Spirits In the Night: A Guide to Jakarta’s Ghosts
Dalih Sembiring & Lisa Siregar
Indonesians have a weakness for ghosts. Parents tell their children to stay inside after dusk, or risk being snatched by genderuwo or kuntilanak — just two in an endless array of scary beings.
In grade school, older schoolmates and teachers introduce new entrants to the world of education at an initiation camp, where jurit malam — a nocturnal trip across dark fields and graveyards — is required so that the older students can hide in the dark, cloaked in white sheets and jump out when it is least expected.
And besides these parental folk tales and institutional rituals, the country’s ubiquitous ghost movies haunt children, turning the country into a nation of superstitious adults.
Skimming through such films from the past few years, one can’t help noticing that Jakarta is abundant with ghost legends, and so this past weekend, we — two reporters, a photographer, a psychic and an adventurer — set out to scare up the city’s spirits.
At around 10 p.m., we arrived at the makeshift tent of a roadside bottled-gasoline vendor near Jembatan Goyang, supposedly one of the most haunted bridges in Ancol, North Jakarta. The slightly chipped full moon already hung high overhead.
“My mother often sees ghosts,” said Bayu, the vendor. “A few days ago, she saw a tuyul and was immediately possessed near that kapok tree.”
A tuyul is a naked toddler ghost — think the dancing baby in “Ally McBeal” — believed to be kept by some as a servant to steal for their human masters. Goyang Bridge, however, is most famous for its tutelary spirit, often called Siti Ariah, although our psychic said she found out that the ghost’s real name was Siti Anisah.
Legend has it that Siti Anisah was a young girl in the early 19th century who was kidnapped, raped and murdered. Her body was dumped in a rice field near what is now Goyang Bridge.
The story was made into films in 1973 and 1994, both titled “Si Manis Jembatan Ancol” (“The Sweetheart of Ancol Bridge”). Siti Anisah, who is also referred to as Mariah or Mariam, was the main character in Indonesia’s first television soap opera about ghosts. The 1990s sinetron, also called “Si Manis Jembatan Ancol,” had its heroine wearing a skimpy white outfit and befriending two effeminate male ghosts.
Taking a raft across the Ancol River and back, we asked two raft hands if they had ever seen the sweetheart in their years on the fetid, black water. We also asked Abbas — whose cellphone credit shop is located right on the eastern end of Goyang Bridge — if Siti Anisah ever made contact.
Disappointingly, they all said no. Our psychic was silent as well, although she had been told by the more timid members of the troupe not to reveal her visions until after the night was over.
Heading south, we arrived at Casablanca Tunnel, which is built on a cemetery, in South Jakarta at almost 11 p.m. It is said that drivers must honk three times as they pass through the tunnel at night to prevent Kuntilanak Merah — a red-robed, long-haired female apparition — appearing and standing before their cars, as in the 2007 movie “Terowongan Casablanca” (“The Casablanca Tunnel”).
“I’ve never seen the ghost, but there are always road accidents here, at least once a week,” said Ripal, who sells cigarettes near the tunnel. “It is a small tunnel. Besides, the road lanes have no traffic lights, making it convenient for speeding at night.”
Yana, who has lived near the Casablanca graveyard all her life, said that she had never seen the specter.
Yana’s mother told her of the ghost’s origin. “She is the angry spirit of a nyai ,” she said, a nyai being a female companion of a Dutch official or soldier in colonial times. “When the roads and tunnel were about to be built on a cemetery, the workers disinterred all the skeletons except hers. The honking is a way of asking for permission to pass through her territory.”
Asked if she saw anything, our psychic, smiled and said, “Later.”
As we made our way into the tunnel, we noticed ours was not the only car that honked three times.
It was nearly midnight when we parked in front of Centro nightclub in Dharmawangsa Square in South Jakarta. Just a stone’s throw from the club, surrounded by small parks and looming trees, is a two-story house known as Rumah Kentang, or the Potato House.
Feri, a security officer on duty, led us to the house’s dimly lit backyard, and we asked him if a legend about a baby falling into a cauldron of boiling potatoes here were true. Having guarded the house for six months, Feri said he had become acquainted with not only the baby’s ghost, but also other spirits that haunt the house, which is now the headquarters of a nongovernmental organization.
“The female ghost likes to hug me when I’m about to sleep,” he said. “After 1 a.m., I usually smell boiled potatoes, or French fries, just like the ones they have at McDonald’s.”
While our photographer was taking pictures of the building, we, the reporters, stared at each other, whispering: “Do you smell that? Can it be?” We hurried back to the gate as Feri, who did not see the look on our faces, pointed in different directions, saying, “Under that tree,” and “Behind that box.”
Our psychic also eagerly asked our photographer to take pictures of the specific spots.
