Boo! Why Do We Love The Things That Scare Us?
Despite their keeping us up at night, we all love a good ghost story. We are constantly fascinated by tales of ghouls, demonic possessions and those spirits that cannot be put to rest. So why do we get so scared yet relish the fright factor? Shakila Rajendra explores.
I’ve seen a ghost. Or perhaps it was a demon. I’m not entirely sure what it was exactly but in Malaysia they refer to it as a ‘Toyol’ which is a goblin-like demonic creature that’s small, has red eyes and exists mainly to steal money for its owner. I swear I saw it one night in Langkawi, a Malaysian island known for its spiritual nature, when I was asleep in a chalet and I was woken up by a dream that something was trying to get into my room. When I saw it, I knew it had to be real because I could see my friend sleeping in the bed across from me and I even noticed the time and yet, it felt strange, like a dream. The Toyol didn’t harm me and I somehow managed to go back to sleep. The next morning, when I suggested that we get out of the hotel as soon as possible, my friend did not question me. Instead, a few days later, she told me she too didn’t like that hotel, because the night we spent there she had the strangest dream, that a demonic creature was trying to get into our room…
I have been a collector of ghost stories my whole life. From numerous copies of True Singapore Ghost Stories to watching movies like The Exorcist numerous times to simply listening to anyone who will tell me of an experience, I’ve committed the most frightful and most believable to memory and store it up only to re-tell when an opportune event presents itself.
Yet, when it comes to my actual acknowledgement of the existence of ghosts, demons, ghouls and spirits of the undead, I remain quite sceptical. To quote Mulder from The X-files, ‘I want to believe’. You could say I am a fan of the unexplained but to actually acknowledge its reality might be too far of a stretch for me. If these things exist, then it opens up the possibility that many other scarier things can exist too and I guess the chicken in me would rather remain blissfully ignorant.
What Are Ghosts?
The traditional meaning of ghosts you could say are simply manifestations of the belief that there is life after death. Ghosts are believed to be lost souls, belonging to those who were once alive and who may have unfinished business in the world before they died and therefore are trapped in purgatory, which is believed to be a dimension between life and a higher ascension like heaven. Those whose souls are trapped will therefore have to try to find peace and until they do, they roam the Earth looking for closure.
Ghosts are therefore thought to usually be those who have died an untimely death. As ghosts are the remnants of those who were once humans, they usually take on the characteristics of the person they were before death. This means that not all ghosts can be bad and there are just as many incidences of ghosts who prove themselves to be helpful or kind than there are of those that may cause mischief or fear.
Spirits however, are somewhat different. These are beings that have not been human before and are believed to exist on a completely different plain than the one we live on. Spookily, these can be demonic spirits that have manifested not from restless human souls but rather are manifestations of evil and are thought to have risen from hell itself to cause mischief and mayhem on our living world.
Demons and demonic spirits can take on any number of forms such as vampires, demons or evil forces and they are thought to be unleashed on the world when humans dabble in practices that are best left alone. These practices can be referred to as dark magic which are ways in which humans try to manipulate or contact the spirit world so as to produce some sort of outcome that will benefit them in some way. Similar to ghosts, there are also good spirits that can take the form of guardians like angels.
Of course, due to various cultural and religious beliefs, peoples’ perception of the afterlife can be very different and ghosts, spirits and demons can take on very different forms according to culture and tradition and religion. It must also be understood that any being that isn’t human is somehow also linked to the perception of good and evil and will differ according to geography and practice of faith. They do however, have one thing in common and that is that they are based on the never ending fascination humans have with death and what comes after.
Why Do They Scare Us and What Drives Our Fascination?
As I mentioned before, I have had a lifelong fascination with ghost stories and tales of the unknown and as I’ve discovered I am not alone in this fascination. I’ve noticed that horror films have never failed to take in good ratings at the cinema and this summer is no different. Remakes of hits like Amityville are highly anticipated and movies like The Conjuring and The Ring have been so successful that producers have made them into franchises. As it turns out, everybody loves a good scare!
So what is it that drives us to continue being scared silly yet coming back for more? The writer Neil Gaiman has offered his insight into why we love telling each other ghost stories. He says, “It goes way back. We have ghost stories from ancient Egypt, after all, ghost stories in the Bible, classical ghost stories from Rome (along with werewolves, cases of demonic possession and, of course, over and over, witches). We have been telling each other tales of otherness, of life beyond the grave, for a long time; stories that prickle the flesh and make the shadows deeper and, most important, remind us that we live, and that there is something special, something unique and remarkable about the state of being alive. Fear is a wonderful thing, in small doses.”
Perhaps it is this sense of experiencing a controlled fear that keeps us wanting to know more, and the rush is in knowing that we are somehow protected from it. As long as we remain in the land of the living. The rush can be likened to that of going on a roller coaster. Fear is indeed wonderful when we know we aren’t in actual danger!
