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Happy Halloween! It’s the season for everything spooktacular and creepy, ghosts and ghouls, monsters and zombies, trick or treating, and whacky costumes...
Yet, beyond all the fun-tastic freakishness and hype of Halloween, what’s interesting to reflect on is the diversity of belief across different cultures with respect to ghosts, omens and superstitions. At the root of most folklore and urban legends lies the common thread of good versus evil, but every culture has its own, unique ghost stories to tell. In fact, most cultures have a host of different famed ghost figures, feared or revered across generations.
CHL’s Burmese-language expert Yuri Takahashi, for example, says that “to choose the most famous Burmese ghost is difficult, because if ‘ghost’ means an apparition of a dead person, there are 37 representative ghosts in Myanmar. They are called ‘Nat’, which means the spirit of those who lost their lives because of mistreatment by authorities for various reasons. According to Professor Takahashi, many Burmese Buddhists worship certain Nats, particularly those that are part of their family's traditional history. If they receive enough attention, these Nats become the family's protectors, although they could cause trouble if not treated with respect.
In Japan, urban legend is replete with several stories of spirits in bathrooms, some emerging from inside bathroom stall walls, while others stretching out their hands from inside toilets. One such in(famous) spirit is Toire no Hanako-san, or Hanako of the Toilet. Legend has it that Hanako was young girl who died during the Holocaust. She is now believed to haunt school bathrooms in Japan.
In India, too, countless ghost stories abound. According to CHL’s Associate Professor and Deputy Director (Languages) Peter Friedlander, many Indian ghost stories describe spirits like bhut (wandering spirits) and pret (hungry ghosts). There are even sections in the ancient Indian Buddhist Canon that describe the fates of ghosts in the world, which due to ill actions in their lives, after death became trapped in dire circumstances in dark places. There are also places in India that claim to be the most haunted in the world. Perhaps the most famous of these is Bhangarh Fort in Rajasthan, which is said to have been cursed by a magician who died in pursuit of a princess, and to this day it is said that nobody can spend the night in this deserted fort due to the dreadful ghosts that dwell there. Associate Professor Friedlander recounts hearing of the many ghosts when he learned Hindi in Varanasi in the 1970s. “Everyone there told me that one of the titles of Shiva, the chief deity of the city, was Baba Bhutnath, the Lord of the ghosts. So when it comes to ghosts, India has no shortage of stories to tell to those who would like to listen to such tales.”
Similarly, Associate Professor Matt Tomlinson, who was always fascinated by different ghost stories, has come across many tales during the course of his research. From his experiences in Fiji, his favourite Fijian ghost story is about a haunted building in Vunisea, the small town and administrative centre of Kadavu Island. A friend of Associate Professor Tomlinson’s had gone to school there years earlier in an old building from colonial times. One night, he needed to use the toilet, and had to walk a long way through the U-shaped building. As he walked, he had an eerie feeling, his hairs standing on end. But he really needed to use the facilities, so he kept going. When he was returning to the students’ sleeping quarters, he passed the room which had been the old courtroom—and saw a white man sitting inside. As colonialism had ended a long time ago, and no white guy should be sitting in that room in the middle of the night, his friend didn’t know what to think. Frightened, he hurried back and told his mother’s sister what he had just seen. She replied: yes, lots of people see that guy!
While doing research in Samoa and American Samoa, Associate Professor Tomlinson also discovered to his surprise that Christian theological schools have lots of spirits on campus. Many of these are not actually ghosts, but spirits of a more traditional form—that is, legendary figures like the two women who protect the cave pool at Piula Theological College. He narrates an interesting ghost experience at the Kanana Fou Theological Seminary near Pago Pago.
“It took place at a service for the World Day of Prayer, an international event in which one country is featured each year and services around the world mention its traditions. The country that year was Cuba, and Samoan women dressed in cheerful outfits reflecting their vision of Caribbean fashion. Enchanted by the vibrant colours, I took some photos, as did other people at the service. My photos all looked normal, but one man’s photos on his mobile phone showed a face hovering in the glass behind one of the performers. Was it just a reflection? Or had a spirit shown up to the cheerful party, as they sometimes do?” No matter which culture or country we speak of, there is no dearth of paranormal folklore. But the one common thread that pulls ghost stories around the globe together is the mysticism. Perhaps the very appeal of ghost tales and urban legends lies in their mysterious and ‘unexplained’ nature—people love to follow and discuss what cannot always be explained or rationalised. And what better day could there be than Halloween to celebrate the mysticism that forms such an integral part of cultures and communities? The world would be boring without myths, fables, legends, beliefs, rituals and traditions!
Have a ‘mons-terrific’ Halloween, and please share any ghost stories or urban legends that you know of from your part of the world—especially if you’ve actually experienced anything spooky or paranormal—we would love to share your story!