Everyone in Medan, North Sumatra, knows that they have to be careful when they go to the Padang Bulan subdistrict.
"It's like the Bermuda Triangle," says Herman Sitorus, a 33-year-old cab driver from Medan. "Three planes have crashed here, the mysticism is just too strong."
Indonesia is in mourning once again following the news of yet another deadly plane crash – this time Lion Air flight JT-610, which plunged into the sea off the coast of West Java with 189 passengers onboard on October 29. There were no survivors.
Unfortunately, in a country like Indonesia, this is not a huge surprise. The country has a checkered aviation safety record. In 2007, the European Union blacklisted all Indonesian airlines from EU airspace due to safety standards, and only lifted this blanket ban in June 2018. And after the crash earlier this week, the Australian government even prevented its officials from flying with Lion Air.
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But despite plane crashes being a relatively frequent occurrence across the archipelago, Indonesia’s issues with airline safety often fail to come under scrutiny at a local level. Instead, accidents are often attributed to wild conspiracy theories or blamed on the occult - a phenomenon which has already started in reference to the doomed Lion Air flight JT-610.
"I heard that the Lion Air plane crashed because it was also carrying durian," says Juli Dewi, a resident of Padang Bulan, a sub-district in the city of Medan. She was referring to one of the area’s most infamous tragedies, when a plane owned by the now defunct Mandala Airlines stalled just after take off from Polonia International Airport, and crashed into a residential area in Padang Bulan on September 5, 2005, killing 149 people onboard, including 49 on the ground.
The plane was carrying then-governor of North Sumatra, Rizal Nurdin, who was one of the victims of the crash, and was said to have a cargo of up to two tons of durian – meant as gifts from the governor. The local conspiracy theory was that the durian, incorrectly stored in the hold, rolled back when the plane took off, causing it to plunge out of the sky. While it's true that photos of the crash site did indeed show the ground strewed with the spiky fruit, there is no evidence to support this theory.
The theories are vast, as they are far-fetched.
In 2013, a new airport, Kualanamu International Airport opened. Polonia International Airport was closed to the public and now only operates as an air base for the military. While there was a number of reasons for this – including the fact that Polonia International Airport was simply too small for the increasing number of passengers to the region – locals still maintain that spirits were the ones who caused the relocation. In addition to the infamous Mandala Airline flight 91 accident in 2005, an Indonesian military plane, a C-130 Hercules, crashed on Jalan Jamin Ginting, a famous street in the Padang Bulan sub-district, killing over 116 people in June 2015.
While it’s very unlikely that Padang Bulan is indeed cursed, local residents claim that the large proportion of Batak Karo residents who moved here from Karo Regency, and the high concentration of well-known local Karo shaman or dukun who live in and around Padang Bulan, draw spectres and ghosts to the region.
"The government won't admit it, but they moved the airport to get away from all the demons in Padang Bulan who were causing the plane crashes,” said Herman, the cab driver. “It's common knowledge that this area is a magnet for the spirit world."
Irna Minauli is a local psychologist based in Medan and explains why people often cling to conspiracy theories following a tragedy. "It's a normal way to handle trauma," she explained. "It's a classic defense mechanism for many people. They don't want to face the fact that flying in Indonesia can be dangerous so they're looking for a scapegoat." She added, "People are looking for a way to protect themselves psychologically."
And it isn't just conspiracy theories that get air time in Indonesia (pun intended). Other, more nefarious theories, are often attributed to a plane crash.
When AirAsia Flight 8501 from Surabaya to Singapore went down in the Java Sea on December 28, 2014 killing all 162 people aboard, the then-governor of Jakarta, Basuki "Ahok" Tjahaja Purnama peddled the theory that an abundance of jin (spirits) in the seas in Indonesia could cause planes to crash, particularly around his home province of the Bangka Belitung islands, which also happened to be the intended destination of the ill-fated Lion Air flight. He later retracted his comments and said that he’d been "joking" - but that such a high profile politician would even consider making such a statement is telling.
Tim Hannigan, author of A Geek in Indonesia, has studied how mysticism infuses daily life across the archipelago and says that belief in the occult can be used to explain almost anything. “It’s not just plane crashes – people often turn to the supernatural to explain all sorts of misfortunes,” Hannigan told VICE Indonesia.
“On the one hand, this is down to how very deeply ingrained these ideas are in Indonesian culture. The concepts of supernaturally-inspired good fortune and ill-fortune, and of malevolent unseen forces, are something people grow up with, so they make for perfectly natural explanations for all sorts of things – from business success to natural disasters.”
Minauli agreed with Hannigan. "Indonesians are incredibly superstitious - it's ingrained in the culture," she said.
She also explained that while some people may turn to religion to explain a crash - invoking the idea that this was God's will - others simply cannot accept the idea that a god would allow such a tragedy. When that happens, they often blame a crash on evil spirits as a way of shifting the responsibility. "Some people aren't brave enough to say this was the will of God so they run to the closest other explanation they can find - which is the spirit world".
Hannigan added that there has also been a long history of using the occult as an explanation for Indonesia’s complicated past. “Blaming the supernatural is much more simple – and, if you believe in that stuff, logical. I think this is particularly true in complicated political or social times. Supernatural explanations for chaos were bandied around a lot during the instability that surrounded the end of the New Order regime in the late 1990s – it’s much more straightforward and easy to grasp than wrestling with the complexities of political economics.”
So, when tragedy strikes, the world of spirits can be used to make sense of it all.
On the recent Lion Air crash, not only has the theory of a cargo filled with problematic durian been peddled, but others as well. The mother of one of the flight attendants on board told the Jakarta Post that she had “found that a zebra dove had fallen into a water tank located on the second floor of her house.”
“She saved the bird and put it in a cage, never thinking that this, she said, could be an omen for her only daughter, Alfiani Hidayati Solikah.”