Whether you’ve already read Erick Setiawan‘s debut novel, Of Bees And Mist, are excited to read it, or are hearing about it for the first time, I want to say one thing – it’s great. Today, I have the great pleasure of having him stop by with a great guest post about the differences in the supernatural as depicted in Eastern and Western mythology, which is fitting because his book is replete with ghosts of the Indonesian kind. I hope that you enjoy reading this post as much as I did.
Do you believe in ghosts? If you were like me, most of the time you’d probably say no, you’d probably even laugh and roll your eyes at the idea. But on some nights, after watching a particularly scary movie or hearing a “true horror story” that happened to somebody who knew somebody who talked to somebody, you’d probably go to bed with the light on, suspecting there is a demonic creature lurking under your bed or in your closet. You would jump at the slightest noise, even wonder if you’d make it to morning in one piece. Where in the name of God is that crucifix? Will a baseball bat work as a substitute? Death at the hand of a supernatural being, after all, is one of the leading causes of death around the world, isn’t it?
So far, I’ve had the privilege of being kept up by just such cheerful thoughts in two different countries. In America, many of these demons seem to have fangs and an insatiable appetite for blood. Some—Freddy Krugar comes to mind—aren’t much of a looker, while others are equipped with killer abs and smiles that could dim the sun. The idea of their eternal youth is irresistible to many, and they are often romanticized more than they should be. I’ve noticed that in America, how the supernatural should look or behave is very much dictated by popular culture. They cannot exist on their own without the internet, fiction writers, or Hollywood. It strikes me as ironic that they should depend on us, mere mortals, to ensure their immortality. This explains why zombies are in one year, leprechauns out the next.
In Indonesia, where I grew up, the ghosts are far more insidious. There is an entire system of traditions and ancient beliefs behind them, centuries of rituals and sacrifices designed to invoke fear and reverence. There are forbidden mountains and unholy rivers where the otherworldly dwell, and people go to worship at these places just as they might in a church or a temple. Black magic is prevlent. If you want to put a curse on that perky girl at school who stole your boyfriend, you can find someone to get this done. If you want to get wealthy fast, you can trade your first-born son for the ability to steel things without getting caught. Even parents are not exempt from enlisting the help of demons in disciplining their kids. It isn’t unheard of for a mother to say to her child, “Don’t play outside after dark or you’ll get kidnapped by a genderwo.” Or, “Michael, I swear to God, a kuntil anak will come get you if you’re not in bed by nine.”
Can you imagine your parents threatening you with Voldemort or the Vampire Lestat?
I spent the first five years of my life in an allegedly haunted house in Jakarta’s former jewelry district. To this day, my mother claims she saw a ghost once in our attic. I don’t recall seeing anything myself there, but i do remember the house as being old, sunless, and full of odd sighs. Across the street, my grandparents lived in a creepy house of their own. One time, my grandmother’s maid was possessed by a demon. I wasn’t allowed to witness the exorcism, but from downstairs, I could hear her screaming and thrashing about in her room. It took a witch doctor hours to expel the invading spirit from her body, and to my grandmother’s dismay, I don’t think the maid was fit to work for the rest of the day. It was serious business, neither romantic nor tongue-in-cheek. Many years later, when I finally saw The Exorcist when it was re-released, the whole thing looked to me like a shoddy rip-off of what that poor maid must have gone through.
Does this mean that I believe in ghosts? Well, I believe enough to write about them in my debut novel, but not entirely. But then again, I don’t have a sixth sense. I don’t see dead people. I don’t get visions whenever I walk into a room where somebody’s been murdered (thank God). That maid could have been faking it for all I know, and the thing my mother saw in the attic might have been my brother playing Casper.
But I can tell you this: I still won’t be reading any ghost stories after midnight.
Thanks so much for taking the time to write this interesting look at the supernatural in it’s Western and Eastern manifestations. Can’t wait to reveal our interview as well.