‘Koro’ is a Indonesian word for a turtle hiding her head inside her shell. It is also one of the names of an odd psychological syndrome that for centuries remained confined to the Han communities in China, to Southeastern Asia and parts of Africa.
Koro victims suddenly feel their genitals retreating inside their body or just disappearing. They panic, become depressed, certain of their imminent death or suicidal. Sometimes they injure or even kill themselves trying to stretch their genitals back… all for what is obviously just a delusion.
The causes of such condition are eminently psychological, usually deriving from a mix of sheer ignorance and guilty feelings for having transgressed sex-related norms. An important aspect of jinjinia bemar, as it is known in India (or rok-joo in Thailand) is its tendence to develop epidemically due to the spreading of mass hysteria.
The most famous episode happened in Singapore in 1967, when the newspapers suggested that eating pork from pigs inoculated against swine fever caused koro. The panic grew to hundreds of reported cases, and could only be quenched by a second media campaign debunking the story.
In Africa the condition is often caused by the cultural conflicts inherent in urbanization, when the stories of witchcraft come clashing with the sense of wonder and dreamlike possibilities of modern living. Here the syndrome takes the form of ‘penis theft’, for magical purposes or a vague notion of “organ trafficking”. The epidemics frequently evolve into full-blown witch hunts and street violence.
Western countries aren’t immune either, with fewer similar stories recorded since the Fifteenth century up to very recent times. The delusion is so strong that no amount of evidence («Hey, look! It’s there as usual!») can convince the victims to be healthy: sometimes placebo counter-magic is the only working cure.
All of this would be just weird trivia, if it wasn’t for a new phenomenon caused by the global increase of expatriations and intercultural mingling. In short, people from koro-prone cultures are mixing more and more with previously unaffected populations; the high anxiety of contemporary life makes for a fertile terrain for magical thinking and paranoid delusions… so koro is reportedly becoming a pandemic.
Think of this post the next time you’ll suspect you’re maybe getting a little bit shorter, or that your breast is deflating (the syndrome is also spreading to females). Just repeat to yourself that it’s all in the mind – and while you’re at it, for good measure just stay away from sorcerers.