For many in the west, Halloween is a time to revel in ghost stories, in tall tales of spooky horror. It’s a time to gorge decadently on sugar-laden treats, to get elegantly crafty with some pumpkin-carving, to frivolously deck yourself out in gaudy, ghoulish dress and dance the night away at some Halloween-themed bash.
It’s commercial, it’s kitsch…it’s a fun-filled holiday. Our score of Halloween characters are made in Hollywood – Frankenstein, Dracula, the Mummy – old hangovers from Hammer horror films, or modern iterations of creepy nuns and sinister clowns from slasher movies.
Yet, across Asia and the Americas, tales of ghosts, the paranormal, and demons are a lot more grounded. In many of our destinations, belief in the spirit world is alive and well. In Thailand, a collection of monks were enlisted to perform an exorcism at the opening of Bangkok’s main airport. In Mexico, many people are as likely to share a recommendation for a local shaman as they are a decent plumber.
It’s the rich tapestry of religious mixing. A blend of Buddhism, hints of Hinduism, and a lingering attachment to animism creates a delicious mix of myth and superstition across Asia. In the Americas, the complex conversion to Christianity with the incorporation of pre-Colombian and indigenous folktales have led to a wealth of Meso-American ghost stories. These co-exist alongside ancestor worship. We need look no further than the famous ‘Dia de Muertos’ for evidence of this.
Let’s take a look at some of the fiendish spectres famous in our destinations, founded and embedded within the realms of the authentic spirit world. This backdrop, so alien to us in the west, makes for some fascinating stories.
Just like a dog is not just for Christmas, in Asia and the Americas, a ghost is not just for Halloween.
Perhaps the most notorious of all the vengeful spirits of Southeast Asia, the pontianak, or kuntianak, is the source of nightmares across Indonesia and Malaysia, and variations are prevalent in Laotian and Thai culture, too.
One commonality across cultures worldwide seems to be that swamps are considered creepy. Across Southeast Asia, spirits and demons are said to dwell in these damp, eerie settings. The crossing point of the Kapuas and Landak rivers in western Kalimantan, Indonesia, is a swampy marshland allegedly haunted by pontianaks.
These spectres take the form of beautiful women and prey upon vulnerable souls. These women are said to have either died in childbirth or been the subject of violent deaths – and they’re out to avenge the raw hand they were dealt during their lifetime. Folktales of the pontianaks are not for the faint-hearted, with stories of evisceration by their long-tendril like fingernails before a hearty feast of the inner organs.
In Malaysia, the smell of clean laundry is said to attract pontianaks, and that a strong flower fragrance will often precede a sighting. Legend has it, too, that they can be tamed. Snare a pontianak and whack a nail into the hole at the nape of her nack, and she will become a beautiful, gentle, caring woman, loyal to whoever released her from the spirit world.
Possibly a Malay variation on the Pontianak, the penanggalan is a grotesque, vampiric figure – a disembodied floating head that scopes out Malay neighbourhoods at night looking for pregnant mothers and newborns to feast upon.
Below the floating female head with long flowing black hair, the creature’s entrails hang in mid-air as it glides around in search of its prey. It drips blood and gore on its travels before returning to reattach to its body. It’s truly a harrowing vision.
Variations on the penanggalan pop up across southeast Asia with differing origin stories and traits. She is known as Krasue in Thailand.
Sticking to the Malaysian version, she is meant to have been a product of a black magic curse. The legend states that a woman may make a deal to follow a strict diet for 40 days in return for exceptional, captivating beauty. Yet, should the rules of the diet be broken, she is bound to take on the unsightly form, destined to become this ghastly creature with an unquenchable thirst for blood.
Parents looking to defend themselves against the apparition should lock their doors and windows and look out for the apparent telltale sign of her coming – a whiff of vinegar.
La Llorona comes from Latin American folklore. As a spirit, she is another female character that haunts the night, though with nocturnal weeping and wailing instead of a bloodthirsty rampage. La Llorona is a folktale told throughout Mexico and Central America.
