Ghosts of Java
Indonesia’s bloody past has produced a country populated with ghosts. Now, they are sharing their stories on YouTube.
On the YouTube video, you can see a young Chinese-Indonesian man, maybe in his early 20s, wearing a green shirt, moving acrobatically with a long staff inside what looks like a garage. A man reciting the Quran through a PA system can be heard somewhere outside the garage, but inside the young man is dancing to a recording of the Beijing Opera.
He is performing for his YouTube audience, but there is also another group for whom he is performing: the ghosts of the Chinese-Indonesians who were killed in a riot in Jakarta in May 1998. Between 12 and 15 May, more than a thousand people, mostly Chinese-Indonesians, died, and it is their ghosts who watch as he dances. When he is finished, one of them possesses him, commanding him to tell the story of what happened in that garage during the riot.
The video – uploaded in May 2021 – is an example of a new ‘horror content’ genre on Indonesian YouTube in which young Indonesians visit haunted locations in an attempt to find evidence of mystical beings and, sometimes, to connect with them. As is the case in this video, the YouTubers often allow the ghosts to possess them and talk through them to share their stories of past violence.
When I first came across these videos, I felt uncomfortable – like many, I am sceptical when it comes to the supernatural. But watching them made me realise that there is more to these videos than cheap scares in an effort to gain more views. These young Indonesians are grappling with uncomfortable aspects of their country’s history and they are doing so with empathy.
Despite my personal beliefs, I am familiar with the sense of dread that comes when faced with anything that is possibly supernatural. This sense of dread was something I learned growing up in the 1980s under the daily terror of the Soeharto military dictatorship, which began with a bloody military coup in 1965 and led to an anti-communist genocide about which my parents’ and grandparents’ generation are still often silent. Soeharto was toppled in 1998, but the dread, the ghosts and most of the silence remained.
Some of these ghosts are simply mischievous: the small child-like tuyul who steals wallets, the wewe gombel who kidnaps children after the sun goes down. But others carry a deeper trauma that comes from the abyss of Indonesia’s history. A headless Dutch priest looking for his severed head at a cemetery; a vengeful woman in white (or red, depending on the hierarchies in the spirit world) staring from the windows of abandoned houses; a murdered nurse who crawls on hospital floors at night.
And now, since the riots of 1998, there are the ghosts of Chinese-Indonesians in Klender, a residential district in east Jakarta. After the riot, in which many of the deceased perished after they became trapped in a burning shopping centre, ghost stories started to appear: a father looking for his son, a roaming child with a missing eyeball, the smell of burning flesh.
You don’t have to believe in the existence of ghosts to believe in their stories. In fact, in a place where histories are often erased and rewritten according to the whims of the powerful, these stories have the power to tell the truth. The shopping centre in which many of the Chinese-Indonesians died has been rebuilt with very little acknowledgement of what happened; but the ghosts appeared through the cracks to remind us about the history of the place, not only as a collection of facts but also as a visceral experience.
Lore of Java
One of the YouTubers who explores this visceral aspect of history, Om Hao, has a name for it: retrocognition. It is the opposite of precognition – rather than seeing the future, retrocognition is the ability to sense the past. Through his YouTube channel, Kisah Tanah Jawa (‘The Lore of Java’), Om Hao has become a popular figure in Indonesia. At the time of writing, he has 2.46 million subscribers and his videos regularly get hundreds of thousands of views.
Unlike Indonesia’s spiritual practitioners during the Soeharto era – who would wear robes and an accoutrement of esoteric spiritual paraphernalia including the Javanese keris (a small dagger) – Om Hao presents as a mild-mannered, bespectacled, softly spoken Javanese man who wears t-shirts and trainers. He would not be out of place at an academic history conference in London or a cafe in Tokyo. He is undertaking a master’s degree in history at one of Indonesia’s most respected universities, the University of Gajah Mada in Yogyakarta.
