FOREIGNERS living in Asia, as I and my family have for the past year, gradually become aware that beneath the modern, rational surface of the booming "pacific rim" surges a current of mysticism far more powerful than in the West.

Newspapers in Malaysia, where we now live, were one early clue. There isn't much hard news here. For example, stories about the recent jailings without trial of more than 100 political activists have all but disappeared from the papers. (One explanation, of course, is that the most aggressive newspapers were shut down when the arrests began.) The space is filled instead with lavish details about minor disasters -- road accidents, the discovery of bodies in reservoirs of abandoned tin mines, the potential threat of Korean Haemorrhagic fever, and so on.

Reports begin with the facts ("Two motorcyclists and their pillion rider were killed when their cycle slammed head-on into a lorry") but they stretch on like soap operas, advancing the story fractionally day after day, filling us in on the school records of the newly-orphaned children, the debts of the rubber-tapper's widow.

The most curious aspect of these stories, however, and the one most telling about life in Southeast Asia, comes after the Who, What, Where, When and Why. It's what reporters and readers clearly view as the Real Reason Why, and it usually goes something like this: "The victim's mother said that her son had been acting strangely all week before his demise." Or "Friends of the victim said she seemed quiet and unfriendly for days before she disappeared." Or "Encik Hashim, who held a ticket on the doomed flight, said his friends dissuaded him from boarding at the last minute."

These comments, I have come to understand, are as vital to the story as the conventional "facts." They hint at a layer of life that is other-worldly, spiritual and spooky. True, we in the West have our unlucky numbers and black cats. But in the cultures of Southeast Asia, the reminders of mysticism's power -- ghost stories, tales of foreboding, evil spells -- are far more intrusive.

Consider the tamest example: the ancient Chinese art of Feng Shui. This is the science of "auspicious" building location, practiced by geomancers who are routine participants in the planning of Malaysia's newest skyscrapers and sprawling shopping malls.

Feng Shui literally means "wind and water." Its recommendations about where a building should be placed, relative to hills, trees and streams, made excellent practical sense in ancient China. Then Ming architects laid out the Forbidden City so that the main gates faced south and no windows faced north. This helped prevent the bitter Mongolian winds from ragingthrough. But Feng Shui also includes precepts whose logical base is harder to detect. A crack in the sidewalk is bad because it will let a building's "luck run away." If a cashier's office is placed at the wrong angle to the manager's, money will not "flow" from one to the other.

Although hotel managers and corporate officials do not like to discuss it with Westerners, their Malaysian customers would be worried if they had not considered Feng Shui when drawing up their plans. The vast Sungei Wang ("Money River") shopping center in Kuala Lumpur was placed on a small hill (auspicious), with an entrance facing slightly away from the main road (more auspicious). Even the old colonial-era house we rent sits awkwardly facing the side of the yard, presenting a flank view to all visitors.

More ominous intrusions come from the world of bomohs, this country's traditional medicine man. He's called upon to cure illnesses, placate evil spirits or, in the case of wicked bomohs, to cast spells and concoct charms. He's a more familiar figure in the kampungs, or rural villages, than in the cities, but he makes guest appearances in surprising places.

Just outside Kuala Lumpur, the Motorola corporation operates a huge semiconductor plant, employing 5000 people. Its production facilities are among the most advanced and sophisticated in the world. But the company, like most others in Malaysia, has had to resort to charms, spells and exorcisms to keep its machines running in the face of outbreaks of hysteria among its workers. Hysteria is not a casually hyperbolic term here. It means that someone (usually a schoolgirl or young female factory worker) has spontaneously begun screaming and running around the environs. The disorder seems to be contagious, and soon the school or factory is in bedlam. The explanation, as all Malaysians understand it, is that an evil spirit has possessed the victims.

One approach tried by Motorola is sending the girls home for two weeks of rest. (A manager said that the rest-cure became more effective when it was shifted from paid to unpaid leave.) But usually the only way to clear up the problem for good is to bring in a bomoh.

Here is a typical report that appeared, as a straight news story, in Malaysia's leading newspaper a few days ago:

"Employees of Singamip Industry SDN BHD {an electronics factory} said that yesterday, about 20 women started screaming, one after another, at about 9:30 a.m. Their colleagues restrained them and they were sent home. Workers called in a bomoh after the incident yesterday to chant prayers and a goat was sacrificed to appease whatever spirits had affected the victims."

My favorite bomoh story tells of a young woman possessed of seven evil spirits. The bomoh exorcized them, one by one, squeezing them in turn into a bottle. Then he cast the bottle into the Straits of Malacca.

Closely related to hysteria is "amok", the one Malay word to have made its way into standard English usage. When a person is "amok" in Malaysia, he has gone completely haywire, often crazily chasing after someone else in hopes of chopping him to bits. Every month or two I see a headline saying, "AMOK KILLS THREE." Everyone assumes that the killer himself is also a victim. He has, after all, been possessed, which renders him morally (if not legally) free of blame.

We get other little glimpses of the ever-present possibility of possession. Last winter, we went with our children to Batu Caves, a bizarre limestone mountain, to see the rituals for the grisly Hindu ceremony, Thaipusam.

In the pre-dawn hours, with the night air filled with low chanting and the jangling of thousands of ankle bracelets, we watched encampments of families and friends clustered around gas lamps, talking, singing, eating, but mostly focusing on the young men who have worked themselves into trances for Thaipusam.

One young Indian man, encouraged and helped by his friends, danced, rocked and chanted himself into a blank-eyed trance. Fully stupefied, he picked up a sharpened metal spear, two feet long and as thick as your finger, and pierced his own cheeks straight through, in one side of his face and out the other. Unflinching and unbleeding, he took his place among hundreds of others similarly mutilated. Many had even longer rods through their cheeks. Some had metal grappling hooks sunk into their backs, with long lines attached to the hooks like leashes that their friends used to restrain them. Others balanced three-foot-high shrines on their shoulders, supported by sharp metal pins digging into their flesh. None of the wounds bled. After a chilling look into their eyes, I was willing to believe that the men were in a world beyond ours.

When dawn broke, the spells broke as well. As if at a fair, Indian families bought souvenirs for their children, inflatable cartoon figures or bags of candy. We headed back to our car to drive our children to school, watching workers make for their jobs in the downtown skyscrapers. None of us missed more than a beat or two. Mass possession had become part of the blend of our "normal" daily lives.

Deborah Fallows is the author of "A Mother's Work."