outside observers, not being steeped in local religious traditions of demon-lore, would instantly perceive events at Layamo Agwata Primary as being psychological in nature. Current narratives of gas-poisonings in Iranian schools, however, do not appear anything like so immediately absurd as tales of magical haunted trees. Yet some experts in the field, like New Zealand-based socio-medical historian Robert E. Bartholomew, claim to see through them nonetheless. For Bartholomew: 

“Nearly all [such outbreaks] involve young schoolgirls living under repressive conditions and with no means of [social] redress. In each of these episodes, when the first girls begin to fall sick, given the tense political climate, rumors of poisoning quickly spread … while the names and the places may change, the same patterns re-emerge, yet we continue to be fooled.”

Whether today’s purported poisonings in Iran ultimately prove physically real or not, then, the symptoms of psychological and physical distress provoked amongst their apparent victims certainly are: by endlessly and brutally repressing their own people, even helpless young schoolgirls, Tehran’s theocratic dictatorship makes them fall sick en masse anyway. 

Nerve-gas or none, Iran’s schoolgirls are still the victims of the ruling extremist clerics; they have poisoned not their bodies, but their minds.