I remember an accident which happened on a rainy night, a long time ago in Alor Star.
I saw a car crash into a huge tree at a sharp bend on a road next to a river in the northern town.
Immediately, people rushed to help the driver and were relieved to see that he had escaped the high-speed crash largely unhurt.
As the dazed driver fumbled his way out of the badly damaged vehicle, someone muttered that he was not surprised the accident had happened.
“Tempat ini memang keras,” the villager said in a thick Kedah accent.
Loosely translated, he had implied that the location of the crash was “unclean” in the supernatural sense, and accidents frequently happened there. Never mind the fact that it was a dangerous corner to start with.
The driver involved in the accident immediately nodded his head in agreement and tried to justify how he had lost control of his car by blaming it on mysterious forces.
“There were things that suddenly took over and drove my car straight into the tree.
“I knew I was going to crash but I was unable to do anything as unseen forces had taken control,” he related, as those listening nodded in unison, acknowledging that they knew exactly what he meant.
Later, as the crowd fizzled out, the driver sheepishly confided in me that he actually had a little too much to drink that night and, in a state of intoxication, had crashed his car.
The man admitted that he had to play along with the supernatural angle as he did not want to agitate the villagers who may have reacted differently had they sensed that he was drunk.
I could not help but be amused with what I had just seen and heard and locked it away in my memory as just how superstitious people can be and how some places can gain notoriety as being haunted even though there are perfectly logical explanations for things which happen there.
It reminds me of a quote by the late American stand-up comedian and social critic George Carlin, who once famously said: “Tell people there’s an invisible man in the sky who created the universe, and the majority will believe you. Tell them the paint is wet, and they have to touch it to be sure.”
Whatever it is, the reputation of the accident spot as a “tempat keras” was further enhanced that night, and I believe those who are familiar with the place still tread with caution when driving there.
It is no surprise then that a shockingly high number of people believe in ghosts. I read somewhere that a survey in the United Kingdom in 2014 found that 52 per cent of participants believed in the supernatural while a survey by Chapman University in the United States last year found that more than 40 per cent of Americans believe places can be haunted by spirits.
Interestingly, in 1921, a doctor named W.H. Wilmer published an odd story about a haunted house.
He wrote about a family which began experiencing weird phenomena when they moved into an old house — hearing furniture moving around and strange voices in the night, and feeling the presence of invisible spectres.
They reported being held down in bed by ghosts, feeling weak and more.
However, as it turned out, a faulty furnace was filling their house with carbon monoxide, causing aural and visual hallucinations. The furnace was fixed, and the family went back to their lives, minus the ghosts.
Closer to home, Malaysians were recently left spellbound by the mass hysteria at a school in Pengkalan Chepa, Kota Baru. The incident even attracted international press attention, with the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) picking up the story.
Reports have it that students and teachers of the school in the highly traditional and religious state started getting hysterical after claiming that they had seen a “black figure” lurking about or experienced a supernatural presence.
Authorities were eventually forced to shut the school and called in traditional experts (bomohs), religious scholars and even witch doctors to conduct prayer sessions and exorcisms.
In the end, the school reopened and officials said things had gone back to normal but several of the bomohs warned that it may only be a short reprieve as the ghouls had just agreed to go away temporarily and could be back anytime.
I mean, really!!!
Then, there was also the story of happenings at a village in Malacca, where a traditional medical practitioner boldly proclaimed that migrating spirits were likely to blame for the spate of hauntings in Kampung Lapan in the historical city.
“These creatures are like humans. They are migrating from one place to another,” the man explained, adding that the spirits were possibly heading to their final destination, and the village was merely a “transit point” for them.
The bomoh went on to confidently say that another reason for the increased paranormal activity there could be that certain quarters were “dumping ghosts” in the village for various reasons.
Both these stories naturally generated intense interest, especially among believers who take ghost stories seriously and also non-believers who insist there is a more scientific basis to things that go bump in the night than a restless afterlife.
The second group argue that science has never been able to conclusively say ghosts and spirits exist, despite successfully putting man on the moon.
Nevertheless, what happened in Kota Baru especially has sparked yet another round of debate on whether the authorities are doing the right thing by resorting to traditional/religious means to handle cases of hysteria in our schools.
It is argued that while students in our neighbouring countries are being equipped with science kits to test the level of water pollution in their homes, ours are being subjected to treatment by bomohs instead of being counselled and given logical explanations for the alleged ghostly presence at their school.
It has also been pointed out that the use of bomohs and traditional healers can be a double-edged sword, especially if they fail, because they legitimise the supernatural aspects of the outbreak.
As a result, the outbreak (mass hysteria) is likely to be prolonged.
A university lecturer, who has lived and taught in Kelantan for 13 years, was reported to have said that the whole mass hysteria incident in Pengkalan Chepa was blown out of proportion as it could have just been brought on by heat, stress or the haze. Others, however, say that we should not be so quick to dismiss the unexplainable.
In a letter to the editor recently, Dr Mohamed Ghouse Nasuruddin from Universiti Sains Malaysia, Penang, said contrary to the belief of scientifically-inclined professionals who are sceptical of paranormal occurrences, spirit manifestations in the form of apparitions and possessions do exist in traditional healing.
He contended that there are phenomena that science cannot explain and yet, are dismissed as chimeras of the imagination.
“We should not simply discount those that cannot be scientifically verified,” he wrote.
As for me, if it’s not too much of a cliche, if ever there is to be an encounter with ghouls or alien beings, I would be dying to hear them say: “Take me to your leader.”
Sharanjit Singh is a veteran journalist who feels less talk and more action is needed to save planet Earth from mankind