ⓘ Running amok

Running amok

ⓘ Running amok

Running amok, sometimes referred to as simply amok or having gone amok, also spelled amuck or amuk, from the Southeast Asian Austronesian languages, is "an episode of sudden mass assault against people or objects usually by a single individual following a period of brooding that has traditionally been regarded as occurring especially in Malay culture but is now increasingly viewed as psychopathological behavior". The syndrome of "Amok" is found in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. The phrase is often used in a less serious manner when describing something that is wildly out of control or causing a frenzy.


1. Malaysian/Indonesian origin

Amok originated from the Malaysian/Indonesian word meng-amuk, which when roughly defined means "to make a furious and desperate charge". According to Malaysian and Indonesian cultures, amok was rooted in a deep spiritual belief. They believed that amok was caused by the hantu belian, which was an evil tiger spirit that entered ones body and caused the heinous act. As a result of the belief, those in Indonesian culture tolerated amok and dealt with the after-effects with no will towards the assailant.

Although commonly used in a colloquial and less-violent sense, the phrase is particularly associated with a specific sociopathic culture-bound syndrome in the cultures of Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei. In a typical case of running amok, an individual often male, having shown no previous sign of anger or any inclination to violence, will acquire a weapon traditionally a sword or dagger, but currently any of a variety of weapons and in a sudden frenzy, will attempt to kill or seriously injure anyone he encounters and himself. 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, eliciting theories that amok may be a form of intentional suicide in cultures where suicide is heavily stigmatized. Those who do not commit suicide and are not killed typically lose consciousness, and upon regaining consciousness, claim amnesia.

An early Western description of the practice appears in the journals of Captain James Cook, a British explorer, who encountered amok firsthand in 1770 during a voyage around the world. Cook writes of individuals behaving in a reckless, violent manner, without cause and "indiscriminately killing and maiming villagers and animals in a frenzied attack."

A widely accepted explanation links amok with male honor amok by women and children is virtually unknown. Running amok would thus be both a way of escaping the world since perpetrators were normally killed or committed suicide and re-establishing ones reputation as a man to be feared and respected.


2. 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. An episode of amok may be triggered by a period of depression or highly aggressive behavior. The slang terms going postal or going ballistic are 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, 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.


3. Officially classified as a psychiatric condition

In 1849, amok was officially classified as a psychiatric condition based on numerous reports and case studies that showed the majority of individuals who committed amok were, in some sense, mentally ill. The modern DSM-IV method of classification of mental disorders contains two official types of amok disorder; 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, but is not limited to, 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, society, or object for a wide variety of reasons. Amok has been more closely associated with psychosis, personality disorders, bipolar disorder, and delusions.


4. Historical and cross-cultural comparisons

Early travelers in Asia sometimes describe a kind of military amok, in which soldiers apparently facing 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.

An example would be during the Battle of Bukit Chandu in Singapore during WWII when 41 outnumbered soldiers of the Malay Regiment, led by Adnan Saidi, charged and went all out against a 13 000 strong invading Japanese Army. They continued the fight armed with just knives and bayonets for three days before they were finally defeated.

This form of amok appears to resemble the Scandinavian Berserker, mal de pelea Puerto Rico, and iichaa Navaho.

In contemporary Indonesia, the term amok amuk generally refers not to individual violence, but to frenzied violence by mobs. Indonesians now commonly use the term gelap mata literally darkened eyes to refer to individual amok. Laurens van der Post experienced the phenomenon in the East Indies and wrote in 1955:

Gelap mata, the Dark Eye, is an expression used in Sumatra and Java to describe a curious and disturbing social phenomenon. Socially speaking, the Malays, Sumatrans and Javanese are the best behaved people I have ever encountered. On the surface they are an extremely gentle, refined, submissive people. In fact the word Malay comes from malu, gentle, and gentleness is a quality prized above all others among the Malays and their neighbours. In their family life, in their submission to traditional and parental authority, in their communal duties, they are among the most obedient people on earth. But every now and then something very disturbing happens. A man who has behaved in this obliging manner all his life and who has always done his duty by the outside world to perfection, suddenly finds it impossible to keep doing so. Overnight he revolts against goodness and dutifulness.

In the Philippines, amok also means unreasoning murderous rage by an individual. In 1876, the Spanish governor-general of the Philippines Jose Malcampo coined the term juramentado for the behavior from juramentar – "to take an oath", surviving into modern Philippine languages as huramentado. It has historically been linked with the Moro people of Mindanao, particularly in the Sulu Archipelago, in connection with societal and cultural pressures.

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.

According to the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition, some notable cases have occurred among the Rajputs. 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.

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