ON a recent working trip to Penang, a colleague and I were faced with a very poorly-lit, open-space corridor.
What was previously a cosy space connecting the bar and dining area of one of our favourite cafes took on quite a different dimension in the dark.
By day, the round arch is picturesque, the drooping trees a peaceful sight, and the plant-filled water feature absolutely charming. At night, the whole setting is akin to the calm cutscene treat you get before a terrifying Boss-level fight ensues.
“Eh, wait, I turn on my flashlight first,” I said, fiddling with my phone as she strode ahead.
If anything, the pathetic beam of light made things worse. The deep darkness of our surroundings had an inky quality that bled into the small, lit path ahead.
And we all know what happens in scary video games when you choose visibility over a two-handed weapon: one less finger on the trigger, son!
Non-availability of actual defenses aside, we made our way forward with quick steps, when she said suddenly: “Michelle.”
I cringed. in National Service, I was taught never to say someone else's name in an unfamiliar darkness, and especially in the jungle.
“Refer to each other by numbers. You don’t want something mimicking your friend’s voice to call your name and lead you away from the group,” the trainers had said.
But since a few decorative trees in a Georgetown eatery does not a forest make, I squeaked: “Yes?”
I had never been more grateful to hear “Nevermind, I tell you later”, and promptly told her so.
We collapsed into laughter once we cleared the area - but not too loudly, ‘they’ love latching onto other spirited things - and fell to discussing the Malaysian take on the supernatural.
Apparently, a red ribbon dangling from the tree overhead had brushed against the top of her head and sent chills up her spine during our short walk.
“Pretty or not, why leave it up in the dark? It’s too close to that practice of tying red string to your bedpost to summon that banana tree ghost lah!” she exclaimed.
While we remain convinced that those gaily coloured ribbons were purely an aesthetic choice, the conversation stayed in my mind.
Banana tree ghost? Red string? The “they can hear us so let’s talk about this elsewhere” survival tactic we all employ after being the only one in the group to sense something amiss?
Forget banshees and sinister clapping games: Malaysia has a formidable supernatural lore of its own.
There seems to be four levels on the Malaysian meter of superstition. The lowest being ‘Aiyah don’t talk rubbish lah where got such thing’, the next marked by ‘No harm believing”, the curious forever proclaiming ‘Where got? Tell me where, I go find!’, and the final dial always an absolute ‘I saw before. You don’t talk so much’.
Growing up, we heard whispers about the otherworld and made some life decisions accordingly: the avoidance of strong jasmine perfume at night is one, and the blanket ban on remarking upon strange, fragrant scents is another.
Many I know have a mental map of areas known as keras (hard) - unfit for mention of the supernatural and unbeneficial in general - and take great pains to avoid the terror-tory if possible.
A close friend has even placed a stern and specific restriction on “the sharing of ghost stories featuring local Malaysian horrors on Malaysian soil” during late-night outings. This ban also extends to conversations in Singapore, presumably because the little strip of water that separates us is no match for any spook so determined to track down any bigmouth in the island republic.
One book I’ve enjoyed on the subject is The Malaysian Book of The Undead, a slim volume compiled by writer and photojournalist Danny Lim.
In the foreword, among the ten learnings it offers is “why the Hantu Raya might be a widow’s best friend”, which intrigued me immediately.
It is a well-researched, concise read on the many types of things that go bump in the Malaysian night. One such spirit is the (unfortunately adorably named) Hantu Golek, a graveyard ghost that moves by rolling around because it is constricted by white cloth wrapped around it.
I had half-shrieked in laughter at the next line - “Which brings to question the adherence of the supernatural to laws of the physical realm” - before sobering up and muttering ‘no offence’ in self-defense against any such being.
Some ghosts get their names from their stomping (haunting?) grounds: the Hantu Gunung is a spirit that resides on mountains, the Hantu Bukit keeps to the hills, while the Hantu Gua Anak Batu calls stone caves home.
Others take the Malaysian love of lepak-ing to a whole new level - further reading reveals that the Hantu Apu is a “harmless and sociable ghost centred on the mat (tikar), often attracted to social gatherings”.
Of course, there are the more evil varieties, but shh - we know better than to speak of them so openly.
If anything, our treasury of ghost stories can provide a glimpse into our societal fears, and shed valuable light on our psyche as a people.
For one, why do we have so many superstitions surrounding a woman in childbirth, and countless versions of vampish seductresses? Does it stem from a non-understanding of the female body, or is it a thinly-veiled protest against burgeoning expressions of female sexuality?
Could the Orang Minyak phenomenon just be a commentary on the tendency to blame a noticeable ‘other’ when things go wrong in a close-knit community?
And was the poor Badang so betrayed by his impoverished surroundings that the offer of eating a monster's strength-endowing vomit was not too much to stomach?
There are few real answers, but maybe it’s because these questions can be great fun to discuss.
Just don’t bring it up during a seaside trip - large bodies of water, especially where naval battles took place, are particularly keras - or while driving down certain highways!
>The views expressed are entirely the writer's own. This columnist is trying to stay away from reading @seramshit on Twitter, but has failed miserably so far. What local supernatural story has made a lasting impression on you?