Grief, Spirits, and Storytelling

Nissaka man receiving a child from a ghost jpg HD

Detail from Nissaka man receiving a child from a ghost, Utagawa Kuniyoshi
Image: Wikipaintings

I read an interesting essay from the London Review of Books not too long ago: “Ghosts of the Tsunami,” by Richard Lloyd Parry. The essay tells of spirit visitations — and spirit possessions — reported by many people in the northern parts of Japan, the region struck by the earthquake and tsunami of 2011.

Haltingly, apologetically, then with increasing fluency, the survivors spoke of the terror of the wave, the pain of bereavement and their fears for the future. They also talked about encounters with the supernatural. They described sightings of ghostly strangers, friends and neighbours, and dead loved ones. They reported hauntings at home, at work, in offices and public places, on the beaches and in the ruined towns. The experiences ranged from eerie dreams and feelings of vague unease to cases, like that of Takeshi Ono, of outright possession. […]

Priests – Christian and Shinto, as well as Buddhist – found themselves called on repeatedly to quell unhappy spirits. A Buddhist monk wrote an article in a learned journal about ‘the ghost problem’, and academics at Tohoku University began to catalogue the stories. ‘So many people are having these experiences,’ Kaneda told me. ‘It’s impossible to identify who and where they all are. But there are countless such people, and I think that their number is going to increase. And all we do is treat the symptoms.’

Parry links this phenomenon to Japanese beliefs and customs around ancestor veneration, and to the idea of muenbotoke: wandering souls, those who die without family or kin to pray for them and help them move on. If a tsunami wipes out your entire town, all your family, all your friends — who is left to pray for you? Anyone you can haunt or possess, apparently.

One of the people featured in the article is Masashi Hijikata, a publisher living in Tohoku (a region rich in supernatural folklore). In the aftermath of the disaster, Mr. Hijikata revived the tradition of kaidankai, or gatherings for the tellings of ghost stories. These kaidankai were organized to provide support to survivors of the disaster, those who were not finding their necessary emotional and mental support from traditional counseling or religion. They were places for people to share their disaster-related supernatural experiences with fellow survivors.

Interestingly, Mr. Hijikata doesn’t believe in spirits. But he did believe — because of where he is, because of who the people of his community are — that people would begin to see them, in great numbers. And he was right.

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Losing Melanin

Hair
Photo: John Mount

“You don’t dye your hair, do you?”

I don’t know where that question came from. I had been sitting at the kitchen counter, transcribing my parents’ ghost stories over toast and my morning coffee, when my mother popped that on me.

“Yup. For years, now.”

“Really?!?”

She sounded so shocked that I had to replay the question in my mind. She asked me if I dye my hair, right? Not if I strip for a living?

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The Soul that Swam

I almost didn’t post this one. It’s a classic near-death story, so classic it verges on stereotypical. It does have a few unusual details, though, so I just decided to go ahead.

PhilippineOcean
Photo: John Mount

“This happened to my father, your lolo, when he was a young man, doing missionary work,” Dad said. “He had been assigned to a parish in Mindanao — Cagayan de Oro.”

I’m a bit hazy as to what “missionary work” means in this context. My grandfather was a priest who belonged to the Philippine Independent, or Aglipayan, Church. The church was founded as a reaction to the Spanish-dominated Catholic hierarchy, which slighted native Filipino clergy and churchgoers. Its nationalistic position attracted a lot of converts.

So I would imagine that my grandfather’s missionary work entailed ministering to an Aglipayan parish, one similar to the Roman Catholic parish that his parishioners had abandoned. Mindanao has a relatively large Muslim population as well; it’s possible that he also proselytized.

At any rate, from what my father describes, his father had many of the duties of a parish priest: saying Mass, visiting members of his congregation, managing the day to day activities of the church.

“One night, he came home quite late in the evening, after visiting with a sick parishioner. As he entered his house, a large black moth flew at him. He killed it. Then he finished up for the day, and went to bed.”

