Ghostly image claimed to be take in Thailand after the tsunami, popped up MSNBC, where it was credited “Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox.”
Almost 10 years ago, on December 26, 2004, an earthquake of magnitude between 9.1 and 9.3 struck in the Indian Ocean. It spawned a tsunami that killed almost a quarter of a million people in fourteen countries. Today, this disaster overshadows the region, and resort destinations once popular with foreigners are troubled by apocalyptic memories, in which survivors became the living dead, wading through a receding sea of death. When something as terrible as this happens, many people deal with it by perceiving a ‘thinning’ of the wall between life and death; they see a paranormal dimension of the tragedy. From 2005, reports came out of the region, and especially Thailand, that the area was haunted. This is the premise of many horror stories, written on a gigantic scale: that people taken violently, wrongfully, and before their time will not rest, but will walk the earth to plague the living. But the credibility of supernatural explanations is perhaps less important than what ghosts tell us about ourselves. (The rest of the post contains graphic imagery.)
Obviously, anyone who claims to have encountered a ghost would never (ever!) put it in such dispassionate terms! But there are many ways of seeing ghosts. There are university departments dedicated to understanding human psychology in relation to the paranormal, also called Parapsychology. Wiki: “Journals dealing with parapsychology include the Journal of Parapsychology, [the] Journal of Near-Death Studies [discontinued in 2003), the] Journal of Consciousness Studies and [the] Journal of Scientific Exploration.” One of the most notable research centres is perhaps the Koestler Parapsychology Unit at the University of Edinburgh; there’s a list of other international institutes devoted to the field here. The Koestler unit is named for the writer, Arthur Koestler, who after the famed anti-Soviet critique Darkness at Noon, penned histories of the human psychology behind the quest for knowledge in science, technology and the arts and humanities, which grew out of his biographical work on the astronomer and astrologer Johannes Kepler. From there, he turned to studies of the paranormal. He related telepathy and psychokinesis to early quantum physics; he researched Carl Jung, and Paul Kammerer’s theories on Lamarckism; he looked at problems of coincidence and synchronicity; and he considered telepathy and levitation. This preoccupation with the wall between life and death and our psychological, biological and intellectual responses to that divide led to his defense of euthanasia and suicide, as well as his endowment of the Edinburgh school that is named for him.
Most stories of hauntings obviously don’t get into all that stuff. Even among hardened skeptics, ghosts are usually taken at face value. Any descriptions ‘based on a true story’ are either matter-of-fact descriptions of dead things that just shouldn’t be there, or accounts of visceral engagements with a spirit or entity that cannot rest because of harm done. The blog Cinema Suicide has devoted this whole month to recounting ghost stories ‘based in fact,’ which are typically incredibly creepy and weirdly down-to-earth and not sensationalized. That is precisely the tone that makes phantoms believable to people. The skeptic who never believed, and who describes seeing something that was ‘just there’ is far more frightening than the televised ghost hunter taking pictures with a camera crew in a cemetery.
In these cases, people are treating ghosts as psychological or biological phenomena, or as a matter of philosophical or spiritual perception. But beyond this circular debate between science, religion and the occult, there is another, historical, dimension to this issue. Ghosts are not just our ancient fears manifested, or our repressed impulses come to life, or spiritual emanations from other dimensions. They are a facet of how we understand time, and especially death, as an immovable marker within our comprehension of the past. The past is full of death, and it is ‘dead.’ This is why it frightens a lot of people, because this is where our dead pets and dead loved ones are, as well as all those dead people in history. Scientific American recently reported that the dead still outnumber the living, despite speculation that population growth would reverse that equation. Starting at 50,000 BCE, Carl Haub, a demographer at the Population Reference Bureau, a Washington NGO, calculated that 106 billion people have ever been born. In 1 CE, at the height of the Roman Empire, the population of the earth was about 300 million. “And the U.N. predicts the world population will stabilize at 10 billion inhabitants sometime after 2200. At this rate, the living will never outnumber the dead.” So there we have it – we’re outnumbered. We are surrounded by the histories of a sea of 100 billion dead people.
In other words, the past is where our first encounters with our future reside. One of the mantras of modern society is the ability to ‘let go’ of the past and ‘move on’ – and leave the dead past to the dead. It’s a mantra that encourages people to live in denial of their ultimate fate so that they can enjoy the present. Thus, ghosts are ramped up, often terrifying interactions with the past, which is not dead, has not forgotten itself, and has no intention of going away quietly. When the living encounter dead, arisen from the past where they do not properly sleep, they are wrestling with their own fears of their own deaths in the future. Having experienced the fear of the past in hearing a ghost story, and attained temporary catharsis by reaffirming they are still alive (and safe), they feel better and go back to forgetting about the warnings of the past and the promise of the future.
The way we know that ghost stories are partly about us dealing with history is that not all past stories include ghosts. Mass death is one of the main testing points of that idea. Not all mass tragedies, like the 2004 tsunami, engender popular accounts of ghosts. Several years ago, one of my friends made an interesting observation. Why don’t you ever hear about ghosts arising from the Holocaust? Why weren’t there widepsread reports of hauntings in all those stolen shops and houses, let alone the concentration camps? Ghosts exist in German, Slavonic and Jewish lore, so it wasn’t a case of people not believing in hauntings. For the most part, the reference to ghosts in relation to the Holocaust is metaphorical; the event ‘haunts’ the lands where it occurred. But I’ve seen no general Holocaust-based references to the kind of vengeful, wronged, or dislocated spirits in Central and Eastern Europe that you would find in Japanese culture, for example. A cursory search only turns up the odd bit of speculation, as with Jonathan Schorsch’s 2003 article in Jewish Social Studies (here), he includes a telling quotation: “endings that are not over is what haunting is about.” Perhaps the elemental shame of the Holocaust is so primal, and on some level so repressed, that the perpetrators and by-standers did not allow themselves the luxury of ghosts.