Why Do We Fear Ghosts?
What drives our fear of these other worldly beings in the first place? Perhaps it is as basic as being afraid of that which we cannot predict, like death, ending up alone or the inability to fulfil a desire.
It could also be culture, tradition or religion that drives us to make distinctions between what’s good and evil and that in death, we will experience judgement. The emergence of these spirits only reiterates the trepidation of being judged in death and perhaps they symbolise our fears of not being able to fulfil our hopes or desires.
It is also interesting to note that in most cultures, ghosts are used as a scare tactic to warn children against misbehaving. To keep us on the path of good behaviour, ghosts and spirits and their stories are an age old way of simply keeping us in check.
Whatever the reason, we simply cannot deny that there are some things on this earth that cannot be explained. As we explore our humanity, there still remains one question that for many people, neither science nor religion can give us a definitive answer to and that is: What happens to us after we die? As we continue to seek a true answer, we will continue to be fascinated by ghosts.
Ghosts Around The World
Growing up in South East Asia you would be hard-pressed to find someone who has not heard about the lady in white who waits for unsuspecting men who will fall prey to her beauty before she sucks their blood. The ‘pontianak’ is something that is a cross between a restless spirit and what the Western world refer to as vampires. Again, a vampire is a form of an undead being that sucks blood and preys on the living in order to continue their own ghoulish existences.
There are also a few other famous types of ghosts that manifest in both Eastern and Western cultures although they differ in fear factor as some can be interpreted as more sinister than others.
Here are some of the ghosts that I am most fascinated by in both the Eastern and Western worlds:
Pontianak – The lady ghost who is said to lure men or stalk pregnant women for their babies. She is said to be either a woman who had died on her way to her wedding or the restless soul of a woman who had died in labour. Beware if you come across a beautiful woman with long hair all dressed in white in a lonely area at night!
Penanggalan – The word means ‘detached’ and this is an evil creature which is a detached head with dangling entrails who roams the night looking for a child to ensnare. It is thought that this spirit is the result of a woman who has used dark magic to obtain otherworldly powers and has to pay the price.
Hungry Ghosts – These are ghosts who have been ‘let out the gates of hell’ during the one month respite that is celebrated in Chinese culture. It is believed that these are souls who have unfinished business who are allowed to come back to their loved ones for that month to try seeking solace and that leaving food out will appease them.
Insect Ghosts – These could be spirits that take on the shape of insects such as a beetle or in some cases a grasshopper. They are said to take these forms in order to spy on whoever their owners (practitioners of black magic) tell them to.
Forest Ghosts – The jungles of Asia manifest spirits such as the long-legged ghost, who appears as a giant pair of legs and not much else and also the Orang Bunian (Hidden People) who are spirits who can lure those who tread into forest territories and do not respect the sanctity of the forest into their hidden realms.
From the West:
Ghost in Chains – If you visit an old castle, chances are you will hear tales of the ghosts of former prisoners who were held captive in dungeons and continue to rattle phantom chains to tell of their sad plight.
Lady in White – Similar to the Asian Pontianak, this is a beautiful lady all dressed in white who may haunt a lonely area or a house. In the American legend that inspired a film, the lady in white is the spirit of an aggrieved mother who will not rest, even in death to search for her missing daughter.
Friendly Ghost – Just like Casper the friendly ghost, these are ghosts that appear in times of crisis to offer their assistance.
Ghostly Apparitions – Many reports of ghosts may not come in the form of people at all. Instead, one of the most famous ghostly apparitions is that of an entire ship! The Flying Dutchman is said to appear out of the fog near the Cape of Good Hope and is supposed to be a ship that has been cursed to sail the seas forever due to demonic pact.
- The Atlantic.com – http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2013/10/why-do-some-brains-enjoy-fear/280938/
- Brainpickings.org – https://www.brainpickings.org/2014/03/20/neil-gaiman-ghost-stories/
- BBC News – http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-highlands-islands-19599083
- Paranormalistics: http://paranormalistics.blogspot.co.uk/p/types-of-ghosts-and-spirits.html
For more interesting information:
- The Dying Process
- Extremely interesting investigation on Reincarnation
- Mummified puppies
- Buried Secrets – Did God have A Wife?
- Ingredients for a successful relationship
- Spooky Haunted Hotel Experiences
- Ghosts in the Pub
- 10 ghost ships
- Plas Mawr Hauntings
- Questions on Ghosts
- 10 Global Mysterious Events
- A Festival for the Most Haunted Village
- 10 Paranormal Pictures!
- REAL FOOTAGE OF GHOSTS!!
- Toyols: The Child-Spirits
- League of Gentlemen visit ‘haunted’ Gloucestershire pub
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