Sunday, November 1, 2009


I have always loved Halloween. I grew up looking forward to Halloween each year once the leaves started to change their color and I felt that nip in the air. My childhood best friend also loved the holiday and we would spend time dreaming up the best costumes, watching semi-scary movies, carving the best jack-o-lanterns and most importantly, plotting out our dream haunted house. She had a few Halloween parties and since she lived on a farm, hayrides and hay bale mazes were always on the bill. We got older and replaced trick-or-treat with haunted houses complete with guys wielding chainsaws above our heads. Scary, yes. Magical, no. Now that I am an adult, I have to hope for an opportunity to dress up either for a house party or for going out to a bar or club, which to me, just isn’t the same. It seemed more fun as a kid somehow. I confess a couple years have slipped by with no celebration at all, but I still love Halloween. I still dream of the best party I could ever throw. I still hope trick-or-treaters will come to my door. I still carve jack-o-lanterns, setting them outside with an eerie flickering candle inside. Gotta try to keep the magic alive.

The Chinese do not celebrate Halloween, but they do have a ghost culture. Similar to western cultures, ghosts can be good or evil. They are visible to some, but invisible to most. Many ghosts avoid the light, so fires are used to keep them away. Evil ghosts are thought to travel in straight lines, so many paths, such as the bridge at the Yu Yuan Garden in Shanghai, have many bends in them to keep such spirits away. The seventh lunar month, which falls in July, is considered ghost month, a time when ghosts are able to cross back through to our world. So those who believe give offerings to ghosts, many times their own ancestors, but sometimes they also must appease “homeless” ghosts who do not have any living relatives. Sometimes fake money, or “ghost money” is burned to keep the spirits happy.

Since coming here, I have heard that many Chinese people sincerely believe in ghosts and are quite scared of them. Many people on the mainland are now atheist and do not believe in the old traditions of ancestor worship or appeasing angry ghosts. I read that many more people in Taiwan, having left the mainland before Communism and the elimination of many old traditions, kept the old ways alive, many of them fully believing in ghosts.

I am fascinated by this. Generally I am not superstitious. I do, however, love a good ghost story, a tale of the unexplained by someone who swears to its happening. The only weird thing that ever happened to me was that a lamp went off a few seconds before I reached the dial. I chalked it up to something electrical, but had fun thinking of it as a sign of a meddling spirit. If I were truly superstitious, the house I grew up in was prime territory for potential ghosts. One segment of the house is over 100 years old, existing in the days when the canal still ran through Groveport. Some say the house was the ice house on the canal, selling ice chunks to the passing boats. Others say that it used to be the town jail. If that isn’t fodder for some spooky stories of lingering ghosts, I don’t know what is. Did I mention that the town cemetery is across the street? Childhood games of “Ghost in the Graveyard” played in my front yard had a little more punch, the looming tombstones dimly glowing in the pale orange flood lights just yards away.

Despite grim prospects for any sort of Halloween this year aside from my carved baking pumpkin and some imported Halloween Peeps in the shape of ghosts, I was pleasantly surprised with an opportunity to sneak in some festive fun. An American we met here, Mike, and his Chinese wife, Vicky, have started an English school in Jining. They invited us to come to their Halloween celebration. So, with last year's costume props in tow, David and I came to help. They had trick-or-treating, a costume fashion show, games, decorations, and a haunted house! They turned one of the classrooms in the small school into a haunted house complete with cobwebs, spooky music, and the required costumed performers jumping out at every turn. And this is how I learned first hand how scared Chinese people are of ghosts, because I volunteered to be one of the ghouls. Armed with a spooky mask and a good hiding spot, I scared the pants off of young children and parents alike. I tried not to scare them too badly, but in truth, some people did not make it through the whole house, opting to turn back. But they all seemed to be laughing once they came out, so I felt confident no one was going to have nightmares that night.

It felt really good to have helped a handful of kids in a small corner of China experience a little Halloween fun. I have realized that many holidays are simply much more exciting and magical when there are kids around. I certainly enjoyed my Halloween this year, as they gave me a good excuse to pretend to believe in spooks for an evening, helping me to keep my inner child alive and kicking for yet another year.

If you would like to read more about the belief in ghosts in Taiwan, check out this article.

1 comment:

  1. This is fascinating, and the article you directed us to about Taiwan's ghost beliefs was quite informative.