When Azman Abdullah, an SAS security guard, was asked about what he knew regarding supernatural activity during the Hungry Ghost Festival, the response was chilling.
“If you go swimming, and they are burning papers and throwing in the sea, those places are considered blessed, you don’t go there and swim. Maybe sometime the ghost is so, oh they want you, they will just bring you down and then you will be drowned. Don’t ask for happening, it will happen, you have to respect.”
He went on to warn that “this is when the ghosts are hungry for blood.”
The Hungry Ghost Festival is a traditional festival celebrated by many in the Chinese community to worship ancestors or deceased spirits. Singapore is one of the many Southeast Asian countries to celebrate this tradition on the 15th day of the the seventh lunar month. This year, it was celebrated from Aug. 14 to Sept. 12.
Alan Chong, currently studying for a masters degree in Feng Shui and pursuing research on the tradition of the Hungry Ghost Festival at Nanyang Technological University, said that in temples, streets, and any public areas in Singapore, people set up shrines which become “home(s) that the spirit knows to come to.”
At these shrines, families set up tablets with their deceased loved one’s names. Chong described how people place these “ancestral tablets into this huge metal grate, which is like a furnace. And then, once you stack them up high, we will add on to the offering sacrifices.”
Sacrifices can range from “hell notes, silvers, and gold papers for them,” Chong explained. Hell notes are a “currency that they use in the underworld.” By sacrificing hell notes or “joss paper,” it’s believed that those deceased spirits will not harm that individual.
Many claim that there is a high amount of ghost activity in Singapore and other Southeast Asian countries during the days of this festival. This belief has led to a number of “dos and don’ts” to help people avoid harm from a hungry ghost.
Normaya is a 12 year old girl who lives in an HDB near SAS. She shared some insight on how to respect a deceased spirit during this tradition. She said that people “cannot step on offerings, or kick at them, or else they [ghosts] will be angry.”
She described how one of her friends failed to do so and the following day noticed a peculiar scratch on his back. Normaya believes that her friend had kicked an offering, and the ghost was now warning her friend to respect the sacrifices.
Even students here at Singapore American School have experienced supernatural activity during this superstitious time. Claire Berggren, a junior at SAS, shared her odd encounter during the Hungry Ghost Festival when she and her mother took a walk around a graveyard near her house. “I live next to a graveyard on Kheam Hock Road, it’s called Bukit Brown Graveyard,” she said. Built in the 20th century, Bukit Brown Graveyard is the largest Chinese graveyard outside of China, expanding between Lornie Road and Mount Pleasant Road. “I see many people burning fake paper, money and stuff, because they’re trying to offer to their gods.”
She went on to describe an incident she and her mother experienced. “Many times we walk through the graveyard because it’s a really nice place to walk during the day, but at night it gets kinda scary.” Claire’s not to blame for being disturbed by the graveyard at night. In fact, it’s known as one of the most haunted places in Singapore, infamous for an evil laughter that can reportedly be heard in the cemetery after midnight.
“So me and my mom were walking through the graveyard and this one time we heard this fire going, and we thought that it was part of the Hungry Ghost Festival and we couldn’t see anything, any fire, any smoke, and it [the sound] was really close to us.”
Claire continued to describe how startled she and her mother were, as they “were in an open clearing” and could see no sign of an offering or ritual being conducted. Their fear only increased when wild dogs in the cemetery started “chasing people and barking everywhere.”
Claire believes that “animals act different when supernatural things occur,” which could have been the cause for their sudden, unexpected behavior. “I felt ill, I did not feel well and I felt like something supernatural was there.”
Believers state that if you happen to disrespect a ghost in any way, there is always something they can do to turn it around. Abdullah said that if you accidentally step on an offering, you should “ask them for forgiveness and tell them you did not know. Then you’d be okay.”
It is known among people who celebrate the Hungry Ghost Festival that if one fails to do so, the ghosts will harm that individual, like the previous example regarding Normaya’s friend. Conjuring bad dreams for those who disrespect ghosts is also a very common consequence. Most of these nightmares reportedly consist of one hurting oneself, or according to Abdullah,“maybe you might drop, fall, break a hip.”
“Don’t ever try your luck,” he warns.