This article originally appeared on VICE Asia.
Indonesians will be the first to admit that they’re a superstitious bunch. A large number even claim to have had personal encounters with spirits and ghosts. We turn to mystical solutions for love, wealth, and success. Events believed to be supernatural phenomena colour daily life.
Now, imagine you’re walking home in the dead of night, and you turn a corner to see a terrifying figure dressed in all white, perched on a bench, staring daggers at you from a distance. Your first instinct would probably be to bolt home, especially since you should have never left home in the first place because a pandemic is ravaging the world.
Taking advantage of their fellow Indonesians’ penchant for the paranormal, locals of Kepuh Village in West Java deployed volunteers dressed as pocong — lost souls wrapped in a white cloth — to scare people into staying home.
In accordance with Islamic burial practices, a dead body is usually wrapped in a shroud tied over the head, under the feet, and around the neck. According to traditional beliefs, a soul will stay on earth for 46.3 days after death, and if the ties are not removed before that time is up, the soul will remain on earth to beg humans for their release. These earthbound souls are pocong. Pocong are one of the most recognisable figures in Indonesian and Malaysian folklore and popular culture.
A local mosque worker named Anjar Panca told The Jakarta Post that the unusual social distancing tactic was successful because the pocong reminded locals of the potentially deadly consequences of the coronavirus.
"The pocong is not to scare residents; instead, we want to educate residents on the fact that coronavirus causes death. It is a shock therapy, as people usually [pay more attention] to anything related to death," Panca said.
At first, the strategy had the undesired effect of luring people outside their homes to witness the spectacle. But when the masterminds behind this initiative — the village’s youth group and local police — began deploying the pocong unpredictably, it worked like a charm.
"Since the pocong appeared, parents and children have not left their homes," one village resident named Karno Supadmo told Reuters. "And people will not gather or stay on the streets after evening prayers."
Experts have criticised the country’s social distancing measures, lack of preparedness for the pandemic, and refusal to implement a full lockdown. This is probably what led communities like Kepuh to seek out other solutions to fight the pandemic. With Indonesia’s coronavirus policy under increasing scrutiny, it’s likely that more unconventional scare tactics will emerge.