Again with variations, the essence of the legend is that a beautiful woman named Xochitl married a rich conquistador, with whom she had two children. On catching her husband in the act of infidelity, Xochitl, either in a blind fit of rage or in cold, calculated revenge, drowns her two children in the lake. She is then consumed by guilt and drowns herself, too. Hence, her spectre is associated with the mysticism of lakes and water spirits.
Her shameful act meant that she could not enter the afterlife, so she is doomed to wander in purgatory, forced to live out her days weeping and wailing for her children.
The legend is believed to pre-date Spanish rule, but variations clearly point to the complex relationship between colonised and colonisers, particularly the dynamic between indigenous women and Spanish men.
The story is often conflated with ‘La Malinche’, the indigenous woman who bore children by the infamous invader Hernan Cortes. She is both upheld as the mother of the nation while also being seen as a symbol of treachery.
With the story of La Malinche, of Lo Llorona, and indeed other tales from folklore on the list, we see patriarchal expectations of women played out in mythmaking. Social critics often point out that women, particularly in Mexican folklore, are defined by their role as mothers, and bemoan the trope of the ‘failing mother’ or ‘jealous lover’.
Myanmar plays host to a wide variety of nats – revered spirits that affect everyday lives. Burmese folk religion states that people must give offerings to appease these spirits to ensure their goodwill. There are 37 ‘great nats’ – human beings who have died violent deaths – as well as a plethora of natural spirits with various roles and responsibilities.
There is a house nat that Burmese pay homage to, a village nat that will protect the population from wild animals, and Ma Phae Wah – the nat of cemeteries and graveyards.
As the guardian spirit of the graveyard, she has made her home in these desolate, lonely places. As with all nats, she takes a human form, a shapely woman with long, flowing black hair. She awakes from her slumber at midnight, props a coffin upon her shoulder, and heads into the local village or town.
Just like the figure of the grim reaper, she is the harbinger of death. With her shuffling, ambling gait, her slow and steady commitment to her task is terrifying – a metaphor for the unavoidable, inevitable conclusion to our lives.
She simply places her coffin upon the threshold of her assigned victim. Predictably, someone in the household will shortly after fall ill and die. Tragically, Ma Phae Wah is often associated with the death of an infant – perhaps an understandable attempt to blame this cruel fate on a supernatural act.
Belief in the supernatural is widespread in Thailand. Similar in culture to Myanmar, the blend of Buddhism and animism has led to a broad mysticism, particularly in rural areas. Much like Myanmar, it is common to see villages in Thailand making offerings to curry favour with various spirits. There are a collection of creepy characters roughly grouped as ‘phi’who are primarily nocturnal and most certainly vengeful – ghosts you wouldn’t want to mess with.
Phi tai hong are ghosts of people who died particularly violent deaths. Due to the nature of their demise, they are often angry and dangerous in the afterlife, making them the most feared spirits to Thai people, not least because they are also notoriously challenging to exorcise.
Phi am are spirits said to torment people in their sleep. The macabre method of torment for the phi am is to sit on people’s chests at night, effectively suffocating them to death. A peculiar aspect to the phi am is that they allegedly aren’t interested in attacking women. In common lore, advice against the phi am is to simply put on lipstick before bed.
Another phi, phi pop, is blamed for deaths in the northeastern region of Isaan. Phi pop is a female ghost said to possess her victims before eating their intestines from the inside. Would-be victims of phi pop need to undergo an intricate exorcism to drive her away. For the phi pop, the exorcism comes in the form of a dance.
These examples are just the tip of the iceberg regarding the macabre cast of ghouls and ghosts said to occupy Thailand. There is a substantial oral tradition of ways to avoid being possessed and remedies for the unfortunate souls of victims – it makes for an intriguing aspect of Thai culture to explore.
In our destinations, for some, the spirit world is relevant – an ever-present factor affecting everyday life. While there is no doubt the sanitised, Americanised version of Halloween is gaining popularity worldwide, the tame, harmless world of trick-or-treating is far removed from the supernatural presence believed in across many of the communities in which we work.
Should any of our travellers share an interest in the world of ghosts, ask our friendly guides to share their insights on this intriguing aspect of Asian and Meso-American cultures.
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