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Things that go bump in the night

Did you know that the Japanese have their own version of the toyol (the above in a jar is a supposed specimen) called zashiki warashi? Photo: Nik Naizi Husin/The Star

Publication Date : 16-04-2013

 

Cultures around the world have beliefs in the supernatural, of things and events incomprehensible to the human mind

 

Various cultures around the world, especially those centred upon, or derived from, animism have beliefs in the supernatural, of things and events incomprehensible to the human mind. It is a cultural universal, and we are all familiar with frightening stories of things that go bump in the night.

Whether we choose to believe in them or not, we are always surrounded by tales of the supernatural, in literature or movies, or from personal accounts of friends and families.

This fascination with the unknown gave rise to the subculture of ghost hunting and the camping tradition of telling ghost stories.

Some cultures even celebrate the dead (and the undead), like the Chinese Hungry Ghost Festival, the Mexican Day of the Dead and, of course, Halloween. In Japanese folklore, every year, ghouls and ghosts take to the streets during the summer nights. It is known as Hyakki Yagy (Night Parade of 100 Demons).

Hyakki Yagy is a famous theme in Japanese art. On these days, the ghouls and ghosts come out to play, and supernatural occurrences are at their peak. Recently, I picked up "Yokai Attack! The Japanese Monster Survival Guide" for a fun read, and interestingly, I can’t help but make comparisons to our own versions of yokai, the supernatural creatures of Japanese folklore. One of them is the zashiki warashi, a child poltergeist who haunts and inhabits houses. Although it loves to play pranks on people, it is considered harmless. The Japanese believe that a zashiki warashi brings good fortune to the house it inhabits and that the family will prosper as long as it stays.

But if the house is neglected, then the child spirit will leave, and that’s when the real problem comes. As it leaves the house, so does the good fortune and the family will be left in ruins – bankruptcy, disaster, domestic strife.

Zashiki warashi is very much like our toyol. The toyol is a child-like ghoul believed to be a manifestation of an unborn child. It is kept by its master to do his or her bidding, usually stealing or other petty crimes. It’s commonly rumoured that whenever someone becomes rich that the person is keeping a toyol. The toyol, like the zashiki warashi, loves to play pranks on people but is considered harmless.

Nuke kubi is a female creature who can fully detach her head from her body. She looks like a normal woman during the day but turns into nuke kubi at night, with her head flying off in search of human prey. Because of her appearance as a woman during the day, it is thought that the nuke kubi may have human spouses.

To kill a nuke kubi, one needs to find her immobile body and move it somewhere else. The nuke kubi will die if she cannot reconnect with her body by sunrise.

Again the nuke kubi is strikingly similar to our penanggalan, a flying head with its intestines attached. It is believed that the penanggalan is a woman who practices black magic. The woman is able to detach her head, along with her intestines, from her body, and flies in the dead of the night in search of blood, preferably from an infant or a woman giving birth.

To kill a penanggalan, one needs to find her headless body, fill it with broken glass and nails so that when she tries to reattach to her body, her intestines will be severed by the sharp objects.

Penanggalan has many other variations in other Southeast Asian countries like Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines.

Sceptics and non-believers usually apply logic and common sense to brush aside beliefs in the supernatural. Perhaps there are certain explanations for these happenings, like sleep paralysis where our mind is aware but our body shuts down. It’s logical for those who have experienced it to claim that they have been held down by a spirit while sleeping.

And often in fear, our mind plays tricks and we may conjure images or shadows that would further intensify our own fears. Often stories like this would end with the person praying and the spirit going away, but praying is a form of meditation and helps calm the body down, hence “releasing” the spirit.

Some stories of ghosts are lessons or advice to children, like the hantu kopek who preys on children at night. It’s probably so children are encouraged to come home by dusk or else risk being kidnapped by this creature.

Or like the Japanese kappa, a water yokai who drowns children lest they swim too far out. Both these stories are intended to scare children for their own safety.

But I’d like to think that we’re not the only beings living in this world, or worlds. The human eye is limited and there is still so much more that humans do not know about this world. Do we brush aside the possibility of the otherworldly just because we can’t see, or refuse to see?

Sharyn Shufiyan believes that cultures adorn a society, much like Tapestry on a piece of cloth. She puts on an anthropological hat to discuss Malaysia’s cultures, subcultures and society.

 

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