It’s almost two months, yet the building that houses the famous Haunted House is still swarmed by people. My city, Surakarta, witnesses a popular culture ritual that is unfolding. In this post, I would argue that even ghost now attains a status as a popular culture product.
Solo, Javanese Culture, and Mysticism
As one of the oldest city in Java, Solo once functioned, and it does still function, as the center of Javanese culture in Indonesia. The Keraton Kasunanan (Kasunanan Palace) which was the ruler of Solo, now serves as the cultural guardian of the city. Tracing back to the history of Solo, an assimilated form of Islam is the biggest influence in the city. I argue this as an assimilated form of Islam to refer to the reality that in Solo, Islam is not practiced solely adapting its Arabic version as taught by Muhammad PBUH. Solonese practice both Islam as inscribed by the holy prophet and Javanese cultural belief (kejawen) which includes the rituals which are not inscribed in Islam. There are many debates by those who demand the purification of Islam and by those who insist on persevering Javanese cultural belief. I will not take up this debate though. Yet, I will observe the intersection part of both Islam and Javanese cultural belief.
As a Muslim, I am taught to believe that Allah, the almighty God, creates various forms of lives. It includes the seen (humans, plants, animals) and the unseen (angels and demons). The belief to the existence of the unseen, that they are also God’s creature, is one of fundamental part in Islam. Only, in Islam, we, humans, are not supposed to be afraid of them and not supposed to make a pact with them for we are God’s servants. We only believe that they exist. Like in any other religion, demons serve as the one that will try to persuade humans to falter from the righteous way of God.
In Javanese cultural belief, the unseen however is put on pedestal. The belief stemmed in an ancient (pre-Islam era) belief of Javanese that regarded the unseen as the almighty Protectors and Providers. The dawn of Islam in Solo did not erode this belief. Islam does not eradicate the belief to the unseen. Islam as stated above only offers an alternative ways of relationship to the unseen. The belief to the existence to the unseen is a value held by both belief systems.
Popularizing the Unseen
The Unseen is a promising value commonly shared by Javanese and Indonesians as general to be sold as a commodity. The revised hegemony theory posits that the capitalist groups do not merely impose values on the subordinate group. Rather, they take what is on them and reshape the values in such a way and sell it back to them. That is how and why a product can be popular in society. The Unseen as a communally shared values undergo the same process. Thus, the Unseen serves as a durable popular culture in Indonesian society. Since the emergence of film industry in Indonesia, the unseen, the ghost is a favorable theme. The 80s Indonesian movies were dominated by horror movies that feature various representations of local ghosts. The 90s and early 2000s phenomena were apparent in television as its price fell and many people in Indonesia had television sets. The famous television shows in the era were pretty much the same. Shows featuring ghosts, mystical stories and superstitions outdid other television shows. The current phenomena may best be encapsulated by Indonesian film industry. In my opinion, out of 5 movies, there are 4 movies which feature ghost (A recurring 80s trend).
The Haunted House phenomenon in Solo is also not an exception. It is just another capitalist profit oriented group that tries to allure Solonese to spend their money to watch this show. As explained before, Solonese really believes to the Unseen because they have strong cultural background as in Kejawen and Islam. Moreover, the first show of the Haunted House took up a local theme. ‘Misteri Rel Bengkong’ (the Mystery of A Bent Railroad) took up local urban legend of mysterious bent railroad in the city. Certainly for Solonese who loves superstitions and mystical stories, the Haunted House serves as an oasis in a desert. People will come to the Haunted House, perhaps, really looking for the answer of what the mystery of the bent railroad is.
I once visited the site. I was asked by a friend of mine. I was shocked by the queue lines at the entrance. It was more crowded that say, the premier of Harry Potter. What is more surprising is the existence of a booth which serves the service to have photo with ghost. Certainly, in here, ghosts are commodified. They are sold as a profitable entity for capitalist groups. Ghosts are now also popular culture product. I wonder, what will be the next popular culture product?