In his videos, he visits haunted locations with team members and tells the stories he can feel. Sometimes they are very dark, such as the story of an illegally aborted foetus whose remains were dumped under a bridge; at other times they are lighter. One ghost he meets is a woman who died before she achieved her dreams and who simply wants to be remembered.
Unlike the spiritualists and ghost hunters of the Western world who we sometimes see on sensationalist television programmes, Om Hao does not use electrical equipment. His retrocognitive history relies on trusting what he feels with his body, as well as his understanding of Javanese philosophy and mysticism. The success of his videos has done much to bring these ideas back into the mainstream.
Retrocognition is, at best, an untestable phenomenon. But it has an interesting history. One of the most famous cases of retrocognition in the Western world is An Adventure, a book by Annie Moberly and Eleanor Jourdain, published in 1911. It tells the story of a ‘time slip’, or an ‘act of memory’ that occurred in the grounds of the Palace of Versailles where the pair managed to witness a party hosted by Marie Antoinette in 1792. The book was hugely popular and has remained so; it was made into a television film in 1981 and the BBC produced radio dramatisations in 2004 and 2015.
Both of the authors were educated and had professional standings as principal and vice principal of St Hugh’s College, Oxford, one of the first colleges for women. But, they assured their readers, they had both ‘inherited a horror of all forms of occultism’. It is tempting to think that the book was also an effort to tell a more inclusive version of history; one that is not simply a collection of tangible evidence, but one in which the past can be felt.
In Indonesia, a retrocognitive attempt to tell the story of the archipelago was produced by the British Theosophist Charles Webster Leadbeater, who published The Occult History of Java in 1951. Leadbeater claimed to have studied the history of the island of Java ‘with the aid of clairvoyance’ and learned that the archipelago was a part of the Atlantean colony. This is absurd, but it has taken root; there are Indonesians who believe it.
But instead of simply debunking these myths, it is more useful to think about why they endure. When it comes to the history of Indonesia, there has been much that has been erased and made invisible – both in colonial and postcolonial times. Thriving networks of villages were turned into plantations using slave labour. Local architecture, fashion and other aspects of culture were denigrated and demolished. Families and their lineages were broken up. The colonial menace and desire to control history has cast a long shadow.
Leaving behind the events of May 1998, the communist massacre in 1965-66 and the violence it begat has left at least two generations of Indonesians with a deep fear of talking about those events except through the ‘official’ version told during the Soeharto era, in which the Indonesian Communist Party were simply ‘the bad guys’.
Even now, more than 20 years after the reformation that toppled Soeharto, many Indonesians still refuse to talk about 1966, 1998, or many other violent events that are important parts of the country’s history. But some of these stories live on as spectres. The ghosts, the spirits and the mystical beings are not simply a reflection of fears, but contain hope that the stories might, one day, be told without fear.
After the young man has finished his acrobatic performance, he falls to the ground and is then possessed by the spirit of a man who witnessed the horrible events that happened in that very garage. He starts crying, saying that he does not understand how a Chinese-Indonesian man like him, who only wanted to live and work, was murdered with such cruelty.
The YouTubers are soon told to leave by security, asked to ‘not talk about 1998’. Yet they continue. Moving to another room, a young Chinese-Indonesian becomes possessed by the ghost of a woman. She starts crying, lamenting how their stories are forgotten because they are a minority group.
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Forgotten indeed. More than 24 years after the riot happened, the case is still being investigated. No one has been punished for it and many Indonesians are still silent and fearful about 1998 or racism towards ethnically Chinese-Indonesians in general. But in this video, two young Chinese-Indonesians, allied with the ghosts, are telling the story. Their video ends with a departure from the usual requests to ‘like and subscribe’. Instead, the YouTubers apologise to the families of the victims while also addressing their audience: ‘We are not going to say like and subscribe. We do not want to go viral. This story simply must be revealed.’
Tito Ambyo is an Indonesian-Australian journalist, completing a PhD at RMIT University, Melbourne, and the co-host of the Talking Indonesia podcast.