KOTA KINABALU, June 26 — A former military ranger, a primary school teacher, an ustaz, an office clerk and an insurance salesman — all wearing black — meet up several times a month just before midnight and after a hushed discussion, drive off together towards some abandoned building or other.
It may seem highly suspicious but this crew — and quite a few others like theirs — is just part of a growing group of paranormal enthusiasts of all faiths and walks of life, joined by their shared passion and the many ghost stories found in Sabah.
A quick search on the internet yields at least eight such groups in the state; their activities range from the simple sharing of personal ghostly experiences to outings which “summon” spirits from the netherworld.
They join the league of thousands of societies around the world dedicated to seeking out the paranormal.
“There are so many now, can’t really keep track of how many people are involved. Everyone has their own group and some have split off from their old groups to form their own crew but it has definitely grown over the last few years,” said Jamal Saran, the founder of Sabah Underground Paranormal, one of the first few groups that started ghosthunting as a hobby.
“I first started doing this on my own, dragging some friends along. Eventually it sprouted into a Facebook group and we now have new people joining our outings all the time,” said the 26-year-old Tawau-born Jamal, a former army ranger who now runs his own cafe.
The Sabah Underground Paranormal Facebook page has a following of some 27,000 people now although only a handful are active members who go out ghosthunting.
The group’s activities usually centre around outings — midnight trips where the crew, usually including a designated cameraman and a holy man, visit a predetermined haunted site – to old buildings, graveyards, schools, houses and even sacred sites.
The ultimate goal of most ghosthunters is to capture their subject on camera.
Before the “hunt”, a lot of preparation needs to be done beforehand. This includes reading up on the history of the site, interviewing those living nearby or the village chief if possible, and a recce during the day to take note of potential hazards.
Some “safety measures” are taken: everyone needs to wear shoes and clothes which allow for easy movement, everyone also has to carry their own torch and walkie talkies are used when they need to split up.
Once they get to a site, everyone says a prayer, according to their own religion, before they go in.
“These trips are kept small on purpose, 12 people maximum, and then they break into smaller groups of three. You want to maintain some scare factor. Too big, and it is no longer scary and no ghosts will appear. Too small, and it’s uncomfortable,” said Jamal.
The ghosthunters take in the sights, sounds, energy of a place and set up cameras. Depending on the group, some people leave one volunteer behind with the video cameras rolling in the hopes that it will attract a ghost to appear on camera.
Parabolic voice recorders are also used to capture sound waves and night vision cameras are optional.
The Borneo Ghost Hunters Paranormal group is one of the few who attempt to call spirits out with offerings.
“We present them with offerings of seven things of different colours – like raw eggs, joss sticks and flowers, then we say a prayer to call them out in [Arabic],” said Rose Hamid, the leader of the group.
The offerings apparently increase chances of seeing a spirit, but not everyone agrees with the practice of summoning or calling the spirits out as some say it is against their religious beliefs.
Ghosthunters are also expected to abide by normal “etiquette” — no loud talking, clowning around or general bad behaviour. Also, no kids are allowed.
“You should ideally be spiritually strong so that spirits don’t possess you. We have had an instance before where one of our group member’s arm was possessed. It was only her arm that was taken over and we had the ustaz in our group drive it out,” said Jamal.
Depending on the group, some plan outings once a week, while others have monthly gatherings. However, most groups take a break during the holy month of Ramadan.
A growing community
Rose, who has had an interest in the paranormal since she was a kid, started joining ghosthunting groups two years ago but this year formed a splinter group when things got too complicated with her previous group.
“The number of people interested in the spirit world is just growing. There are a lot of people who share the same interest so we don’t always agree. But we all want to contribute to turning non-believers to understand more about this world,” she said.
Interest is growing so much that there are also groups of enthusiasts in Sabah’s east coast towns of Sandakan and Tawau.
The ghosthunters have various sources of reference, from other ghosthunting groups in West Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia, to local TV documentaries but they concur that Sabah has a long way to go.
“Those groups are so well-known now, and people are aware of ghost stories in their countries. I feel like Sabah should be up there too, and this is one of our goals,” said Rose.
“We want to record all our findings and be able to make it into a movie – documentary style. Hopefully that will be able to bring more people to Sabah and delve into the supernatural spirits here,” said the 39-year-old.
Sabah’s ghostly attractions
According to Jamal, Sabah’s ghost world also has its own “attractions”, the most popular being a ghost which is spoken about in hushed tones — the balan-balan – known as penanggalan in West Malaysia or its initials “B kuasa dua (b ²)” so as not to say its name.
According to stories, the flying head with guts and entrails is so terrifying that the mere mention of its name will have it hunting out the person who called it to haunt them, although it is particularly attracted to the blood of pregnant women and babies.
“These ghosts, not technically ghosts as they are humans by day, are said to be particularly rampant in Kota Belud where people still largely believe in the supernatural,” he said.
Besides the balan-balan, there are also hantu pocong, hantu tetek, orang bunian, and hantu pulos according to local folk tales. Jamal said it is not quite the ghosts but the many places of interest and mystery that are the draw.
“In Sandakan, there is an old abandoned mansion which was said to be very haunted along Jalan Pengiran Gapam. It is just one of many sites that remains a mystery. There is so much we have yet to discover and this is what we want to do,” said 38-year-old Muhammad Ali Awang Amit, better known as Matlie.
Matlie runs Paranormal Sabah, another ghosthunting outfit, based in Sandakan which visits sites in their free time to unearth more mysteries. The crew has visited some 15 different sites in the east coast town since it was established two years ago.
“Other than haunted houses and graveyards, there are also former Japanese colony sites where some people reported seeing crying ghosts looking lost it’s these stories which people love to seek out.
“Sabah has a lot of potential for the paranormal. There are many folklores, and many sites like historical burial sites, old houses and buildings which have great background stories. This is what paranormal enthusiasts seek out,” said Jamal.
Jamal and his crew will be playing host to a group of ghosthunters from Singapore later this year, a step that may lead to more visits from like-minded fans in the future.
“We are getting close to earning a name in the international ghosthunting circle. It would be really rewarding for us to have more people know about what Sabah has to offer the paranormal enthusiasts community,” he said.