By contrast, the popular histories of the late 1970s’ genocide in Cambodia under Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge régime (see here and a 2009 report at the Straits Times here) and the genocide in Rwanda are plagued with ghost stories. Rwanda is weirder. There are rumours (here) of a 1981 Catholic prophecy claiming that horrors would descend upon the land unless the people turned back to God: “The civil war broke out in 1994, but 13 years before that, November 28, 1981, an extraordinary heavenly prophecy describing what eventually took place in the apparition of Our Blessed Lady to three young girls. To a 17, 20 and a 21 year old, she appeared and warned the children that unless people turned back to God there would be terrible and very evil things that would happen in Rwanda. The girls were shown a ‘river of blood, people who were killing one another, abandoned bodies with no one to bury them, a tree on fire, an open chasm, a monster, and decapitated heads hacked off’ all of what they saw came true 13 years later.” This Catholic-run article from 2009 is dubious. The idea that the Rwandan people’s faithlessness in the early 1980s brought God’s wrath upon them is pretty rich, considering the well-known reports about the role of the Catholic Church during the genocide (here, here, here, here and here). There is an even more bizarre post (here) about alien bodies found in a Rwandan graveyard, which shows how strange beliefs in the paranormal can pop up when people, local or not, are trying to come to terms with terrible crimes. The alien graveyard rumour looks distinctly non-local in origin.
After the 2004 tsunami, most of the stories of hauntings popped up immediately in the wake of the disaster (as here), so much so, that in 2005, the Prime Minister had to declare that the tsunami ghosts were at peace:
“Khao Lak – Ghosts of tsunami victims no longer haunt Thailand’s beaches, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra said on Tuesday. Many visitors, especially Asian tourists, have shunned beaches hit by the December 26 tsunami for fear of ghosts, which many Thais have reported hearing or seeing after the deadly waves struck. But Thaksin, who was in the hardest-hit province of Phang Nga for a special cabinet meeting, said the spirits of the dead had already been reborn in line with Buddhist belief. ‘I slept well last night,’ said Thaksin. ‘My daughter called and asked me to pray before going to bed and I told her that all of the spirits were already reborn. I have no amulets to ward off ghosts,’ he said. Nearly 5 400 people were killed by the tsunami in Thailand, roughly half of them believed to be foreign holidaymakers.”
But in 2006, National Geographic reported that tourists, but particularly Asian tourists, still feared the spectres on Thai beaches: “The existence of ghosts may be debated. But the impact of traditional Asian beliefs on Thailand’s tourism trade since the December 26, 2004, tsunami appears indisputable. Tourism from Europe, Australia, and the United States has rebounded since the disaster. But tourist arrivals from elsewhere in Asia have plummeted since the tsunami and have yet to bounce back.” In 2010, there are still reports of local superstitions about ‘hungry ghosts’ haunting the beaches (here and here).
Account of the Tsunami Tragedy.
Thus, ghost stories are rooted in terrible historical realities. But not all terrible histories spawn ghost stories. The tragedy that engendered tsunami ghosts involved a scene of total devastation. Stephen Dupont, an Australian photojournalist, travelled to Indonesia on New Year’s Day of 2005. He remarked: “Banda Aceh, capital city of Aceh province. More then half the city has been wiped out. What remains resembles the aftermath of a WWI battlefield on the Somme. Everything is DEAD! This place is Apocalyptic, fuck, I can’t even describe what this place looks like . . .fear of whoever reads this will go insane . . . I’m already frightened to look at my pictures. This place is indescribable. How it feels and smells. I can’t think of anything to compare it with. It’s Hell, fuck! Looking at it, looking at the devastation makes me think of Hiroshima after the bomb was dropped . . .”
Banda Aceh Military Airport, January 9, 2005. © 2005 Stephen Dupont.
Dupont: “How do I photograph the carnage, the living dead, the ghosts? How do I capture humanity, when the humanity has been sucked out of this place? There is no emotion left. People walk around, trauma smashed into their minds. In shock they stumble through the wreckage of what was their homes, their shops, their work places, their Life!”
“Fathers are searching for children; husbands are searching for wives, sisters looking for brothers . . . entire families obliterated in seconds. A generation wiped out, a nation’s population sliced by a quarter . . . a new map of a new land. The force of this tsunami must have been incredible. Eighteen meters high, an ocean of water pounding the west coast of Aceh at 500 kms per hour. I just can’t believe anyone could have survived at all. It’s miserable, heartbreaking numbness on a biblical scale.”
“The smell of death is everywhere. I walk through the valley of death . . . the stench of rotting corpses in my nose, I can even taste it in my mouth . . . thousands and thousands of bodies everywhere. Who will ever know how many people died here . . . over 100,000 they say…double it and triple it I reckon. How can you count what is no longer there. Bodies are being buried in mass graves so quickly; there is no way to keep track of numbers. They are dumped, truck load after truck load, thrown into large holes in the earth like sacks of garbage, one on top of the other…until the hole is full . . . Limbs poking out from the ripped plastic bags remind you that there are people in those sacks. There is no dignity for the dead…no time for dignity, no time for prayers.”
Banda Aceh, January 2005. © 2005 Stephen Dupont.
Credits: All tsunami photographs taken by and copyrighted to Stephen Dupont in Banda Aceh, Aceh Province, Indonesia. (January 1–9, 2005). Stephen Dupont is a Sydney-based, award-winning photojournalist and war correspondent. He has a book out of his photos published by Booklyn Press. His photographs and comments are reproduced here solely for the purposes of review and discussion.