Sunday, Aug 11, 2002

Malaysians enthralled by supernatural exhibit
and its house of horrors

Associated Press

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia - As a full-blooded scream pierces the gloom, 6-year-old Nurhayati Jamal gapes at a corpse-like bundle in white linen splattered with crimson, hanging eerily from a tree.
''Is it a real ghost?'' Nurhayati asks her mother. ``Let's walk away.''
Some children might find it unbearable, but Malaysians are swarming to an exhibit of ghouls and goblins that has turned into the national museum's most successful attraction ever.
The Exploring Ghosts show explores the supernatural folklore that fascinates many people in Malaysia, one of Asia's most modern nations.
The museum drew a half million visitors last year. But in just three weeks after the show opened in late June, 250,000 people flocked to the macabre showcase, leading officials to extend the exhibit until the end of September to capitalize on school vacations. They predict nearly a million visitors will wander the exhibit's dim corridors.
''The numbers are beyond our expectations,'' said Adi Taha, Malaysia's director-general of museums and antiquities. ``This is a truly rare occasion that has brought people pouring into this place.''
On weekends, street traffic chokes near the museum. Reluctant to turn people away, officials sometimes keep the museum open until midnight. Visitors snap up tickets for one ringgit, about 25 cents, and queue for an hour to reach the gallery's entrance -- a huge, grotesque skull befitting a carnival house of horrors.
Inside, loudspeakers blare ominous sound effects including howling winds and snippets of slasher films. Museum workers garbed in wigs and robes prowl the gloom, their faces ashen from powder.
Included in the display are waxwork demons and hobgoblins from ancient Malay legends. The figurines are painstakingly created -- a vampire-ghost that preys on women at childbirth is sculpted to highlight popped veins, tousled hair and slimy entrails.
The parade of horrors includes a purportedly genuine anak kerak -- a stillborn infant that witch doctors smoked and shrunk for evil rituals. The creature, which has no human features and looks like charcoal, is said to be 70 years old and was borrowed from a private owner in Thailand.
Museum spokeswoman Janet Tee says the exhibit has captured the imagination of many Malaysians who still believe in wraiths.
''Ghosts are a common topic in Malaysia,'' Tee said. ``People here have always been curious about the spirit world, so the museum can enlighten them about our country's rich history of ghost folklore.''
Monster mythology has haunted the Malay psyche for centuries, and even Malaysian history books have accounts of supernatural incidents taught as fact.
Such beliefs may seem incongruous in a nation that boasts a booming electronics sector and the world's tallest buildings. Some government officials complain that many among the country's ethnic Malay majority are excessively fascinated with ghost stories, which has tabloid newspapers often running reports of demonic possessions and spirit sightings.
''I'm very sad that during this modern age, superstitious ideas remain in the minds of our Muslims,'' Abdul Hamid Zainal Abidin, the de facto Islamic affairs minister, said after newspapers recently reported that a Malaysian medicine man had trapped an evil spirit in a bottle.
But ghost mania is unlikely to die soon, especially with the exhibition's triumph. Museum officials are already planning a sequel -- on witchcraft.