The night before Aan* tried to take his own life, the skies above Yogyakarta briefly glowed red. It's unknown if Aan saw the meteor streak across the sky himself, but plenty of others in his rural coastal district of Gunung Kidul had. And they all knew what it meant—someone was about to die.
The next day Aan, 18, was pale and listless. He walked into the kitchen, took a short knife his grandmother used to peel the skin from fruits, and wandered out to the backyard. His grandmother Marni understood what was about to happen. She ran outside and tried to wrestle the knife away from her grandson, but she was too weak. She fell backwards as Aan plunged the knife deep into his own chest. He then pulled the blade out and threw it toward the oak trees behind his family's home.
Blood spurted from the wound in his chest. Marni screamed.
The neighbors took Aan to the hospital. He survived the ordeal, but his mother, overcome with stress, fainted and fell into a coma.
“She was unconscious for five days," Marni told VICE. "She didn’t eat or drink at all."
It was December 26, 2017. The local newspapers carried the same headline: pulung gantung nearly took another life.
Pulung gantung is an urban legend with deep roots in Jogja's poorer neighborhoods. The myth, which some say is hundreds of years old, claims that a fireball, or meteor, streaking across the sky is a harbinger of suicide. "Pulung" means fate in the local Javanese dialect. "Gantung," means a hanging in Bahasa Indonesia. That's because hanging is the most-common way to commit suicide in Indonesia. But it's not the only way.
In Gunung Kidul, people have drowned themselves, drank cough syrup mixed with laundry detergent, and leaped to their deaths into an underground cave. In 2017, 34 people tried to kill themselves in the rural district of 700,000 people. Thirty of them succeed.
It was a slight decline from 2016, when 33 people committed suicide. One of them had drowned in a well, but most had hanged themselves. It was just another year in Indonesia's suicide capital—a place where suicide is seen as an unavoidable fact of life.
But why are so many people killing themselves in Gunung Kidul? Indonesia is a deeply superstitious place, one where 69 percent of Indonesian Muslims reportedly believe in witchcraft, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center. This mysticism is even stronger in Jogja and the rural heartlands of Central Java, places where old Javanese folk religions like kejawen still thrive.
Belief can be a powerful thing. But can it kill? I traveled to Aan's village, a small place called Ngelo about 30 kilometers inland from the southern coast of Java, to find out. Aan's wound had healed by the time I arrived, but his injury had lasting effects. Today, he suffers from heart issues and nerve damage that requires him to regularly take medication.
Everyone I met in the town knew about pulung gantung. One man, a guy named Darmo Supoyo, described it as a comet-like fireball that streaked across the sky. Wherever the fireball fell, the people on the ground would feel confused and disoriented. Later, some of them would try to kill themselves, he explained.
"The elders paid attention to the pulung," said Darmo, now an old man himself. "The pulung is very powerful."
Darmo saw the pulung gantung himself back when he was a young man. He was about 20 when a reddish-white ball of light lit up the sky above his village, a place called Ngringin in the same subdistrict as Aan's hometown. His eyes fixated on the pulung gantung. It moved in a smooth, wave-like pattern as it traveled from the Karangmojo subdistrict to nearby Wonosari. Darmo told me that he watched the fireball travel across the sky and he understood that it meant someone was about to die.
Another older villager, a man named Siswanto, told me that he saw it too, way back when he was in junior high school. “It shaped like a comet,” he recalled.
Spend enough time in Gunung Kidul and two things become clear: a lot of older residents really believe in the power of the pulung gantung. And while the myth is slowly fading away among younger generations, the suicides, for some reason, have remained.
Ida Rochmawati, a psychiatrist in Rumah Sakit Umum Daerah Wonosari, has spent the last 17 years trying to figure out why. She doesn't believe in the myth herself, but she knows first-hand how it has affected the people of Gunung Kidul. Ida recalled a time when she was working at a local police station and got called to the scene of a suicide.
"I was surprised because the family treated the suicide as a fact of life," Ida told me.
Suicide was so common in some villages that she once met a young child who nearly hanged himself because he was trying to replicate what he had seen. He was young and didn't understand these people were dead, Ida explained. He thought hanging yourself was just a game people played.
The story was so disturbing that Ida felt like she had to get to the bottom of what was going on. She met with some local journalists who went through the archives of the newspaper. The suicides, about 20 to 30 a year, went back for years, she said.
"It's so tragic," Ida told me. "It means that suicidal thoughts have been passed down from generation to generation."
Local mental health activists say the myth is little more than an attempt to rationalize the actions of those suffering from depression and mental illness. Jaka Yanuwidiasta, the chairman of the suicide prevention nonprofit Yayasan Inti Mata Jiwa (Imaji), told me that he's trying to put an end to the myth, but, so far, it's been impossible. Whenever Jaka attends a funeral, the conversation inevitably shifts to pulung gantung. He thinks this obsession with the myth is actually causing people to ignore avenues for help and commit suicide instead of discussing their issues with a doctor or counselor.
"The stories about pulung gantung are mostly justifications that cannot be proven," Jaka said.
I wanted to speak with someone else who had tried to commit suicide to see if they felt pressured at all by the myth. That's how I met Sugeng, a man who tried, and failed, to hang himself in early 2016—a period he told me was one of the darkest chapters in his life. He suffers from epilepsy and, at the time, he was struggling to get his seizures under control. Sugeng had resigned from his job at a stationary store after have one too many epileptic attacks and ended up unemployed and living at home with his mother—a poor farmer.
Sugeng told me that one day he took a length of rope and tied it to a lamp post in his room, looping the end through a wooden hook hanging from his ceiling. He then draped the noose around his neck and tried to hang himself.
The hook broke. His body hit the floor with a thud and he lost conciseness. His mother, with the help of her neighbors, broke down the door and found Sugeng unconscious with rope burns around his neck. They took him to the nearest hospital.
"I was grateful to get a second chance to live," he told me.
He underwent treatment at Rumah Sakit Gunung Kidul and later moved to a second hospital, where he stayed for ten days. Doctors there prescribed sedatives in such large quantities that Sugeng was worried they would damage his liver.
It took six months for Sugeng to recover from his suicide attempt. He eventually felt better and worked up the nerve to apply for a job with the local village administration office. Last month, he started out as the head of the welfare division of Bejiharjo village. It was enough to convince him that life was worth living, no matter what the fireball in the sky has to say.
"No matter how bad my past was, I deserve to have a better future," Sugeng told me.
* Aan asked us to change his name because of the sensitive nature of his story.
If you or someone you know is considering suicide please take a moment and reach out to the kind suicide prevention staff at Into the Light either via this form or at email@example.com. The organization is also on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. The Ministry of Health also runs a 24-hour helpline at 021-500-454.
And remember, a lot of us struggle with depression and dark thoughts.
You are not alone.