Back in the car, we decided that the smell had probably come from the star fruit tree we were standing under. But we were quiet as we made our way to our next destination: the Jeruk Purut Cemetery, allegedly home to the ghost of a headless priest and his black dog, both made popular by the 2006 film “Hantu Jeruk Purut” (“The Ghost of Jeruk Purut”).
Just the thought of a headless man and his hound was frightening in itself, but we were thrilled to find the entrance to the cemetery and its management office well lit.
Indra, a caretaker at the South Jakarta graveyard, said he had taken many curious visitors on nocturnal tours in the land of the dead. Most are youngsters, like the four junior high school students who accompanied us on our own expedition across the burial ground.
Rian, Vicky, Rizal and Dindi thought the cemetery would be a fun place to go on a Friday night. Vicky said he had been there before and was not afraid of ghosts.
“We’re here for Rizal, to help him find a girlfriend,” Vicky said, and the four burst into laughter. Some superstitious locals believe that graveyards bring good luck and offer mystic help with things like winning lottery or having the power to win someone’s heart, usually by means of meditation.
Indra said the story of the headless priest was a myth, but that he had seen a lot of other “things” in the cemetery.
“I could not put my right foot on the ground once. A child ghost kept lifting it up, and I became ill afterwards,” he said. This was after we had stepped carefully across land jam-packed with tombstones. At this point, our brave photographer freaked out and begged to leave.
There are four main haunted points in the graveyard, Indra said, leading us to a tree encircled by high bushes. Behind it was a pitch-dark rivulet. Indra said we only needed to stay for five minutes to see a huge, hairy ghoul, and that some people asked to be left on their own to encounter the spirit. We continued our journey to a second point, a larger tree with a big hollow in its trunk. We sat before it for more than five minutes, took pictures and then returned to the office. Not a ghost in sight, nor any captured on film.
At 2 a.m., we were back on the road headed further south. We arrived at a small shop selling jamu (herbal tonics) in Bintaro, Tangerang, about an hour later.
Railway tracks stretched away from the side of a shop, where we listened to Munir, a customer, relate the story of the Bintaro tragedy.
On the morning of Oct. 19, 1987, two trains collided near Sudimara Station in Bintaro. More than 100 passengers were reported dead, and at least 300 were injured. In 1989, the story was turned into a movie titled “Tragedi Bintaro,” and singer Iwan Fals wrote about it in his song “1910.”
“I was a boy back then,” Munir said. “I walked there from home and helped find the dismembered body parts.
“The condition of the area around the particular railway tracks is different now. The land has been flattened and the neighborhood has put on more lights, but some people say they still hear soft cries at night.”
Following Munir’s directions, we followed the road at the side of the tracks to where the accident took place. With the car windows down and video camera rolling, we found ourselves trying to reconstruct the scene in our minds.
We did not see or hear anything from another dimension. And it was probably the silence that pervaded the railway, or the majestic red that began to gleam in the eastern sky, that made the area feel forlorn rather than spooky.
Finally, it was time to roll the windows up and return to Jakarta. We asked our psychic if anything was following us, as some believe ghosts can latch onto people and accompany them home .
“No, it’s alright,” she said. “Before we started the journey, I assigned spirits to protect each of you. Nothing could harm you back at those places.”
We asked, “Is that why we didn’t see anything?” She only responded with a mysterious smile.
But what did our psychic see? She would not tell us until the next day. “Oh, a lot!” she said.
She claims to have seen the spirits of genderuwo, kuntilanak, tuyul, pocong (ghosts shrouded in white) and even the spirit of a kyai (Islamic cleric). She said: “Did you see me remove the plastic bag from one of the graves? Well, something asked me to.”
Jakarta’s Urban Legends on Film
Who: Siti Anisah
Also known as Siti Ariah, Mariah and Mariam in different stories, Siti Anisah was raped and killed in an area near Goyang Bridge in Ancol, North Jakarta. Her tragic story was adapted to movies in 1973 and 1994, and in the 1990s, a soap opera, all titled “Si Manis Jembatan Ancol” (“The Sweetheart of Ancol Bridge”). The soap opera featured her as a ghost.
What: Pondok Indah House,
Legend has it that a robber killed every member of a family living in the residence. The 2006 film “Rumah Pondok Indah” tells a fictitious story of a dead body placed inside a sculpture that stands in the house.
Who: Suster Ngesot
Ngesot means to drag oneself across the floor, and, it is believed, there is a particular nurse spirit who likes to scare people by doing it. The story is told in many parts of Jakarta, as well as in two 2007 films, “Suster Ngesot the Movie” and “Suster N.”
Who: The headless priest and his black dog
The two are believed to haunt the Jeruk Purut Cemetery in South Jakarta. The legend was adapted into a 2006 film, “Hantu Jeruk Purut” (“The Ghost of Jeruk Purut”).
What: Manggarai Ghost Train
It’s the last train from Manggarai, South Jakarta. Or is it? Watch the adaptation in “Kereta Hantu Manggarai” (“The Ghost Train of Manggarai”), released in 2008.