As Pchum Ben and Halloween approach, writer Steve Noble looks at the spooky stories and superstitions that surround these eerie holidays. Photography by Lucas Veuve.
Sotheary Touch woke from her dream slightly stirred at the thought of her grandfather’s words. “It seemed so real, but I told myself it had to be a dream,” the 28-year-old says. Seconds after waking, the phone rang. “It was my mother, who told me my granddad Vannak had passed away during the night. I couldn’t believe it.”
Touch made her way to the kitchen and steadied herself as her flat mate, Sopheap Tho, bustled in and recounted a strange dream of her own, that someone was kicking her out of her bed. She could feel a presence but nobody was there.
Stories of spirits and ghostly presence are entrenched in Cambodian culture and will commonly be retold. Most homes and businesses display colourful replica miniature homes that resemble temples adorned in gold, green and red. These spirit houses are used to ward off bad spirits and provide a shelter for them. Regular tributes are also offered, including food and drink, to appease these otherworldly beings.
It’s not only Cambodians who share eerie experiences in the Kingdom. Australian Daniel Anderson recalls a spooky story while working in his Phnom Penh office late one night. “I was trying to meet some deadlines but I kept stopping,” he says. “There was this feeling of being watched, an eerie presence, and although I couldn’t see anything I felt something tangible and haunting.” Anderson felt so uncomfortable he went home.
The next day, when Anderson told his colleagues, one of them dropped her coffee cup, shattering it on the floor. She collected her things and left the office with no explanation. A few phone calls later and the majority of the Cambodian staff had vacated the building, refusing to return until monks had been called, Ghostbuster style, to exorcise the office – a ritual that was carried out.
“I couldn’t quite believe how strongly the Cambodian staff reacted to my story, and I found it a little funny at first, my boss less so,” Anderson says. “It’s then I realised how sensitive my Cambodian colleagues were to spirits and ghosts. I don’t know how to explain exactly what I felt, and I’m a cynical person, but there was something in the office with me that night but I couldn’t see anything, it was freaky.”
Superstition and the belief in sorcery, harmful ghosts and spirits regularly lead to accusations and, even murder. In August, three people in Oddar Meanchey province allegedly murdered a 60-year-old woman, who was accused by a local family of practicing sorcery. Days earlier, a 49-year-old man was hacked to death in Kampong Chhnang province by three neighbours who believed he was involved in black magic.
Popular culture only further provokes Cambodian’s staunch belief in ghosts. In 2005, CamPro Film production released The Haunted House, with the country’s strong superstitions contributing to the horror film’s success. But despite profiting from the widely-held beliefs in ghosts, the cast insisted on a Buddhist prayer being prepared to ask any spirits to leave the alleged haunted house before filming began.
Similarly, producers of Khmer musical TV series, Roneat Snea, which aimed to promote traditional instruments, claimed the crew and actors were taunted by spirits during early shooting. They said the director and actors were possessed by a spirit because they chose the wrong place to hold the prayer ceremony prior to shooting. Eventually three ceremonies were held before production could continue unimpeded.
Pchum Ben is Cambodia’s equivalent of the famous Mexican Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead), and this year lands in mid-October. The 15-day religious festival sees many Cambodians pay their respects to deceased relatives of up to seven generations. This includes visiting the pagoda to honour the tradition. During this time, souls and spirits are believed to come to receive offerings from living relatives.
On the macabre side, it is believed that some of the dead receive punishment for their sins and burn in hell. Families want to provide offerings so these tortured spirits can have some relief from their suffering. This period is also important as some ghosts have the opportunity to end their period in hell, whereas others leave temporarily, returning to endure more pain.
Halloween also falls on Oct. 31, and the Western holiday has gathered momentum in recent years across Cambodia. A number of venues host parties and encourage fancy dress as ghosts, ghouls, witches and zombies. This sight can potentially lead to some cross cultural sensitivities, but younger urbanised Khmers are increasingly embracing the celebration.
As for Touch’s dream about her grandfather, “I remember speaking to him so clearly and he was telling me how much he loved me and my family but he was so tired. He just wanted to lay down and rest. Without really thinking, I told him to go lie down in the bedroom next door – the same room and bed as Tho. I never told her about that dream, it would scare her too much.”