This article is from The Star newspaper dated 14 April 2013.
It’s striking sometimes how similar the supernatural creatures and lores of cultures that seem far apart from each other are.
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.
fascination with the unknown gave rise to the subculture of ghost
hunting and the camping tradition of telling ghost stories.
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.
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,
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
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.
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
Penanggalan has many other variations in other South-East Asian countries like Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines.
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.
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
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?