Amongst all the bubble tea, scooters and glorious coastlines, Taiwan’s Chinese culture has a ferocious force to wrestle with. Rising from the deep and dark belly of the underworld, August chimes the beginning and opening of the dreaded Gates of Hell. Waves of ghostly beings, believed to be hungry and need of a seriously good feed, erupt from the ground’s opening and descend on our land of the living. Stemming from a magical mix of Taoist and Buddhist beliefs, delectable banquets, festivities and the burning of paper money commences and the feeding frenzy begins! Welcome to the Taiwan Ghost Festival.
On the edge of the Ghost World
I’m standing on the edge of the never ending rice fields in Fengbin near Hualien. The ride was bumpy and rough along the country road. The sun is glowing in the most opportune point in the sky. Wherever I look, this tiny piece of Taiwan’s rural beauty is multiplied as the mountains reflect and greet me in the paddy water. Without understanding the full purpose of my journey here, apart from the word ‘ghost’, muttered to me by the spirited Chinese student I met an hour ago whilst eating instant noodles, I’m feeling excited and a little nervous. ‘It’s time to go’ Mark said. With his geeky oversized glasses and timid energy, I’m not sure if he’s the best partner in crime to have in case we decide to emulate the ‘Ghostbusters’ team.
As we reach the end of the glistening fields, a curtain of trees appears. I can hear a commotion of drawn out groans and cackling as flashes of white appear through the openings. Together we step from the path and into this other world. Behind the curtain, a wonderful and playful scene appears.
The Demon Fox Ghosts
‘We are the Demon Ghost Foxes!’ shrieks a little old lady as she dances around with her friends. The bold colours of their hand painted masks contrast strongly against their flowing white costumes. As we move closer, her infectious smile reassures me these foxes are friendly. Incredibly curious about me, just as much as I am about her, she proudly introduces me to the rest of her skulk. Slowly, her group and other local villagers wander off across the fields. Mark tells me this is just an introduction and it’s time to venture onwards to the big event.
The Deadly Ghost Parade
I can hear the slow and steady beat: dum…dum…dum…dum. The drums become increasingly louder. DUM…DUM…DUM…DUM and suddenly they start to pick up speed and merge together in this rapturous cloud of noise. The villagers are welcoming everyone to the Ghost Parade and the characters here are a more sinister force to reckon with than the Demon Foxes.
Blood thirsty zombies crawl towards me, white-faced souls stare through me, some stand together but their mood is unidentifiable as their mask shields their true identity. Others are jovial, kind and full of life.
As the music fills the air, the ghosts begin their parade and weave amongst the living. One group of ghosts walk past with elegant legs and beautiful hair but their faces are disfigured and ghastly. Another group carries a mysterious lady in red, covered in a fine sheet of silk. The bottom half can be clearly see but her face is never revealed. Then there’s just a dead panda.
Don’t save the last dance for me
As night begins to fall, the performances become weirder and more disturbing. The ghosts proceed to take turns on stage to perform their mesmerising dances. The zombies waltz around the platform, worshipping their King who becomes infatuated with a deliciously beautiful belly dancer. She twirls and spins, slowly drawing him into her exotic web. As he leans in for a fatal kiss, she dives in to eat him alive, tearing him apart limb by limb until all that remains is his right hand, which the court triumphantly hold high in the air as a trophy.
As if I wasn’t close enough to ghosts already…
In the pitch black darkness, Mark explains there is one left thing to see: the haunted house. Having personally avoided anything like this to date, I’m secretly petrified. As a child, I would cower in the corner of the living room whilst watching Michael Jackson’s Thriller, run away from Ghost Trains at the fun fair and once had to be escorted out of a Ghost House in my 20s because I was having a nervous breakdown. All solo female travelers have their weaknesses. This is mine.
We venture through the rice fields and come upon an abandoned house with excited guests waiting to enter. The queue is long and my anxiety starts to gradually increase. Howls and ghastly screams blast out from the windows and revellers burst through the exit door every ten minutes. ‘Ten minutes’ I think to myself. ‘How will I ever cope with ten minutes?’ I take deep breaths and try to focus. ‘You can do this. Face your fear. It’s not real. You can conquer this moment’. As I draw closer to the entrance, trying to keep myself in my happy place, Mark looks anxiously at his watch: ‘We’re going to have to go Alice. We’ll miss our ride’. ‘Oh! What a shame!’ I reply and turn back down the rice field counting my blessings for being in the presence of ghosts but not too close!
How can I get in on the Taiwan Ghost Festival action?
If you want to experience the Taiwan Ghost Festival, make sure you’re in Taiwan in August or September (dates can vary). The festival lasts an entire month and various exciting activities happen throughout the country with Keelung being the most famous spot. Thankfully, the Gates of Hell shut on the first of the eighth lunar month, so you won’t have to have your wits about you all year!
What spooky things have you seen on your travels?