“When he fell asleep, he dreamt that he died.”

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Footsteps from Empty Rooms

It was my mother’s turn. She sat at the kitchen table, eating tangerines. Dad leaned over the kitchen counter with a banana. I sat at the kitchen counter, so I could listen to both of them.

“The thing to look out for is a house where someone died,” Mom said. “You know, in California, when you sell your house, you have to disclose whether or not someone died there, or if there was a tragedy in the house.”

“Really? I never heard anything like that,” I said.

My husband and I bought our house from our landlord, after renting it for eight years. Our landlord had been the second owner, and I would not be at all surprised if the first owner had passed away in the house.

“Well, did you ask about it?” Mom asked.

“Um. No.” I said.

“Well, there you go. But the people who bought our house in Pinole, they asked. They had a whole list of questions we had to answer for them! No one wants to move into a house with a multo. Maybe you have one in your house, and you don’t even know it.”

“If we don’t know we have a multo, then it doesn’t make any difference, right, Mom?” She made a tsk noise.

“Okay, okay. Did you have a multo at your house when you were a kid?”

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My Great-Grandparents’ house, about 1929

“Well, the house that you remember was built in the fifties, especially for your lolo and lola, so it was brand new when we lived in it. Before that, when I was little, we lived in the big house, my lola’s house, which is next door to where your lolo and lola’s eventually built their house. My lola had moved out by then, to live with her daughter, but my uncle, Tio Pedro, still lived there, with us. The big house was old, and lots of people died there: my grandfather, and some of my great-uncles and great-aunts…”

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Empty Houses

Emptyhouse3
Photo: Nina Zumel

“When a house is empty for a long time, the enkanto — the fairies — come to live there.”

Dad was warming to our ghost story conversation.

“I know this is true, because it happened to our house in Saraat, during the War.”

He meant World War II. The Philippines was not a happy place, during that war, but my father’s memories of that time are surprisingly pleasant. He was only about eight or nine years old when the Japanese occupation began, the youngest of his siblings, by far — what they call an “afterthought child”. When the Japanese came, I think some of my uncles ran to the mountains, to join the resistance, and much of the town evacuated as well. My grandfather chose to stay.

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Stories my Parents Tell Me

“In Ilokos, we don’t have the aswang,” my dad said, as we sat back after dinner, “but we have the kapre. He’s a giant black ogre, ten feet tall, with big fiery eyes.”

I had been asking Mom and Dad about aswangs, and whether or not they knew any stories about them, or any other beasties. It took some prodding — I doubt either of them had thought about these things in ages — but the memories were begininng to trickle forward from the backs of their brains.

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Family Folklore Research

Suka

My parents moved a few years ago out to a suburb just outside of Reno. It’s a nice enough place, but since the Asian population here is considerably smaller than it is back in the San Francisco Bay Area, a lot of the foods they like aren’t readily available. So we bring them provisions whenever we come to visit. Our care package this time included frozen steamed saba (a type of banana), longanisa sausages (delicious, but so, so bad for you), sukang paongbong (“thatch-palm”, or nipa vinegar — I mentioned it a few posts ago: it’s the kind the penanggalan need to reattach their heads to their bodies), and sukang iloko (sugar cane vinegar).

For breakfast this morning, we happily chowed down on scrambled eggs, tomato-onion-ginger salad (I forget the name of it; it’s kind of a salsa cruda), rice, and the artery-clogging longanisa. Longanisa is best eaten by dipping it in vinegar, accompanied by a lot of rice. Anyway, I’m chatting with my Mom about how sweet and mild the sukang iloko is, and my Dad chips in with a story of some old auntie of his who supposedly drank the stuff straight, for her health.

“She must have been an aswang!” my Mom joked.

My ears pricked up. A research opportunity!

“What do you mean, Mom?”

She looked slightly confused. “Oh, I don’t know….”

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