The walking dead is a bit of an old hand in apocalyptic pop culture. They glide or stomp through horror films and zombie series, terrorising innocent communities, leaving mayhem and destruction in their wake. Except now, in Indonesia’s Kepuh village, scaring someone witless has a purpose — public service in the times of a global pandemic. Youth groups in this Javan village have collaborated with the local police to employ a cast of people to dress up as pocong — otherworldly creatures wrapped up in shrouds, believed to represent trapped souls of the dead — and patrol the streets, creeping out unsuspecting passers-by and compelling them to return home. In Indonesia, which has recorded one of the highest rates of COVID-19 deaths in Asia, but where no nationwide lockdown has been announced yet, these unique individual public awareness services hope to act as a deterrent, alerting people to the dangers of contagion and the merits of complete social isolation.
Ghosts have been integral to Indonesia’s cultural inheritance. Its folklore is rife with references to spirits – tuyul (child spirit), kuntilanak (the ghost of a pregnant woman), sundel bolong (ghost with the long hair), Suster Ngesot (the sliding nurse) live on in the superstitions of its people, refreshed ever so often by their reincarnations in top-grossing movies such as director Joko Anwar’s Satan’s Slaves (2017) or Awi Suryadi’s Danur 3: Sunyaruri (2019).
Piling on the spooks in these surreal times could act as a cautionary tale, a compendium of retribution for those in denial. The initial surprise — that drew in a crowd to observe these mysterious visitations — has worn off now in Kepuh, replaced by an age-old wariness about spirits, making the administration declare their ploy to be rather successful. Local administrations in other parts of the world, too, have appealed to the fear factor. After all, in this lockdown age, what could be scarier than a faceless enemy holding sway over the great outdoors?