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Zombie mania in Central Java

DIGEST No. 40 (Indonesian news with comment) - 12 September, 1997

A strange hysteria has spread through Central Java since last April, leading villagers to beat up people at night they suspect of being zombies (hantu pocong, the walking dead). Four people died in July, and more have been taken to hospital with serious injuries before and since. The incidents began shortly before the parliamentary elections and continue until the present day.

Popular descriptions of the zombies vary. They are sometimes seen sleeping in an open drain, or stooping down drinking its water, while exuding a putrid smell. When they stand up they are white and taller than a man. Others report seeing a goat-like creature, others again a beautiful woman. One neighbour coming to the aid of a screaming mother who had seen one near Purworejo attacked it with a machete. It turned out to be a banana tree.

Some say the zombies are ordinary humans who use black magic to turn themselves into ghosts during the dusk prayer time (maghrib, the worst time for ghosts in most Islamic cultures). They simply want your money. People answer the door and fall into a dead fright, allowing the 'ghost' to walk in and take what they like.

But zombies are mostly feared for kidnapping young children. One common belief is that they are to be sacrificed at the location of a planned bridge between Surabaya and Madura. The bridge was promised by Research and Technology Minister Habibie early in 1994, as part of an attempt by President Suharto to woo the Islamic masses. The attempt was later abandoned, and the bridge project remains stalled. Others say the sacrificed babies are put in the foundations of another stalled Habibie project, a planned nuclear power plant near Jepara. Others again say the children are sold overseas.

The phenomenon was largely rural at first, but now urban middle class working parents in Semarang are afraid to leave their children in the care of servants during the day. Police, meanwhile, keep insisting no babies have actually been kidnapped in Central Java.

Most victims of zombie beatings have been vagrants, travellers or mentally disturbed individuals. One body of a bearded man in his thirties lay unclaimed in the Magelang morgue for over a week until the authorities buried it, still unidentified.

In Sragen a man and his wife in their thirties out catching grasshoppers in the rice fields at night (they sell for $2 a kg) were set upon by an agitated crowd last week and nearly killed. Local police knew them and convinced the villagers to release them. In Semarang at the end of August, a 65-year old slightly unhinged woman who begged around the market place and liked staring at children was beaten up by a crowd shouting she was a ghost. They tried to deflate the tires of the police who rescued her. Only when a policeman demonstrated that strands of her hair really burned were they convinced she was human. Elsewhere in Semarang crowds beat up three other people in different incidents last week. In one case they shouted 'kill, kill' at a 20-year old woman.

Hospital nurses in Purworejo were afraid to go out in their white uniforms after dark in July for fear of being mistaken for zombies.

The worst incident so far took place in Sragen yesterday. Thousands of people flocked to the police station to demand punishment for two 'baby snatchers', actually two innocent beggars, who had been arrested by villagers. When the crowd decided the police were only protecting the kidnappers, they started wrecking the building. For three hours reinforcements were unable to reach the small number of police at the station because of the crowds milling in the streets. Eventually warning shots were fired and the crowd dispersed. This is the third police station to be wrecked by crowds in Java in recent days - the other two appear also to have been due to no immediate fault of the police.

Officials have been at a loss to explain the phenomenon. Police appeal for calm and say the rumours must have been started by criminals. Predictably, other officials have warned they are a deliberate attempt at subversion. Islamic leaders urge people to put aside superstition and immerse themselves in true religion. One psychologist said perceptively that rural people were nervous after the pre-election rioting, and no longer trusted the security apparatus.

Although it has so far gone almost unremarked among journalists outside Central Java, and even less so among social scientists, the hysteria raises serious issues. Zombies are not as far removed from politics as westerners might suppose.

Some might be tempted to say, for instance, that the Javanese sense of cosmic harmony is disturbed by the feeling that power at the centre - that of President Suharto - is growing unstable. They might point not merely to his inability to prevent the riots that swept Java earlier this year, but also to prevent the present El-Nino inspired drought, already causing serious hardships that are set to worsen.

Others will point instead to the loss of credibility that the authorities - particularly the military and police - have suffered over their corruption and their blatant opposition to popular leaders like Megawati. Others again will point the finger, not at local or national authorities, but at troublemakers who have unleashed this wave of hysteria with their politically inspired rioting, and say that such disturbances hurt the people more than the government.

My own view is that the zombie mania is not unconnected with the sense of drift now enveloping the national leadership, which translates into confusion and poor leadership down to lower levels of government.

[Gerry van Klinken, editor, Inside Indonesia magazine]