Yesterday was the first day of what is called “ghost month” (鬼月) in Taiwan. An ancient Buddhist holiday, it generally occurs during the seventh month of the lunar calendar. During this time, the ghosts and spirits, including those of ancestors, are believed to come from the underworld to visit the living.
The Taiwanese people believe that our spirits continue to exist after death, and that these spirits are capable of affecting the daily lives of humans. “Hungry ghosts” are the spirits of those who didn’t receive a proper burial or those who have been sent to hell to suffer in eternity for their misdeeds, greed, and other sins while alive. Once a year, they’re released from hell and given a chance to satisfy their cravings. To ward off any potential malevolence on the part of the spirits and to appease them, and to keep the hungry ghosts from disturbing them, people make offerings to them in the form of food, paper money, gold, entertainment, etc. Other activities include performing prayers and rituals, holding banquets, burning incense, and burning the paper form of material goods such as houses, cars, and gold. Lanterns are lit and set out to float in rivers to guide the lost spirits of forgotten ancestors to the afterlife.
Certain categories of spirits are regarded as more troubled and more concerning than others. Examples include the spirits of people who committed suicide and those who died by drowning.
During this month, people, particularly children, are encouraged not to engage in certain activities. I remember, even growing up in the United States, my parents and relatives cautioning me to be extra careful during ghost month because evil spirits will do anything to try to take your place. Some specific activities to avoid during ghost month include:
1. Swimming. Swimming is considered to be dangerous this month. It’s believed that the spirits of those who died by drowning will attempt to drown swimmers as a chance at rebirth.
2. Going out at night. It’s believed that ghosts are set free at sunset, so going out at night is discouraged, especially for young people.
3. Whistling, especially after dark. Whistling is believed to attract ghosts.
4. Don’t hang clothes outside to dry because the ghosts will try to put them on as a way to get into your house.
5. Starting a new business, moving to a new house, or getting married.
I vaguely remember some of these rituals and beliefs growing up, but not having observed them for decades now, I had forgotten about them until now. I remember feeling scared and spooked when told about these unsettling superstitious beliefs. Even now, just thinking and writing about it, I can feel chills running down my back. It’s going to be an interesting month!