Chris Things that go bump in the night do more than wake us up. They threaten the very meaning of home. When we think of home we usually think of safety, comfort, and a sense of belonging, whether at the scale of the family residence or the nation. But when a home is haunted it is neither safe nor comfortable, and the people who try to live there feel they don’t belong, this might be why we call it a haunted house and not a haunted home. I’m Chris McMorran, a professor at the National University of Singapore, and you’re listening to Home on the Dot. This podcast explores the power and meanings of home in today’s world, all through the stories and lives of my students.
This episode complicates our usual understandings about home by discussing ghosts and haunted houses. Aisyah, an English lit major who recently graduated, points out that the supernatural has long been part of everyday life here, with ancestors and ghosts never far away. For instance, in a previous episode, we talked about the Hungry Ghost festival, a Chinese tradition that involves burning offerings to deceased ancestors who are thought to visit the living once a year. And while celebrating the Muslim holiday of Hari Raya earlier this year, Aisyah and her family spent part of the evening sharing old Malay ghost stories just for fun.
Importantly, thanks in part to the long interweaving of cultures on this red dot, Singaporeans know each other’s ghosts. So despite the fact that the Pontianak is a Malay ghost – a young woman with long black hair who haunts banana trees and preys on men – my Chinese and Indian students also find her frightening. And Aisyah knows to be respectful of the offerings left in public spaces for Chinese ancestors during the Hungry Ghost festival.
Moreover, the physical landscape literally forces the living to deal with the dead. As a tiny island with a large population, new construction frequently occurs on the remains of past generations. Many HDB estates sit atop former cemeteries and a new cross-island expressway is currently being built through Bukit Brown cemetery, forcing the graves to be exhumed and the remains to be cremated and relocated elsewhere.
Some of my colleagues even claim NUS is haunted, since it was built on a key site in the Battle of Singapore, when Japanese forces invaded in February 1942. The ghosts of Australian and Indian soldiers have been reportedly seen on the forested hillsides that surround our offices and classrooms. It seems there is nowhere to escape Singapore’s ghosts, ancestors, and spirits.
Aisyah Russell Lee’s True Singapore Ghost Stories is a famous series of horror tales from Singapore and the surrounding region. It’s been a massive hit since its initial release in 1989, with 26 books to date. I’ve been a fan of the series ever since I was in primary school. I fell in love with it after finding out about it at school, where it was a popular reading choice during morning assembly…although it wasn’t quite approved by the school. Over the years, I bought each new edition that was released, and when I couldn’t, made sure to go to the library to catch up on any stories I had missed. So when it came to thinking about a topic for this podcast, I instantly thought about how all these stories challenge the idea of home as something safe and comfortable, by making them places that freak us out.
I spent two weeks asking family, friends, and strangers to tell me their favorite ghost stories, hoping to learn about the connections between home and the supernatural. It seems everyone in Singapore has a ghost story, even my mom. I also heard about a Professor at NUS who teaches a class on the supernatural. So I spoke with him, too. I had fun, got slightly freaked out—but one thing I kept coming back to was this: What explains Singapore’s national fascination with the supernatural and what does the supernatural have to do with home?
Professor Irving Johnson has some ideas.
Johnson One thing that— but I haven’t done any research on this— but one thing that is very interesting are ghost stories related to total institutions meaning armies, hostels, schools, where there’s very high levels of discipline, very regimented sort of social environments right but where you have all these kinds of strange stories that kind of break the mold…cos that’s what ghost stories do right; they break the mold of the rigidity of a system…
Aisyah Prof Johnson teaches a Freshman Seminar on Supernaturalism in Southeast Asia at NUS and has long researched religion and the supernatural.
Johnson I mean, ah, something can be said for instance about discipline maybe, the culture of discipline in Singapore. Discipline is very very rigid. If you read people like Irving Goffman right who was a sociologist writing about asylums in 1960s in America, he said that despite the rigidity of asylums – because everybody is an individual agent – so they would find ways to break out of this rigidity. So what does a horror story do? What does a supernatural sighting tell us? It is a moment where you can break away; can contest the rigidness of discipline.
Aisyah What does this talk of discipline have to do with home?
Johnson Well that’s interesting; HDB estates are also sites of discipline…
Aisyah As we explained in an earlier episode, HDB flats have been a major success story of the PAP government for over 50 years. But buying an apartment is a complicated process tightly controlled by the government, which decides who is eligible and where they will live, based on age, marital status, race, income, and where the rest of your family lives.
