October 19, 2016: Here in the U.S. we’re in full Halloween mode with last year’s zombie get-ups and this year’s creepy clown scare. In the American Southwest, Dia de Muertos pays homage to departed ancestors with gaily decorated skulls and charming skeleton mariache bands. But in my opinion no culture beats the Chinese when it comes to nasty ghouls. The sheer number and diversity is amazing.
Researching my novel Water Ghosts introduced me to the pantheon of malicious demons, devils and minor deities of the collective Chinese imagination. Among them are shui gui — ghosts of the drowned. According to legend these unfortunates can only escape their watery hell if they find a living person to take their place. For seafaring and maritime people, water ghosts can be particularly troublesome; they’re known for their ability to deceive.
Traditionally, the Chinese Hungry Ghost Festival is held on the 15th day of the seventh lunar month; it’s purpose is to appease the spirits of the departed who have been neglected by the living. During this festival the gates of hell are opened for the ravenous spirits to wander the earth in search of comfort — or revenge. On the evening before the festival people light water lanterns and set them afloat to invite the souls of drowned victims to the next day’s feast! The next day people offer food to the neglected dead and burn joss, or ghost money — a traditional form of ancestor worship that goes back thousands of years. I was astonished to discover a variety of joss sold in Asian markets in Hawaii and California. In Water Ghosts James burns Monopoly game money as a substitute for ghost money, to appease the dead.
Bob and I recently watched Seventh Moon (2008), a horror movie directed by Eduardo Sanchez, about two Americans on their honeymoon in China during the Hungry Ghost Festival. Does it compare to Water Ghosts? Some of the supernatural elements are similar, but Water Ghosts takes place in the Pacific Ocean and the main ghost Yu, is a developed and complex character with his own story to tell. Maybe he deserves his own book?