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Department of Anthropology

Academic Staff

Publication details for Dr Claudia Merli

Merli, C. (1999). The Amok Runner: From the gallant warrior to the hospitalised madman. Changes in the view of a Malay cultural phenomenon transformed into a psychiatric syndrome. (Il corridore di Amok: dall'eroico guerriero al folle internato. Mutamenti nella visione di un fenomeno culturale malese trasformato in sindrome psichiatrica). AM. Rivista della Società italiana di antropologia medica 7-8: 209-250.

Author(s) from Durham


This article runs over the history of the western attitude toward one of the most studied culture-bound syndromes: the Malay amok, described as a sort of homicidal rage to whom only the males would be subject. Since the 16th century's first occasional testimonies until the systematic study conducted by psychiatrists and anthropologists, we witness a change in the phenomenon's interpretation that clash with the period of maximum impact of the British influence on the peninsula. There is a variation in the vision of the man who shows amok: if in traditional context this extremely violent behaviour could receive a positive evaluation (bringing it back to the military ethos), during the contact with the West the amok runner is at first (until the 19th century) imprisoned or executed, and on the turn of the 20th century he was invariably interned in a lunatic asylum. Analysing the phenomenon physicians and psychiatrists look for neurophisiological explanations, whereas few anthropologists prefer to resort to totally cultural ones. At the end, the most curious destiny of amok is that it has been used to define and identify also phenomena occurred in the West, transforming the original 'culture-bound syndrome' in 'universally verifiable syndrome'.