Ghost Stories

Pretas are the Pitiful Ghosts with Pitiless Hunger

And they live in all of us.
preta illustration
Illustration by Dini Lestari

Imagine being extremely hungry all the time, but having a throat so narrow that pain sears through your body when you make any feeble attempt to swallow. Such is the plight of the preta or ‘hungry ghost’, serving out the consequence of bad karma for being overly possessive and attached to material goods in their last lifetime.

Prevalent in Hindu, Taoist and Buddhist traditions, Preta are sentient beings with sunken skin, grossly distended bellies, and needle-thin neck and limbs who have been doomed to an existence of eternal starvation, with little means to satisfy it. And if the unwavering torment of unfulfilled desire seems like insufficient punishment, some of the lucky ones wind up with an insatiable hunger for particularly unenviable ‘foods’, which may be repugnant, humiliating or downright bizarre. Corpses and feces are obvious choices. And while rotting leftovers may be relatively innocuous, let’s not forget the mucous secretions, menstrual blood and other exudations.

During the 'Hungry Ghost Festival' (or Zhongyuan Jie) that falls on the 15th night of the seventh month (also known as 'Ghost Month') of the Chinese calendar, the floodgates of hell open, and ghosts and spirits are allowed to take a month-long excursion to roam amongst the living. Thanks to the consumerist greed of our ancestors, and their current pitiable state, we’ve spun a myriad of traditions to help them seek absolution.

Oddly enough, some of these practices only serve to perpetuate extravagant behavior. It is common to pay respects by leaving lavish food offerings and burning copious amounts of joss paper, which take the form of ‘hell notes’, mansions and even luxury cars to appease the materialistic souls of the deceased. In Singapore and Malaysia, getai make up a significant part of the festivities, as we’ve gone as far as to provide the ghosts with entertainment - setting up elaborate temporary stages for live performances, and reserving the front row of red seats for our invisible counterparts.

While the threat of Preta’s eternal suffering looms large, it seems to be little deterrent for the rest of us left yearning in capitalist society. We bemoan our addictions and attachment to worldly things, yet are more than willing to prolong our pursuit of these pleasures.

For how close it hits to home, the hungry ghost is probably the most horrifying of all.