How I Covered the Bangladesh Toilet Ghost Hysteria Story

June 26, 2013

I’m sometimes asked for insight into how my articles and columns come about, what the process is for assembling them. Here’s one recent example.

I came across a weird news story that included many of my favorite topics: Ghosts! The power of prayer! Exorcisms! Mass hysteria! And last but not least, Bangladeshi garment factory riots!

Yes, there’s something for everyone in this strange story:

Thousands of workers at a garment factory in Bangladesh stopped working and rioted earlier this week, demanding that a ghost be removed from their building. The problem began when a female worker said she felt sick and attributed her condition to “an attack by a ghost” inside a toilet in the women’s washroom. According to news reports over 3,000 frightened workers at a plant in the city of Gazipur protested, with dozens of them vandalizing the factory before police used tear gas to quell the riot.

As I discuss in my book Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries, sometimes, for practical and other reasons, it’s not so much a matter of “solving” a case or personally investigating it (though that’s always best), but instead closely reviewing the available information and offering a skeptical analysis. (This was the case, for example, last year with the infamous Denver UFO/insect videos; my task was to offer a science-based, skeptical analysis of the situation, try to sort fact from fiction and expose any logical fallacies, and offer alternative explanations. For more on this, see my Skeptical Inquiree column “Lessons from a Denver Fly,” in the March/April 2013 issue of Skeptical Inquirer.)

Here’s a few steps that went into my analysis and writing an article on this odd case.

1) About a week ago I saw the news story pop up in a Google alerts I have set up to flag stories about mass hysteria. I skimmed the article briefly and made a mental note to look at it more closely when I wasn’t so busy.

2) That moment of not being so busy, somewhat predictably, never happened. However a few days later I did notice a piece about it at Sharon Hill’s excellent web site Doubtful News. It added some good skeptical insight, including that “the prayers may work… It just takes one person to be influential and spread a false rumor or a ghost tale and then many will be primed to experience it and attribute various happenings to “a ghost.”

Sharon was right about this, but there was still something I wasn’t quite understanding about the situation. It had several elements I’m familiar with and have researched before, including ghost reports and mass hysteria. But while these things share similar psychological principles in terms of contagion, suggestion, the potential for “folie a deux,” and their etiologies, mass hysterias and ghost reports rarely coincide. They are essentially two different types of phenomenon. It was a very strange case with different aspects that were genuinely mysterious when taken collectively.

3) I started looking into the case and searching for different news stories that might give me additional information. After collecting and carefully reading three or four (there wasn’t much available), the pieces started to come together. Once I decided I had a decent grasp on it, I decided I should write a column on it for a broader audience since (other than Sharon’s brief commentary) at the time there was little or no skeptical or in-depth analysis of the incident.

One important part of skeptical investigation is figuring out what, exactly, the central mystery is, what parts of a story are red herrings and what parts are key to understanding what happened. In this case the key was realizing that the ghost aspect was mostly peripheral to the claim, since no one was said to have seen, photographed, or encountered any ghostly activity. The ghost was important mainly because it was the cause of one woman’s (apparent) sudden illness (and it left the potential for the illness to spread to others)-not so much that any classic haunting activity was going on. It was essentially a mass hysteria case after all, similar to others I’d investigated and written about before.

4) The next issue was making sure I understood the social and cultural context. I suspected that Bangladesh had a sizeable Muslim population, and I confirmed that the country is largely (90%) Muslim. This is important for understanding what the workers might have believed, and why. Of course any particular individual’s personal beliefs may vary from others in their demographic, but understanding a group’s religious belief system can be very informative, as I discovered when I investigated the skeptic-raping bat demon creature Popobawa in the Muslim-dominated East African island of Zanzibar in 2007 (my investigation appeared in Fortean Times magazine in November 2008).

In this case I knew from my research into djinn (genies) that belief in spirits play an important role in Muslim paranormal beliefs. Furthermore I remembered author Robert Lebling, a guest on the MonsterTalk podcast, writing about how djinn are sometimes said to haunt sewers, toilets, and other unsanitary, inhospitable places. I pulled out my copy of Lebling’s book Legend of the Fire Spirits, reviewed the information, and realized that this could explain why the Muslim workers might more easily accept the explanation that a spirit might be in the toilet.

5) I ended up working on this piece for several more hours than I’d planned or wanted to. In fact I grew so frustrated I even vented briefly in a post on the MonsterTalk Facebook page. “I’m getting frustrated because I’m writing a column about a ghost/djinn/mass hysteria case and it’s taking hours longer than I intended. I keep wanting to add more information about it to help people understand what is a somewhat complex situation, based on my research, experience, and knowledge of folklore. I wish I wasn’t such a damned perfectionist, but I know that if I don’t write it, no one else will. I want to be thorough and bring my expertise to my work, and I honestly can probably explain this better than just about anyone else, but I [can’t spend all day on this].

I finally finished the piece and sent it in to near midnight, pleased at having written a solid, skeptical, reasonably thorough analysis. Still, an annoyed frustration lingered: Was my piece too in-depth? Would anyone really appreciate the research I put into it, or really want to understand the psychological and cultural factors behind this? Was it all a waste of time?

I was pleased to see that my article was later picked up by NBC News and Yahoo News. Between the two, I probably reached 50,000 people or more. Sometimes that’s how skepticism spreads, one reader or story at a time. I’m not suggesting that my analysis is the complete answer, or that my column is the final word on this curious incident. I may be wrong about something, and I’ll be interested to see if there’s any follow-up in this case. But I did the best I could with what information I had at the time, informed by my knowledge and experience.

To many people who read the original headlines, the original story probably came off as a silly “weird news” item about superstitious and crazy factory workers in Bangladesh who thought a ghost lived in their toilet. It’s usually much easier to dismiss and ridicule other people’s beliefs than it is to try to understand them.

To me the whole case was an interesting puzzle with psychological, cultural, and so
ciological clues. I wanted, if I could, to show that these factory workers were neither stupid nor crazy, but simply responding to strange and unexplained incidents in a way that makes sense from their worldview. This is a theme I have touched on many times, especially in my investigations and books with Robert Bartholomew. As Baruch Spinoza famously said, “I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them.”