There is often a very fine line between myth and reality. Case in point. There are a number of psychoses with behavior connected to specific cultures that can only be described as truly bizarre, but are nonetheless real. Some of these “culture-bound” behaviors often lead to very zombie-like behavior.
The term “culture-bound syndrome” is defined as a combination of psychological and physical symptoms that are considered to be a recognizable disease only within a specific society or culture.
Here are a few of the stranger culture-bound syndromes:
South Korea: Fan death is death supposedly caused by sleeping in a closed room containing a running electric fan.
Native American Indian: Ghost Sickness– People are preoccupied and/or consumed by the deceased. Reported symptoms include general weakness, loss of appetite, suffocation feelings, recurring nightmares, and a pervasive feeling of terror. The sickness is attributed to ghosts or witches.
World-wide: Koro (aka Shrinking Penis)– an individual has an overpowering belief that his or her genitals (e.g., penis or female nipples) are retracting and will disappear, despite the lack of any true longstanding changes to the genitals.
This brings us to two syndromes that could explain some of the more “zombie-like” behavior we have been seeing as of late.
Firstly, “amok” can be found in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), published by the American Psychiatric Association. It is described as an episode of sudden mass assault against people or objects usually by a single individual. This individual will obtain a weapon and begin indiscriminately killing people, and often ends with his/her suicide. This syndrome is particularly associated with Malaysian cultures. The phrase “running amok” is derived from this syndrome.
A syndrome of early Canadian indigenous people, consisting of the belief of being transformed into a cannibalistic monster with the uncontrollable urge to eat human flesh. Those afflicted are called a wendigo, windigo, witiko or wittigo. The sufferer also experiences agitation, depression, and fear about their inability to control sadistic impulses.
One of the more famous cases of Wendigo psychosis involved a Plains Cree trapper from Alberta, named Swift Runner. During the winter of 1878, Swift Runner and his family were starving, and his eldest son died. Despite food supplies being well within reach at a Hudson’s Bay Company post, Swift Runner butchered and ate his wife and five remaining children. Given that he resorted to cannibalism so near to food supplies, and that he killed and consumed the remains of all those present, it was revealed that Swift Runner’s was not a case of “pure cannibalism as a last resort” to avoid starvation, but rather of a man suffering from Wendigo psychosis. He eventually confessed and was executed by authorities at Fort Saskatchewan.
Another well-known case involving Wendigo psychosis was that of Jack Fiddler, an Oji-Cree chief and shaman known for his powers at defeating Wendigos. In some cases this entailed euthanizing people suffering from Wendigo psychosis; as a result, in 1907, Fiddler and his brother Joseph were arrested by the Canadian authorities for murder. Jack committed suicide, but Joseph was tried and sentenced to life in prison. He was ultimately granted a pardon, but died three days later in jail before receiving the news of this pardon.
That being said, it appears that some mental illness can be exacerbated by culture. The example of the Wendigo “mythology” in a culture where food was often very scarce and hunger ever-present, gives context for their cannibalistic thoughts. It doesn’t make it any less real, but in fact, more real and frightening.