Wednesday, 25 August 2010

the month of hungry ghosts

We're still in the month of hungry ghosts, so there's still plenty to fear, if you're in certain parts of Asia at least, in a time that's as much about appeasing as honouring the dead. In most of the countries only the several days around the middle of the month are marked with rituals, but Genevieve Woo and Tony Kern's 2008 documentary, A Month Of Hungry Ghosts, covers Singapore's month-long festival, with footage of the religious ceremonies and prayers, food offerings and banquets for the departed, folklore theatre, music and puppetry (and sometimes ecstatic singing) as well as fire rituals at night.

It's a folklore spectacle, but the idea of hungry ghosts has a horror movie edge. The advent of the seventh lunar month opens the gates of Hell and sets ghosts free to mingle with the living, and with a threatening undercurrent, as the lost souls go in search of emotional sustenance. At its most extreme, that means revenge in acts of trickery, possession and murder. Night-time swimming is a definite no-no.

In Buddhist thought, the hungry ghosts can never be satisfied, tormented by cravings for the past that can never be fulfilled, and so they're pictured as grotesque phantoms, with long thin necks, bloated stomachs and withered limbs. Offerings of food, the burning of gifts for them - paper houses, paper TVs, fake money, fake cars and real gifts nowadays including electronics - are not only to help the ghosts in their world, but also as protection, a form of mafia rule from beyond the grave that includes the caveat of good luck in this life for paying due respect to the ancestors. These aren't spooks out to go boo, they're literally out to get you.

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