Running amok, sometimes referred to as simply amok (also spelled amuk, from the Malay meaning "mad with uncontrollable rage") is a term for a killing spree perpetrated by an individual out of rage or resentment over perceived mistreatment.
The phrase is often used in a less serious manner in relation to someone or something that is out of control and causing trouble (e.g., a dog tearing up the living room furniture might be said to be running amok). Such usage does not imply murderous actions, and any emotional implications (e.g., rage, fear, excitement) must be gleaned from context.
The word was used by the British to describe to run-a-muck, or murder indiscriminately. It was later used in India during the British Empire, 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.
During the American occupation of the Philippines, many noted incidences of individuals running amok in Mindanao, Palawan and Sulu were documented in photographs. During the Spanish colonial period, the amuk's were called juramentador, meaning "those who have taken a vow", as the amok was confused with the tradition of shahid, who ceremoniously took a vow to God, detailing that he would die whilst attacking the enemy in the hopes of attaining Jannah. This vow was usually taken in front of a Rajah and an Imam before attacking. The same typical Malay method of spontaneous suicide attack with the kalis was used by syahid, yet a syahid would only attack enemy combatants, while an amok would strike out indiscriminately at civilians.
The term juramentado is still synonymous with amok for Christian Filipinos.
A widely accepted explanation links amok with male honor (amok by women is virtually unknown). Running amok would thus be 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.
"Running amok" is 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 scope. Police describe such an event as a killing spree. If the individual is seeking death an alternate method is often suicide by cop.
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).
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 startled their enemies that it either delivered victory or at least ensured what the soldier in that culture considered an honourable death. This form of amok appears to resemble the berserker of the Norse, the cafard or cathard (Polynesia), mal de pelea (Puerto Rico), and iich'aa (Navaho).
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 'gelap mata' (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:
In 1634, the eldest son of the raja of Jodhpur ran amok at the court of Shah Jahan, failing in his attack on the emperor, but killing five of his officials. During the 18th century, again, at Hyderabad (Sind), two envoys, sent by the Jodhpur chief in regard to a quarrel between the two states, stabbed the prince and twenty-six of his suite before they themselves fell.
This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed (1911). . (Eleventh ed.). Cambridge University Press. http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/1911_Encyclop%C3%A6dia_Britannica/Amuck,_Running.