The Trans-Pacific Phenomena of Ghoulish Extortionists: from Halloween to the Ghost Festival
|Hungry ghosts in a traditional painting|
Long before All Hallows’ Eve (the day before the Christian feast of All Saint’s Day) merged with pagan traditions to form Halloween, Chinese Taoists and Buddhists both recognized a day when the dead walked the Earth. The Hungry Ghost Festival 盂蘭盆, or Zhongyuan Jie 中元節, falls on the fifteenth day of the seventh lunar month, which places it in mid to late August, or August 24 in 2010.
On this day, the gates of Hell are thrown open so that the dead may walk the Earth. Thus, families set out feasts for the deceased to enjoy and burn incense, special “spirit money,” and other flammable offerings that will be useful in the afterlife. In Chinese tradition, the dead require all the same things as their living brethren, and tombs often are filled with miniature houses, farm animals, servants, and entertainers. Indeed, boredom must be a big problem in the eternal hereafter; so Chinese operas held during the Ghost Festival traditionally leave the front row of seats empty, reserved for otherworldly spectators.
However, this is not to say that all Chinese ghosts are kindly grandmothers come back as Casper to sip tea and pinch cheeks while taking in an opera. Ancestors can grant boons to the living in exchange for offerings, but souls of unfilial sonsand corrupt officials, those who died a violent death, had an improper burial, or have not received the offerings they crave, come to this world in search of vengeance. Those who deserve punishment for earthly misdeeds become “hungry ghosts,” and they traditionally are depicted with huge stomachs and tiny throats, so they are perpetually hungry but cannot eat.
|A ghost marriage in Singapore,|
courtesy Singapore Paranormal Investigations
|The Ghost King and offerings, flanked by attendants|
At other times during the festival, the superstitious will avoid water as ghosts of people who drowned can avoid their torment by dragging a living replacement to his or her watery grave. Many Chinese and other believers will refuse to schedule weddings or other celebrations during this time. It is also a risky season to undergo surgery, make major purchases, or move into a new house, and many parents keep their children indoors at night lest a wayward spirit choose to possess them.
It’s an odd contrast that Chinese tradition requires parents to keep their children indoors, while American kids take to the streets for several hours of interaction with strangers. But Americans are just as (if not more) afraid of razor-filled caramel apples or poisoned candies as Chinese parents are of ghosts. As a child in the ‘80s, I remember being warned not to eat any goodies before my parents had a chance to inspect the annual haul, and throw away anything not securely wrapped in impermeable plastic, foil and/or cardboard. Most people now realize that diabolical Halloween candy tainters were largely an urban legend, and no one ever hears about a surge in demonic possessions each August, but the fear of unknown dangers from this or other worlds is a theme that pervades both of these holidays and makes all of us appreciate life while it’s still here, even as we tremble with trepidation at what lurks beyond…