Another writing prompt. One I’ve set myself based on an intriguing BBC article – The mystery of screaming schoolgirls in Malaysia. Well worth a read. It’s a fascinating phenomenon that appears to bridge the gap between folklore and the modern world. Fertile ground for a good tale if ever I’ve heard one.
From a technical basis, I needed to practise writing slightly longer pieces that require outlining. It’s still a short story (approx. 4-5k words) and I’ll be serialising it in 3 posts during September. This will be the first fiction post on the blog that hasn’t been fueled by a challenge or competition. We’ll see how it goes, enjoy part one.
It had started with the recess bell and a single piercing scream. A scream that within moments echoed had around the school. Panicked teachers barred classroom doors in vain, as one by one their students fell to the ground clutching their heads, adding their own tortured voice to the pandemonium.
I had been attending a Médecins Sans Frontières conference in Singapore at the time. The story had made the news cycle that evening and I recall idly watching it in the bar. Another bizarre incident of mass hysteria in a Malaysian school. I recall thinking how odd it was at the time, but the rest of our group turned up and frankly I don’t recall much else of that evening.
That should have been the end of it and it would have been if it hadn’t been for Siti raising the topic, deliberately loudly, at breakfast the next morning. The beleaguered school had been her alma mater and the stories she’d heard from close friends had her worried. Worried enough that she was flying home that evening. Siti always did have a habit of running towards her fears. I was just thankful that this time, I wouldn’t be following her into a warzone.
It had taken us a few days to begin piecing together an initial account of what had happened. The school was still closed, and the faculty were initially unwilling to discuss the incident. They hadn’t banked on Siti’s knack for cutting through bureaucracy. Patient zero, that first girl, had described a dark figure that had crept up on her as the bell had rung. A face of pure evil, accompanied by a vision of unimaginable horror. The image was so distressing that she had fainted in a fit on the classroom floor. All the affected girls had described the same dark figure and terrifying vision.
More disturbingly the scene had been replicated in four other classrooms, all exactly at the same time. There was no patient zero, there were four! That was our first breakthrough. The grainy CCTV footage of four girls in four different classrooms suddenly screaming at the same time was chilling. It cast the first stone of doubt at the generally accepted mass hysteria hypothesis and hinted at something else.
We spent a week eliminating biological, chemical and radiological factors. The school had remained closed. There were suggestions it might never reopen. Siti had been relentless, calling in favours from scientists and medical specialists across the globe. In spite of this global effort, the nature of the incident, its cause, still alluded us.
We knew the key lay in why only some of the students had reacted. If we could get to the bottom of that we might be able to get somewhere. Having eliminated most physical factors we started reluctantly leaning towards the psychological. I wasn’t a fan of the vague hysteria label it simply didn’t answer any questions. After interviewing a good cross-section of the girls, I’d hope to pinpoint some common cultural trigger. Delving into their backgrounds though rapidly introduced far too many variables, too much diversity even from girls in the same street. If there was a common shared psychological predisposition we stood no chance of finding it, or at least that’s what I had thought.
Enter Dr Amy Price a psychology researcher based in California. She had the intriguing idea of constructing what she referred to as an advanced psychometric screening test. I had my doubts from her description, it kept coming back to the number of variables but I agreed anyway. If it helped her research at least something useful might come out of the bizarre situation.
Three days later Dr Price sent out a link to all the girls at the school. Clicking on it would install a mobile application. Each girl would then be presented a set of “seeding” questions. Innocuous enough, what colours they liked, their favourite song, etc. The girls would answer all the questions and the data would be uploaded and correlated in the cloud. Overnight an AI would process all this so-called “big data” and the next day, it would ask all the girls a new set of refined questions. This went on for two weeks. Thousands of questions refined and cross-correlated. Each night the AI searched for commonality across countless permutations. Each morning it would present a new set of carefully crafted questions.
In the meantime, we were struggling to make any headway. Siti was having to deal with flack due to the lack of progress. Goodwill was running out. So I had completely forgotten about Dr Price’s experiment until a report pinged in my inbox. The report simply named specific girls and grouped them under the ominous titles “positive” and “negative”. Intrigued, I rang Dr Price for the details.
Against all odds, the AI was claiming to have found a correlation. There was a “meme” that one group had that the others did not. It’s the first time I’d heard the term meme used beyond the scope of an amusing cat video. Dr Price set me straight; knowledge fragments were grouped and correlated into “memes”. The AI had identified some knowledge or experience in the positive group that did not appear in the negative group. Dr Price was reluctant to disclose specifically what it was, arguing it could influence the outcome of any practical test.
Siti’s first reaction to the news was not positive. It was only the lack of any other options and the ticking clock that forced her to reluctantly give a green light to test the hypothesis. A few days later, she had managed to convince two of the teachers and most of the girls identified in the report to re-enter the school. I’ll never know how she did it.
We split the students into separate classrooms as determined by the report and rerun the events of that infamous morning. For an hour the girls sat in the hot classroom, working nervously but diligently through their textbooks, with no reactions. Siti looked defeated, we were out of time. I was about to ask the teachers to end the test when I remembered the recess bell.
Could it have been a trigger? A catalyst maybe. Running to reception I found the button and pressed it. The mechanical bells rang around the halls and classrooms. Within seconds I could hear blood-curdling screams over the din. The hairs on my neck bristled and I launched myself up the corridor. By the time I had reached the stricken classroom, every single girl was screaming, most were flailing on the floor. A scene of utter horror which has haunted my dreams ever since.
Across the hall, however, in stark contrast, ten terrified girls sat silent, staring back at me. I sprinted back to reception to turn off the bell. It took an hour to calm the girls and longer to convince the teachers that the experiment had actually been a success. Siti as always worked her magic.
Walking back to reception to ring Dr Price, I was trying to process what I had seen. Had the AI been right? Had it identified an idea, a thought that made these girls susceptible? The alarm seemed to trigger something in that memory to make its presence manifest. The implications were staggering, terrifying.
I didn’t have a chance to ponder it further as I excitedly dialled Dr Price. It would be early but she would want to know the results and the significance of the bell. I imagined she would be over the moon. In fact, she was strangely calm, having listened to my account, she flatly thanked. When I inquired what the common meme was, she paused for an age before simply saying “it’s classified”. The line went dead.
Puzzled, I was staring at my phone when with a crash, the school doors flew open and a dozen armed soldiers flooded into the foyer barking instructions. I was thrown to the ground, pinned. My hands bound tightly behind my back before I was dragged away. The last thing I saw as a black hood covered my face was Siti being bundled into the back of a white van. The last thing I heard was a screech of tires followed by a sickening dull thud.
Cover image courtesy of: Feliphe Schiarolli