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COLUMN SIX | Spooks and ghosts

D o you believe in ghosts? Well, do you? Regardless of your belief, it is a great conversation starter.
Celebrants of the Hungry Ghost Festival in Kuching, Malaysia. FABIO LAMANNA

Do you believe in ghosts? Well, do you? Regardless of your belief, it is a great conversation starter. Many people have their own definition of what a ghost is, what they look or sound like, where they come from and why they visit certain people or places, and whether they are real or figments of our very powerful imaginations.

Despite the lack of scientific evidence, there is a plethora of anecdotal material regarding these supernatural beings. Everyone knows someone who has allegedly seen or heard a ghost.

A ghost is defined in most dictionaries as a disembodied soul, specifically the soul of a deceased person who now inhabits the world, either seen or unseen by the living.

Yet what exactly is a “soul”?

A soul is often described as the life force of a person — their intelligence, their energy, and all the mysterious unique particles that make them, them. No one has been able to prove what exactly a soul is, what it looks like.

Personally, I wouldn’t say I believe in ghosts. At least, not the giant floating bedsheet kind. I also don’t believe in malevolent demons, such as the angry and murderous creature from The Ring or The Grudge (I like to joke to my students that if such a thing ever came out of the television and ate me, I would thank it for saving me from having to respond to my hundreds of work emails).

However, my curious mind loves to entertain possibilities, particularly the “what-if” kind.

The human mind is a powerful thing. Our individual and unique perception of the world, married to our memories, which shift and change with time and hindsight, tend to lend real-ness to certain beliefs and encounters, and we are naturally inclined to draw connections, and search for meaning.

I don’t believe in ghosts per se, but I’ve definitely had some interesting encounters that gave me pause.

My first “ghostly encounter” happened when I was seven. I had woken up in the middle of the night, icy cold. My blanket had fallen off my bed.

As I leapt out of bed and shook out the blanket, still half-asleep and muttering angrily, a piercing scream from the other side of the house shook the silence, and I nearly jumped out of my skin.

The scream had come from my mother.

My mother was prone to vivid nightmares, and this was no uncommon occurrence. She would wake up in the morning with only vague memories of these dreams, and after assuring us that she was fine, she would carry on with her day. We had all been instructed, more than once, to wake her up only if the screaming continued. If there was no further disruption, we were to go back to sleep.

I listened, frozen. Silence. I climbed back into bed.

In the morning, my mother rushed into my room to check on me. It was not until years later that she revealed to me the whole truth of what happened and why she had screamed.

As teen, I remembered sitting, aghast, as my mother finally described her dream in vivid detail—the way I jumped out of bed to retrieve my lost blanket, and the way I shook it out a few times while muttering. These were details she could not have known, since she had been sleeping on the other side of the house.

In the dream, there was a malevolent ghost with its arms outstretched, trying to grab me. It had almost snatched me when my mother screamed, and then it disappeared.

At that time, a single frightening dream wasn’t enough for me to believe in ghosts, despite the uncanny coincidences, and the memory was not to be revisited until my second “ghostly encounter,” in my late teens.

From the age of 15 to 20, I suffered from regular sleep paralysis: the temporary inability to move in the stage immediately after falling asleep or waking up. Individuals who suffer from these episodes often report hallucinations (of shadowy figures) and a sensation of pressure or suffocation.

Numerous historical paintings explore this fascinating phenomenon, as Medieval and Renaissance artists painted pictures of sleeping figures with a demon sitting on their chest, or the sleeping figure beset by literal “Night Mares,” demonic black horses stomping and rollicking about the room while the paralyzed sleeper looked on helplessly.

During an episode of sleep paralysis, or parasomnia, the sufferer is both sleeping and awake — hence the feelings of helplessness and panic

During an episode of sleep paralysis, or parasomnia, the sufferer is both sleeping and awake — hence the feelings of helplessness and panic. Much is still unknown about the condition, and for me it disappeared as suddenly and mysteriously as it came, without any explanation.

I was still living with my parents at age 18, and on this particular morning I was laying in bed, locked in parasomnia. I remembered feeling anxious that I could not move my arms or my legs. It seemed that all I could move were my eyes, and I looked about the room. My glasses were on the bedside table. Without them, I was mostly blind.

The door to my room opened, and I saw the dark outline of someone leaning in and looking at me. They stood there for only a moment, then closed the door.

At this point, I had regained back some feeling in my arms, and I went back to sleep, thinking that it had been one of my parents checking up on me.

During breakfast, I asked my parents if they had visited my room. They both looked confused and said no. I then asked my sisters if they had opened my door, and they also said no. As I continued to describe what had happened, and the figure I had seen, my mother went very pale.

“I had a dream last night,” she said. “I dreamed that someone was in the house and walking around.”

Evidence of ghostly activity, or supernatural happenings? Tempting.

I don’t think I have a final answer about what I ultimately believe, but what I do know is that the supernatural holds the power to fascinate, to shock, and to shake up what many people take comfort in: logic and rules.

My parents, my aunts and uncles, and grandmothers, who all grew up in Vietnam, all believed in ghosts to some degree. In fact, Vietnam has an entire festival dedicated to honouring the paranormal: The Festival of Hungry Ghosts.

In many Asian countries, it is believed that the gates of Hell open during the month of July, and ghosts from other planes of existence are allowed to roam free on Earth for a period of time. The spirits of ancestors and lost relatives will search out their loved ones and families. Other spirits who had no proper burial and no family members to pray for them, would wander around randomly, becoming lost, lonely, and bitter.

Ghosts who were honoured with prayers and mollified with offerings of food and gifts, would bless their descendants with good fortune. The ghosts without offerings would be angry, and curse strangers and uncaring relatives with bad luck.

It is common for Vietnamese families to prepare feasts during this festival, and to go to Buddhist temples to pray for their deceased relatives. People will also bring offerings of food to donate to lost ghosts who have no one else to offer to them. In keeping with Buddhist teachings, temple offerings are vegan in nature, since followers are encouraged to not harm living creatures.

The festival is meant to encourage generosity, as well as practicing forgiveness and compassion towards the dead.

Modern day Halloween is not a religious holiday, but the roots of it are actually quite similar to the Festival of Hungry Ghosts.

Halloween is a contraction of “All Hallows’ Evening.” Once celebrated as a day dedicated to remembering the deceased, as well as saints and martyrs, it had its roots in the festival of Samhain, held by the Celts of ancient Britain and Ireland.

During this festival, it was believed that departed souls from long ago would return to visit homes and relatives, while the souls of those who recently died would journey to the underworld.

Bonfires would be lit on hilltops and in the hearths of homes, and people would dress up in masks and disguises to avoid being recognized by potentially evil spirits. Numerous folktales and illustrations would help subsequent generations form the association of witches, goblins, demons, and other “spooks” with our modern day, non-religious Halloween holiday.

An entire industry has been built around the idea of the existence of ghosts and spirits. Psychics, mediums, Ouija boards, ghost hunters and paranormal investigators, TV shows and documentaries, ghost tours — all in an attempt to prove, or lend discussion to the centuries-old question: Do ghosts exist?

I’m no expert in ghosts, but I do plan to acquire an EMF (electromagnetic field) meter, put on my investigative hat, and do some exploring throughout the month of October. Rumoured haunted locations? Ghostly sightings? Ghost stories from family members? I’ll investigate and report back every week until Halloween.

Got a tip for a haunted location, or a ghostly yarn you’d like to share? Contact: [email protected]