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Lecture | Research Seminar

CA-OS Research Seminar | What is at Stake in Epidemics of Demon Possession in Schools?

Monday 1 April 2019
Pieter de la Court
Wassenaarseweg 52
2333 AK Leiden

What is at Stake in Epidemics of Demon Possession in Schools? Children's Perspectives in Swaziland and Suriname 


Epidemics of seemingly contagious dissociative behavior, or trance, are known to occur worldwide in bounded communities of peers, particularly younger people, for instance in schools, orphanages and factories. Research into this phenomenon remains unsystematic and opportunistic as it mostly takes place in answer to a specific outbreak, involving professionals or academics who happened to be around or were called in to help solve a particular crisis. What motivates children living in vastly different socio-cultural contexts to exhibit similar behavior? Do similar experiences or problems underlie epidemics of possession trance? How can insight into children’s own experiences, perspectives and strategies contribute to effective preventive and crisis interventions? These questions guide an ongoing study into children’s cultural idioms of distress, in which Reis collaborates with local doctoral researchers and small multidisciplinary teams.

In Suriname, outbreaks in schools of what is locally called ‘trance phenomena’ have taken place almost on a yearly basis over the last decade. In Eswatini (Swaziland), yearly episodes in high schools have been reported since the 1980s, but have become increasingly prevalent over the last decade. Under the influence of Christian cosmologies ‘demons’ have become the main protagonists in children’s enactments and narratives of possession trance.

Using the theoretical lens of cultural idioms of distress, Reis will focus on schoolchildren’s own perspectives and discuss how emotional effects of social suffering and locally widely shared cognitions contribute to children’s collective communications of distress in epidemics of possession. How such insights may contribute to interventions will also be discussed.


Ria Reis, (MA, PhD) is Professor of Medical Anthropology at the Dept. of Public Health and Primary Care, Leiden University Medical Centre (LUMC), Associate Professor at the Dept. of Anthropology, University of Amsterdam, and Academic Staff member at the Amsterdam Institute of Global Health and Development (AIGHD). She also is Honorary Professor at the Children’s Institute,  University of Cape Town. Core themes in her research are the intergenerational transmission of vulnerabilities in contexts of inequality and (post)conflict, and young people’s health perceptions, strategies and resilience. She has particular interest in youth mental health and cultural idioms of distress as expressions of communal social suffering in regions affected by epidemics, disasters, conflicts and violence.

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