Johnson Yeah the structure of a HDB estate is very much disciplined-who can apply to an estate – you go by CMIO again right? How many percentage for Malay, how many percentage, Indian, how many percentage, Chinese. In estates what you can do and cannot do is so constrained; whether you can raise cats whether you can bring big dogs, small dogs… How many people are allowed in the house, what you do in term of renovation to the house, you have to go to the HDB and all that. The process for applying for a HDB flat is already so disciplined. The levels, the steps, you’re basically entering into Singapore bureaucracy. It’s not like if I go and buy a condo I just pay the money and come out; HDB is very different. So, if you think about stories of the supernatural within the HDB estate right— I don’t know that many— you could also argue that it is a way in which individuals contest the rigidity of public housing in Singapore.
Aisyah Need an example? How about this one from my mom:
Aisyah’s Mother This was someone I heard when I visited one of our neighbours during Hari Raya, and she told me about her sister who recently sold her house and wanted to upgrade to an Executive flat in Tampines. And they kind of thought that this would be their final home that they would stay in for a long time. But unfortunately as they stayed in the house they began to experience unfortunate happenings which left them questioning whether they would be able to pull through.
Aisyah My family has always shared ghost stories. Some of them have actually experienced these strange occurrences. My cousin once told us that a ghost followed him home, and now lurks on his doorstep. Of course, he told us this while we were already in his home, which made the story even creepier since we had to pass the doorstep on our way out. My mom is a housing agent, so she’s always hearing great stories about haunted flats and sharing these stories with us.
Aisyah’s Mother What happened was basically she said when they started to stay there, the family was experiencing— everybody was able to actually see people in the house, okay, and they were not, of course, not human lah. And it was scary because they had children, they had very, very young children. So and this lady; she’s not working, so her husband would be out at work sometime during night shift, and the children would be totally freaking out because the thing was just moving around their house.
Aisyah So the family just upgraded their house and moved into a newer, larger apartment. But they weren’t alone. Something or someone was already living there.
Aisyah’s Mother So they finally called people in to um look at the house and they found that there were a family staying in the house. So it’s ghosts lah basically, you know. But it’s like a family of ghosts staying in the house. So they did some kind of cleansing of the house, so it’s kind of like the thing was put out of the house and they actually thought that that was the end of the whole unfortunate incident and they would be able to live peacefully then…
Aisyah They got the cleansing done by an Ustaz, a religious scholar who is occasionally called upon to use their religious knowledge to deal with exorcisms. This process of cleansing normally involves reading religious scriptures to banish the ghosts. However, while this process kicked out the ghosts, they wanted back in.
Aisyah’s Mother So what happens— this is basically an executive mansionette — so what happens after that was… For the Muslims the have their maghrib prayers which is the 7 plus prayers and basically during this time the Muslims try to stay indoors and won’t let their children, especially young children, to go out at night. So what happens was that while they were in the house doing their own thing, suddenly they hear knocking from the house and it’s like a weird kind of knocking, you know. And they realise that is actually not human. This really freaked them out because it’s like the thing is out of the house but was trying to get in the house.
Aisyah Despite everything, it wasn’t over. You can’t get rid of a spirit that easily.
Aisyah’s Mother So it ended up that this happened everyday after the cleansing, so they finally realised that the thing is still there and it was at the lift- kinda thing where people— the family— can actually see.
Aisyah So you actually had people seeing this ghost, just lurking in the corridors, waiting….
Aisyah’s Mother So what happens is when the husband is at night shift, in the whole big house everybody will just huddle into one room and be scared and stay all in one room. So I was asking her [the neighbour], “what is their plans” because they kind of just shifted recently into the house. So they were saying that the sister is just waiting for the house to complete the period after which they will actually sell the house because they won’t be able to stay in the house anymore, considering that this is something that is an everyday happening now.
Aisyah The rigid HDB system required the family to wait about 5 years before they could move out of this haunted flat. In the meantime, what could they do?
Aisyah’s Mother And it seems that after they found out right, people were telling them—The person who came to cleanse the house was telling them that they cannot lapse in their prayers or their practices that they have to practice daily in the house like reading of the Quran – they have to keep the place really proper, what do you call it… religiously. They have to do all these prayers and all very religiously, so the thing cannot come inside the house. But if there’s any lapses in their practices and all this thing can basically easily come back into the house.
