I am scared of the dark. Or rather, of being alone in the dark. You can say that this could be a biological relic handed down from our prehistoric ancestors who had very good reasons not to feel safe at night. For it is at night where fearsome predators prowl and hunt.
But my fear of being alone in darkness has nothing to with real beasts. It had to do with imaginary ones. Ghosts. If I were to spend the night in the jungle, I would be more terrified of a visit by a Pontianak (a type of female vampire in Malayan folklore) than a poisonous snake, though the likelihood of the latter happening is far higher.
My mother believes the world is populated by all manners of spirits, many of them malignant and vengeful. Forget Jaws. People drown swimming in the sea because there are ghosts lurking in the depths, always eager to pull an unsuspecting frolicked who has ventured too far away from the safety of their friends. And when you take a piss in the wild, always always apologize in advance for dirtying the possible abode of a forest spirit. When I suffered from stress fracture in my lower right leg during my National service days, it was because a mischievous ghost had tied a rope round my shin. But nothing that a glass of water mixed with ash couldn’t solve.
Do spirits exist? Perhaps. But I had always maintained that mom’s beliefs are nonetheless pure superstition. And yet why was it that I stopped my canoeing activities after mom told me some medium she visited cautioned against venturing out to the open sea? And why do I fear being alone in the dark so much?
I once took part in a jungle night hike activity organized by the high school outdoor adventure club. One of the challenges we were supposed to undertake on our own was to trek – all alone – along five hundred meters of a jungle trail that cuts through some really old Chinese graves. When my turn came, I walked so fast, and was so focused on getting to the end of trail that I did not even notice I had overtaken the person who went before me. In all that anxiety about ghosts popping out of nowhere to scare the daylight out of me, I did not notice how peaceful the night was, with the bright full moon overhead – not until I got to the end.
The funny thing is, though I was always on the lookout for paranormal activities, when they do occur, I was often the last to notice so busy I was with the task at hand. When I was still working for the local television broadcasting station, I once had to direct a night scene in an outdoor location rumored to be haunted. And when we begun shooting, everything that could go wrong, went wrong. The bus ferrying the cast got lost. Equipments broke down. Light stands topple for no reason. And I was too busy solving all these problems and getting the shots I needed that I completely missed what every crew with experience believed to be true – that it was the work of the resident spirits. The irony was not lost to me. The person who is terrified of ghosts forget to be afraid. Also, when a ghost “struck”, it isn’t nearly half as scary.
I’ve been talking about real ghosts. But the “unreal” ghosts – our failures from our past, the mental habits inherited from our peers and parents, our anxieties about our future – could be just as real, if not more. One way or another, we are haunted. Very often, a devastating past experience prevents us from trying again. And when we who, we project the pain and trauma from that past experience onto an imagined future and that prevents us from truly enjoying the present. And sharing your fears help to a degree, but there is always that moment where you are alone by yourself. It always has to happen this way. But lest you despair, be not afraid. In any transformational journey, the most important part is always the one where only you and you alone has to walk. Not with your friends, your loved ones, your teacher, not even with God. You are absolutely on your own, in darkness. Your self-doubt and worry your constant companion.
But if you pay close attention, you will notice a space in between all that endless chatter. A silence. The serenity of the night. The glow of the moon. The chirping of the cicadas. You begin to notice the blades of grass growing at the side of the worn track. A shrew scurries amongst the undergrowth. For a moment there you forget the ghosts…
A few months ago, I went cycling alone at night. My destination was this secluded beach. The few times I was there at night, there would be some folks hanging out, drinking beer or catching fish. This time the beach was completely deserted. Almost immediately I felt spooked. I suddenly wondered if this was one of those spots where the Japanese troops massacred the locals during the Occupation. And there was that banana tree where I remembered I once saw a shrine placed beneath it. Was that the smell of frangipani flowers that my nose detected? Screw the ghosts. I dismounted from my bicycle and sat facing the sea. My mind turned to the sound of the waves lapping the shore. There’s the constant drone of engine from the shipyard further west. I saw the silhouette of a lone heron out at sea.
And in the darkness and solitude, I found peace.