Ghost stories infuse Indonesia’s politics of fear
There is a ghost, ghoul or kindred spirit for nearly every occasion, a belief system that endures from the island nation's pre-Islamic era
“We aren’t allowed to talk about the ghosts anymore” explains Ernest Siregar, a guide at Tjong A Fie Mansion while giving a tour of the famous heritage building in Medan, Indonesia. “The family have already clarified their position on this: They don’t want to comment any further about the vampire.”
Built in 1895, Tjong A Fie belonged to Tjong A Fie, a prominent Chinese businessman considered one of the modern founding fathers of the city. In January 2018, the mansion became the subject of some controversy when it featured in a television show on local Indonesian channel Trans7 entitled “The Mystery of Tjong A Fie Mansion.”
The producers told Tjong A Fie’s descendants only that they wanted to shoot a story of the building’s history. When the footage aired, however, it said the mansion was haunted by a curly haired vampire and depicted a photograph of Tjong A Fie, who died in 1921, with wide eyes that followed people around the room.
The family is furious over what they view as false reporting. Mimi Fie, one of Tjong A Fie’s descendants, expressed outrage over the story in an interview with news website Tribun-Medan, saying that the program was racist and never should have been aired.
That anyone would accuse a national television station of a smear campaign involving the occult would strain the bounds of incredulity in some other parts of the world. But in Indonesia ghosts are a serious business.
Indonesia is the most populous Muslim nation on earth and some 80% of the population adhere to Islam, a religion that generally prohibits belief in sorcery and ghosts – save for a few phenomena such as djinns, supernatural creatures in early Arabian and later Islamic mythology.
Still, there is widespread belief in ghosts of all kinds that have roots in the island nation’s pre-Islamic era. The country has myriad local phantoms, from pocong (zombie-like figures wrapped in funeral shrouds) to female vampires known as kuntilanak.
Paul Sochaczewski, author of the Curious Encounters book series, has spent years exploring ghost stories around the world, including in Indonesia.
Speaking to Asia Times, Sochaczewski says the region’s ghost stories have various roots, ranging from animism, Chinese traditional beliefs, rural ancestry and a belief among the poor that a better future will come next time around.
It is not just about a belief in the hereafter. Southeast Asian ghost stories also tell us about the national psyche in the here and now.
Cultural observer Amir Muhammad, for instance, writes in the foreword to The Malaysian Book of the Undead: “The ghosts we choose to believe in can also say a lot about our attitudes towards gender, the natural environment and even race.”
When it comes to gender, Indonesian ghosts are heavily weighted in favor of women. One of the most famous is the lang suir, which are said to be the spirits of women who died in childbirth or delivering a stillborn child.
Another is known as sundel bolong, apparitions of women who were raped, impregnated and then died in childbirth, and who appear with a gruesome gaping hole in their backs. The premises behind these widely-believed ghosts inform what Indonesians find scary and why.
Local Indonesian writer Gita Putri Damayana wrote in a piece published in The Conversation in 2017 entitled “Indonesian folklore of vengeful female ghosts hold symbols of violence against women”:
“There’s a thread connecting the female ghosts beyond their gender: most of them are victims. […] the background story of each ghost shares similar themes. These women were victims of gender inequality and sexual violence. They also had poor access to healthcare.”
Damayana notes that Indonesia has a high infant mortality rate, with 305 deaths per 100,000 live births in 2015, well above the average of 12 deaths per 100,000 live births in developed countries.
There were more reported rape cases in Indonesia than there are reported robberies using firearms or sharp weapons, according to data from the Central Statistics Bureau complied in 2015.
In that sense, Indonesia’s female ghosts are not just the stuff of myths and legends. Instead, they echo local issues facing Indonesian women, like the dangers of childbirth in rural areas or the chances of being attacked or assaulted outside their homes.
Social and political fears are tightly wound into the fabric of Indonesia’s ghostly folklore.
The controversy surrounding Tjong A Fie Mansion, including allegations of anti-Chinese racism, is especially pertinent. Medan was the flashpoint for riots in 1998 which targeted the Sino-Indonesian community, leaving over 1,000 people dead.
This, in turn, linked back to anti-communist purges of 1965-66, one of the darkest periods of Indonesia’s history that resulted in over 500,000 deaths, including thousands of ethnic Chinese.
In painting the mansion as a haunted house, the television program dismissed the opportunity to discuss its important Chinese-Indonesian cultural heritage in favour of a spooky play on a long-held political trope – that Chinese-Indonesians are something to fear, even in death.
Ghosts and political violence mix across various parts of Indonesia’s sprawling archipelago.
“Accusations of witchcraft or sorcery can be a precedent for a killing that perhaps has its real origins in village politics,” said Tim Hannigan, author of A Geek in Indonesia. “Perhaps it’s a way of providing almost a legitimizing gloss of mystification to the filthy business of political violence.”
Ghost stories are also used to justify breaking the law. Villagers in Mandailing Natal, North Sumatra, recently justified killing a protected Sumatran tiger because they mistook it for a siluman, or a supernatural shape-shifter.
The slain tiger’s claws, teeth, skin, organs and fur were all removed and likely sold on the black market, where they command a high price in traditional medicine. Rather than admit to killing the tiger for safety or material reasons, the villagers justified the act based on their fears of the spirit world.
Pointing to ghosts to gloss over inconvenient truths or situations is not confined to Indonesia’s rural villages; even senior politicians trot out the occasional ghost story to justify corruption, warrant abuse or cover up their failings.
Ghouls, phantoms and demons are a pithy way of explaining the unexplained, or a good cover up for the failings of the government.
For instance, when an Air Asia flight from the Indonesian town of Surabaya destined for Singapore disappeared in late 2014, then Jakarta governor Basuki “Ahok” Purnama referred to the high density of ghosts and mystical phenomena in the Kalimantan island region where the plane was last tracked.
The plane crashed into the Karimata Strait, killing 162. As the public struggled to come to terms with the unexplained event, Purnama tried to smooth things over by providing an otherworldly reason for the crash. He later claimed that he was only joking when he said that djinn could have been responsible.
Ghosts even dictate the politics of dating in Indonesia, a phenomenon perhaps less about the occult and more about pushy parents wanting the best for their children.
Hannigan notes that on the island of Sumba whole families are believed to be suanggi, evil spirits in the shape of people known for vampire-like tendencies.
“This has a real impact on day-to-day life,” says Hannigan. “Good luck getting parental approval if your new girlfriend is from a family identified as suanggi.”
Whether an apparition applies to dating, maternal health or political life, there is a ghost, ghoul or kindred spirit for nearly every occasion in Indonesia, a belief system that endures despite being forbidden by Islam and the wider culture of fear it promotes.