Running amok

Running amok, sometimes referred to as simply amok (also spelled amuck or amuk), is derived from the Malay/Indonesian/Filipino word amuk, meaning "mad with rage" (uncontrollable rage).

The word was in use in India during the British Empire, originally to describe an elephant gone mad, separated from its herd, running wild and causing devastation. The word was made popular by the colonial tales of Rudyard Kipling.

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 and, in a sudden frenzy, will attempt to kill or seriously injure anyone he encounters. Amok episodes of this kind normally end with the attacker being killed by bystanders, or committing suicide.


Many explanations for amok have been offered by observers, including suggestions that it is a physical consequence of alcoholism, drug addiction, heat or internal parasites. Nineteenth and early twentieth century investigators were unable, however, to find any real evidence to support these speculations. Psychological explanations include the suggestion that amok is a sudden explosion of internal tension created by life in a highly hierarchical society; both Malay and Javanese traditional societies are said to have been extremely hierarchical, with an emphasis on deference to rulers. It is doubtful, however, whether these societies are unusually hierarchical in a global context. Other observers have described amok as a form of spirit possession.

The explanation which is now most widely accepted is that amok is closely related to male honor (amok by women is virtually unknown). In many cases where the background of the amok-runner is known, there seems to have been some element of deep shame which prevented the man from living honorably, as he saw it, in his own society. Running amok was 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. Evidence for this explanation is that the incidence of amok seems to be less where amok runners are captured and tried, rather than being beaten to death on the spot.

W. W. Skeat wrote in the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica:

Cultural equivalents

Early travellers 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 startles their enemies that it either delivers victory or at least ensures an honourable death. This form of amok appears to resemble the berserker of the Norse.

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).

Behaviour strongly reminiscent of amok is also found in Western societies, and indeed the term is often used to refer to the behaviour 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 intent and more common today, particularly in North America. Police describe such an event as a killing spree.

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 'mata gelap' (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:

Terminological references in popular culture

While the phrase "running amok" is a now-hackneyed literary device, some interesting works have used the actual concept of amok with some effectiveness, including

  • John Brunner's 1968 science fiction novel Stand on Zanzibar describes a society that is so overcrowded that people running amok (called muckers) are so common that everyone arms themselves, which only exacerbates the problem.
  • The Star Trek: The Original Series episode "Amok Time" revealed much about Spock's home planet and its courtship rituals, during which Vulcans are said to periodically enter a state very similar to amok.

External links

"Amok" is also found in the DSM-IV TR: " "

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