Colonial buildings always make for a good spot for ghosts to chill, and with Indonesia's long colonial history, there's plenty of ghost hangouts. Lawang Sewu (Thousand Windows) is the former headquarters of the Dutch East Indies Railway Company in Semerang, Central Java. It's an Indonesian landmark that attract hundreds of thousands looking to admire the building's over 600 windows, but many really come to see the unseen: spirits from the Dutch colonial era.
I went on one of these ghost tours. Ghost hunting at the old headquarters came in two flavors, you could choose to explore the building from the ground floor to the top, or you head to the creepy basement. The basement is so long that some say you could end up below the Tugu Muda, a stone monument hundreds of meters away. Out of curiosity, some friends and I decided to test our mettle and walked through the basement. Each group had a guide who laid out the rules, but we forgot most of them right away.
"Children aren't allowed to take the tour, and we're not allowed to talk about ghosts during the tour. If you do, those ghosts will follow you," a friend told me. Being haunted didn't sound great so I just nodded. The whole tour took one hour and we kept our mouths shut the entire time.
It's hard not to believe these things. While I'd like to believe that I'm a realist, I still think ghosts exist although I haven't seen one with my own eyes. But based on the stories that friends and family told me, I agree there are things beyond what we can explain.
But I can't help but wonder even if ghosts really do exist in another dimension, how could they "visit" us here? How could they possibly "interact" with us, or "hear" that we're talking about them on this plane?
In Indonesia, understanding spirits from a scientific angle is not usually the focus. In the Javanese culture, respect is paramount, said Risa Permandeli, director at The Center for Social Representation Research based in Jakarta. People are not only expected to respect elders —the same rule applies to places, history and yes, spirits.
"The unseen always exists," Raisa told VICE. "They're of various kinds and they stay at various spots. However, it doesn't have to be a bad thing."
People believe they should be at their best behaviour when visiting historical places as a way to pay respect to the sacred spirits, Risa said. That's why visitors are told not to joke around and spread rumors when they are in those kind of places. Risa also mentioned that the belief comes from a tradition in Javanese culture. Spirits are often called sing baurekso, which translates to "those who are in charge" in Javanese.
"When you visit the Pantai Selatan (South Beach), you're not going to talk about Ratu Kidul. But is she a ghost? We don't know for sure," Risa told me. Ratu Kidul is believed to be the ruler of the beach on the north shore of Java. Over the years, there have been visitors who drowned and disappeared there and it's believed to be Ratu Kidul's doing.
In new places, foreign places, strange places, people are expected to behave. So what's going to happen if we chose to play the ignorant?
Well, I don't know. Neither does Risa. "There are just some beliefs that have been passed on from one generation to another, so they aren't questioned," she said.