Aldy was nervous. He had every reason to be. It was his turn to be the sacrifice.
He was standing alone at a particularly creepy part of a park near my childhood home in Bandung, West Java. We were sweaty—partly because of fear, partly because of excitement— and wary enough to keep our distance. There was a ghost somewhere nearby. Or so we thought. I was 12-years-old and, like most young Indonesians who grew up in the early aughts, I was a massive fan of the ghost hunting show Dunia Lain.
The TV show was a cult hit in Indonesia, a program that ran for more than 100 episodes, inspired countless clones, and came back from the dead at least once as (Masih) Dunia Lain. The show's format was simple: go out and find somewhere that looked all atmospheric and creepy, dig around a bit and (invariably) discover a hidden ghastly past, then contact the spirits and see what happens. What happened was usually a haunting, or a possession—all caught on tape.
For my friends and I, Dunia Lain was the source of countless night-time adventures. We tried to recreate everything we could about the show. That night it was Aldy's turn to perform an "uji nyali"—or "test of courage." When he had enough he had to throw his hand in the air and wave. "Lambaikan tangan ke kamera." ("Wave your hand to the camera.") It's a phrase that's become ingrained in our heads. Once his little hand went up we took off like mad, sprinting like lunatics in our flip-flops all the way home. Aldy, who was my little cousin, came trailing behind. "I saw something!" he shouted.
But what did he really see? What did any of us really see when watching Dunia Lain? Was it a terrifyingly true account of the hauntings, possessions, and mysterious events that were happening all over Indonesia? Or was it all a trick—little more than some special effects magic meant to play to our more superstitious beliefs?
Back then, I was sure it was real. Today? Not so much. But, unlike most people I'm a journalist. It's my job to track people down and ask them questions. The cast and crew of (Masih) Dunia Lain are out there somewhere and I was determined to finally get the answers to some questions that have haunted me for so long.
Question one: Was any of it real?
"How could we have scripted those creatures?" said Dea Sinuhaji, who worked behind the scenes on (Masih) Dunia Lain. "That's impossible."
Come on, I asked. Wasn't it all tricks? Scenes set up to scare the audience? No way, Dea protested. It was all real, sometimes more real than anyone on set ever wanted it to be. Sulaeman Anwar worked alongside Dea as part of the crew. He recalled a time that the crew was trying to shoot an episode in Kediri, East Java. At the time, (Masih) Dunia Lain was still a smash hit. Whenever they tried to film a new episode, a crowd of locals would inevitably show up.
With the crowd came the food hawkers. And the people selling trinkets and souvenirs. Nothing ruined a good ghost hunt like a mob of spectators and a man shouting at people, asking if they wanted cigarettes. Or cheap clothes. Or bakso.
"Sometimes an entire neighborhood would come to watch," said Noni Nandini, another member of the (Masih) Dunia Lain crew. "When people found out we were going to shoot, hawkers would use this opportunity to open a pop-up market.
"The sinister vibe of the location would be compromised,"
But sometimes it wouldn't. On another shoot, this one in Garut, West Java, things suddenly took a bizarre turn. Sulaeman said someone was trying to summon a ghost. "We summoned ghosts often back then," he told me. Dea immediately jumped in explaining, well "it's not that we wanted to summon them, but when you keep talking about ghosts, they usually appear."
This time, several spirits appeared, possessing members of the crowd, Sulaeman said. They started to attack the crew.
"They suddenly attacked us like a tribe of monkeys," he said. "Possessed people are crazy strong,"
Possessions were a common theme on (Masih) Dunia Lain. And the victims, once possessed, often turned violent, Sulaeman said. He was once thrown two meters by someone who was possessed by a spirit. Sometimes, the footage was so intense that the show's producers were warned to tone it down by the Indonesian censorship board.
Question two: How did you find the guests?
The crew would hold an open audition and specifically look for people who believed they had seen a ghost in the past.
"We usually asked if they have seen a ghost, if they arem in any way, gifted," said Dea. "It was also important to know if they have a family member who performed mystical rituals at home. It's easier to work with people who are familiar with paranormal activities."
But some of the guests clearly looked like frauds. I tracked down Citra Prima, a so-called parapsychologist who often worked on (Masih) Dunia Lain. Citra told me that she was wary of the overly dramatic mystics who appeared on the show. Some of them, she said, weren't actually capable of performing an exorcism. Others never actually saw a ghost. But many of those fake mystics ramped up the drama to try to be more convincing. For Citra, a woman who says she can talk to spirits, it was a problem.
"Once they got famous as a mystic, some of them no longer cared about crossing the line," Citra said. "They turned into the biggest megalomaniacs."
But come on, it couldn't all be real. The show purposely sought out people who were predisposed to believing in the supernatural. In Indonesia, it's not all that hard to find someone who believes they saw a ghost. Or even someone whose family member was possessed at one point. I asked Citra if she had any proof that the possessions, the ghosts, and poltergeists were real.
You can't explain the supernatural with science, she said. Parapsychology, and other mystical fields of study, are more a pseudo-science—as in it sounds like science, but it's not.
"Science covers things on beta level, one that is entirely accessible through the physical senses," Citra said. "Meanwhile, the supernatural lies on the highest level—alpha."
In the end, Dunia Lain—and it's sequel—spawned a host of clones. There was Dua Dunia, Scary Job, Ghost Hunter, Mister Tukul Jalan-Jalan, Jejak Paranormal, Percaya Nggak Percaya, Pemburu Hantu and Penampakan. Eventually, Indonesia hit peak ghost show—there were spirits and ghouls everywhere, it seemed, as long as someone with a camera was around.
It was the dangdut variety show that put the final nail in the ghost show coffin. Indonesian viewers love a good scare, but, it seems, not as much as they love dangdut. But, Sulaeman believes the shows will one day be popular again.
"We're in Indonesia," he said. "Even the smartest and richest people still, in some way, believe in mysticism. That's just how it is."