Aisyah The family had no choice but to stick it out for another 5 years, doing their daily religious practices to keep the ghosts outside their front door. What really made a chill run down my spine was how this family now lives in a state of limbo: the house legally belongs to them, but they never really feel like they belong.
For Professor Johnson, HDB flats are just one of many Singaporean institutions whose underlying rationality and rigid system might inspire horror stories.
Johnson So you think of Singapore for instance you have all these symbols of modernity, Changi Airport, Esplanade, Marina Bay Sands. These are the public geographies of space, HDB estates, which are celebrated by the state as sites of pure rationality right- economic development, the rise of the PAP and what they have done. But do we find an alternative meaning of this? And this is the meaning that comes on a local level, these are the ghosts that live in lifts, these are the ghosts that live in 313 Orchard, places like that lor. As if Singaporeans are fighting back… almost you know, resisting this… Of course they are not doing it… with knowledge that they are doing it, you know what I mean it’s a very unspoken-of resistance. You know academics — some academics they like to generalise if they’re doing this it’s resisting. But to the auntie who’s telling the story…she’s not resisting anything but you kinda read the motives of the story la…
Aisyah Another common site of discipline that inspires ghost stories is the army camp.
Johnson Think of an army camp: so rigid, so strict, so disciplined that it takes away your identity as a person, right, because you wear a uniform, you shave your head, your name is taken away, you become Private so-and-so, Recruit so-and-so …same thing in a hospital right, you wear hospital clothes, you are a patient, you are in this rigid system… in schools…the same thing.
Where expressions of individualism become constrained, confined and that’s when people all over the world would find ways to break out of this confining rigidity and they do it in different ways lor. So when soldiers get together and tell a story, they are no longer part of the— the moment of telling, right. Of one person telling, one person listening, they are taken out of the terrible-ness of that kind of disciplinary environment lor, and they can create an identity for their camp, for themselves…
Aisyah Indeed, the supernatural seems to be something that not only influences our perception of home, but is also constructed by it. Clearly, the supernatural has rooted itself deeply in Singapore. One might even say it’s become natural for the supernatural to exist here, so much so that the supernatural becomes people’s first reaction to strange incidents. For instance, in recent years, Yishun gained a reputation as a “cursed town,” due to a number of strange incidents occurring there, including many stray cats that died mysteriously.
Clearly, Singapore’s fascination with the supernatural is alive and well, and with the sharing of these tales, not only are they brought to life, but they contribute to the very essence of our understanding of Singapore itself. It’s interesting that while “home” is supposed to be a place that is familiar, the omnipresence of the supernatural not only transcends these boundaries, but also leads us to question; how do we decide what is home and who belongs?
Chris I admit I am a skeptic. I don’t believe in ghosts or haunted houses. But I find it refreshing that Aisyah, Stanley and many other students are open-minded about the supernatural. University has taught them to identify valid evidence and make reasoned arguments. But there is still room in their lives for the unexplainable. While I don’t believe in ghosts, I do believe ghost stories play an important part in helping us understand home. In fact, Professor Johnson’s comments about how ghost stories help us resist rigid systems makes me think back to all the horror movies of my childhood based in the suburbs.
The suburban home had been built up in the popular imagination to be the ultimate safe and comfortable space. But in these films the home turned against its residents by harboring ghosts or making inhabitants more vulnerable to a murderous stranger because of its location. Films like A Nightmare on Elm Street and Poltergeist offered a way to critique the social rigidity imposed by suburban living, with it’s carefully manicured lawns and perfectly dressed residents. They helped broaden my perspective on home by showing that not all was perfect in suburbia.
For many Singaporeans, the supernatural is a part of everyday life, part of the very architecture of the city. Home is not an escape from one’s ancestors or the spirits that surround us: home is a state of pragmatic co-existence. Indeed, living with ghosts is simply a way of life.
This episode of Home on the Dot was written and produced by Siti Aisyah. Our sound engineer was Stanley Chow. Special thanks this week goes to Aisyah’s mom and Professor Johnson for their time and their ghost stories. Thanks also to my many former students who insisted I incorporate the topic of haunted houses into the Home module.
For more information about this episode and the Home on the Dot project, or to share your own ghost stories, please visit tinyurl.com/homeonthedot or our facebook page @homeonthedot.
Please also check out our website for exciting research on haunted homes by Caron Lipman, a Geographer at Queen Mary University of London and author of Co-habiting with Ghosts: knowledge, experience and belief and the domestic uncanny, published in 2014 by Ashgate.
Thanks for listening.