exorcising the ghosts (of colonies past)

Stephanie would like to talk to you about ghosts. Beneath the fold she uses words like ‘decolonise’, ‘ritual’, and ‘read the Koran to keep the ghosts away in a video game’.

When I was young, I used to hold my breath as we drove past cemeteries. One day, driving past a cemetery in Australia, my mum noticed, and I explained why. “To keep the ghosts out of my body,” I said. “Oh, no,” she replied. “You only have to worry about that from our ancestor ghosts, and they’re too far away. These ghosts are all no worry to you.”

But sometimes I still hold my breath against the ghosts.

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Last night I visited The Ghost Project, an ongoing piece by Anna Tregloan that investigates the culturally ambiguous notion of ghosts and hauntings. It was fantastic, and I’ll talk about it more next week, after I go to the final piece of the season on Saturday. (If you’re in Melbourne, come – she’s been collecting stories during the season and on Saturday will be sharing them.)

But what I’d like to talk about right now are the thoughts I had during her discussion last night with Tito Ambyo, an Indonesian man who collects ghost stories and investigates communities of ghost hunters, but who doesn’t believe in ghosts himself.

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Tito explained:

Ghosts appear when we’re scared, so in Indonesia there was an increase in ghost sightings in 1998. And there’s some research coming out of America that a person under 18 is more likely to have interacted with a ghost than a person of age 90. Does that mean that people now are more scared than the generations before them? (I think in many ways, yes.)

Tito talked about the rise of technology in ghost hunting and the digitisation of ghosts. The trappings and ritual of tradition are used to capture ghosts, but nobody is teaching anyone how to do that; they’re just getting out the Koran and going for it, removing snake ghosts and throwing them away. It’s what’s lead to this scary video game where you have to read the Koran to keep the ghosts away, and if you stop reading the Koran out loud the ghosts COME AND GET YOU and that’s pretty hilarious, he showed us a video of that happening.

This was all very fun and I loved hearing his theories, how the rise of fundamentalist Islam in recent years in Indonesia has created a lens through which ghosts can be seen, so things like kuntilanak and pochong are now being explained as Djinn. To me this feels like the new gods situation, the adaptation of ghosts and gods and spirits in the diaspora is something that interests me, and one day I’ll write a fantasy book and it won’t be compared to American Gods, and it’ll be great.

Tito mentioned, as an aside, that vampires are ghosts in Southeast Asia, but in Europe they’re considered monsters, and to study them is to study monsters. And it’s this throwaway that has me wondering: how do we decolonise our ghosts and our stories? How can we move away from a western framework of rationality and needing to prove or disprove spirits, and move towards a Southeast Asian framework of the ghosts that are here with us? And should we?

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I’ve written before, about the bagua by the front door, and how the first year I came home to it my mother scolded me for pointing it out. “Don’t tell anyone,” she instructed me, a little bit ashamed, because this piece of superstition is so strong that she’s been in that house ten years and still replaces the bagua every year, to keep the bad spirits away; but I’m still not supposed to talk about it, because we’re in Australia now, and Australians are too rational, too modern, for ghosts.

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I love ghosts. The first major thing I ever had published was 8000 words about the monstrous women of Asia. You can read it if you like: Sympathy for Lady Vengeance: Feminist Ghosts and Monstrous Women of Asia.

The feminist ghosts of Asia are so familiar to me, and I love them so. I hope you can love them, too.

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We ended the night talking about home. Tito showed a word cloud taken from ghost hunter videos of Indonesia, and the biggest word of the cloud, the biggest by far, was ‘rumah’, which is home. Freud, he said, spoke of the uncanny, but in German it was unheimlich, unhomely, because of the threat to the home.

But I don’t think of ghosts as being a threat to the home. Maybe it’s because I come from a Daoist tradition, maybe it’s because we’re from Penang; maybe it’s because we’ve been lucky, but the ghosts of the home have always been a comfort to me.

I speak to my grandmother like she’s there because I come from a tradition of ancestor worship and a belief that your ancestors stay with you, and maybe she is with me. In my house, we speak to my housemate’s grandmother like she’s there, because when the piano that had been hers arrived from Tasmania the lights flashed on and off. “Hello, Wyn,” we say, when the lights flicker, because maybe she is with us and maybe she isn’t.

Is accepting ghosts in the home a part of the decolonisation of the spirit? I don’t know. But I like to think about it anyway.

Anyway, come talk to me about ghosts, and the decolonisation of spirits. Sorry this post is so unformed, but I wanted to have a discussion about ghosts today.

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3 thoughts on “exorcising the ghosts (of colonies past)

  1. “Australians are too rational, too modern, for ghosts.”

    I had to laugh at this, because I lived in a haunted house when I was six, and have a policy of politely ignoring ghosts unless they seem malevolent. (See also: spiders.)

    Our house was an old two-bedroom cottage in Sydney. It had polished floors and high ceilings, and was full of strange noises. Sometimes, the house made sounds like footsteps walking from the front bedroom to the kitchen and back again. Occasionally they were accompanied by the tap-tap-tap of a walking stick. It was strange — I had a lot of vivid dreams about my parents coming into my room at night, occasionally to administer some kind of surprise exam, because I was in year one and already anxious about school. But it wasn’t unpleasant.

    The previous owner had been born in the front bedroom, and her mother died there. She sold the house to my parents a few years after her mother’s death, and moved to a fancy retirement village. Setting a new standard of Peak Mum, my mother visited her and they became friends.

    The previous owner confessed that she could still manage the house perfectly well by herself, but she just wasn’t comfortable there — her mother had been an insomniac, and after she passed away, she would hear her mother pacing up and down the hallway all night. The sound made her unbearably sad, so she left, assuming that her mother’s ghost would also depart. Mum decided not to tell her she had been mistaken.

    Streetview tells me that the house is still there, and I assume the ghost remains as well.

    1. The thing I love about this story is that ghosts are so often incredibly personal, and at other times incredibly not personal. You got this particular ghost because you moved into a house that already had a ghost, but the previous owner got a ghost because she’d lived there all her life and her mother couldn’t bear to leave. I love that.

      This story is also peak Liz, just fyi.

  2. kejumonyet

    “I’ll talk about it more next week, after I go to the final piece of the season on Saturday.”

    Keen! Interesting stuff

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