One of biggest perks of moving to Hong Kong has been that I get to connect with family members I've either never met, or haven't seen in years.
Aside from a lot of being told how much I look like my dad (it's true, slap a mustache on me et voila — Louise's dad!) and a lot of being told how much I'm just like my mom ("Would you rather be boring?" — Louise's mom), I've had the pleasure of learning more about the spooky stories and odd happenings that shroud my family tree.
Some families pass around recipes for spaghetti sauce, my family passes around ghost stories.
Hearing a lot of these stories, I'm transported back to some of my favorite childhood memories. After Friday night dinners with my aunt and uncle, the grown ups would gather in the living room and chat in Cantonese about friends, family, and "the old days." Us kids would play nearby, always with one ear trained on the conversation.
As the night would wear on, and drink glasses were refilled, talk would often turn to "weird" things, things that sent a chill down my young spine. The air in the room would seem to change, and everyone spoke a little quieter. I remember the gaps between talking as much as the talking.
"Ay! Do you remember..." my mom would start. She'd describe a strange, unexplained occurrence and my dad or uncle would chime in, adding details to the story. As people took turns remembering parts of what happened, the telling would be punctuated with clicks of the tongue, nervous laughter, or someone saying, "What? NO! You've got to be kidding. Ai-yah..." and visibly shaking off goosebumps.
Sometimes a really eerie story would end with all the grown ups sitting in silence for a moment just looking at each other — eyes wide, the thrill of being freaked out filling the air. More than storytelling, it was fantastic theater.
I knew the night was coming to an end when my mom would say something like, "Ugh. It can't be real." Then she'd look right at me and say, "Louise is never going to be able to sleep. Do you know what we're talking about?"
I always knew what they were talking about, and yes, a lot of times I was too afraid to sleep afterwards — but I wouldn't admit it. Worse than not sleeping was the threat that they would stop telling those stories.
Talking to my family now, decades later, I'm an eager little girl all over again when the energy of the conversation changes ever so slightly, and my aunt, uncle, or cousin says, "I don't want to frighten you, but have you heard about...?"
Seeing the twinkle in their eyes, and the glee with which they tell the story, I think they do want to frighten me a little, and I love it. Creepy Corner just might be in our blood.
So, my dear Creepy Corneristas, I want to share with you one of the stories I've been told here in Hong Kong. I think it's just a good scary story — one that is made even more delicious with the added statement, "I swear this really happened."
I don't want to frighten you but...I do.
Three Knocks, Three Nights
It was during the Hungry Ghost Festival in Hong Kong. This is the time of year when the gateway between the world of the living and the world of the spirits is open, and the dead walk among us. Family members come back to visit, the dead return to where they lived.
A cousin, I'll call her Grace, didn't think too much about this time of year. She respected the festivals, the practices of offering food and burning Hell money and incense in the streets, but she herself was not too concerned with "entertaining the dead."
There were three knocks at her apartment door one night. Not wanting to be bothered, and figuring it was just her needy neighbor, she ignored the knocks and tried to be quiet until she thought the person had moved on. She listened for the shuffling of footsteps but heard nothing. Oh well.
A little while later, as Grace puttered around her apartment she heard it again, distinctly.
She paused. Really? Again? Not accustomed to people knocking on her door unexpectedly, especially at night, she tiptoed over to the front door and looked through the peephole. There was nobody there.
"I thought it was weirdos!" she told me.
A couple hours later, after 10 o'clock, while shutting down her home for the night there it was again:
This time she stood still in her apartment and just listened for any indication of human life — footsteps, talking, rustling. There was nothing. She crept to the peephole once more. There was nothing, nobody.
"Oh come on, really?" I interjected. "No youths? Your neighbor?"
"No, Louise, really. Not a soul!"
A soul, she said.
More annoyed than unnerved, she went to bed. The next morning the whole thing was just a bizarre story to tell at work. People made jokes about "the ghosts coming to visit her."
That night she was sitting on her couch watching "trash TV" when she heard it again.
"I swear!" she said to me when I raised my eyebrows. "But there was no way I was opening the door then, I thought I should maybe call the police." She did not and she tried to put it out of her head, despite "gooseflesh" starting to pop up on her skin.
The three knocks came twice more again that night, like the night before. After the third series of knocks she sprang off the couch and shouted, "Bullshit!" while flying to her door. Not thinking, she OPENED IT.
"WHY WOULD YOU DO THAT?!" I cried. "What about marauders?"
"I know, I'm stupid! But Louise, there was nobody there." The hall was silent. The sound of one neighbor's TV mumbled from behind their door, the smell of incense hung in the air from another neighbor's home. At this point Grace was going out of her skin, and all the stories of the dead returning started seeping into her brain.
"The mind really starts playing tricks on you when stuff like this happens. It was really odd. I have no explanation." As she tried to sleep that night, she started to wonder about how old her building was, the hungry ghosts, grandma...
The next night rolled around and Grace was on edge.
"Should I burn some incense? Should I put out food? Light candles? Better safe than sorry right? All I had were candles, so I lit some candles. They only made things creepier."
As her night went on and the knocks did not happen, she tried to put it out of her head and go about her normal routine. As she started to make dinner, there it was:
"I was utterly terrified at this point. Utterly frozen on the spot."
Forcing herself to go to the door, she looked out the peephole, not knowing what would be scarier: somebody or nobody. There was nobody there.
"Please stop," Grace said on her side of the door.
"I thought I was going to have a heart attack. I thought of grandma, all I could think of was grandma. Probably because she's the most stubborn dead person I know. I felt so silly, but I said, 'Grandma? If that's you, please stop'."
She made her dinner and camped out on the couch with the TV on for company. As the hours ticked away, she grew more tense. However, 10 o'clock rolled around and there were no knocks.
Had her little plea to grandma or whoever worked?
Grace relaxed and started thinking that perhaps some prankster had heard her request from the other side of the door and decided to leave her alone. You got me, she thought as she got ready for bed.
Turning off all the lights in her apartment, she paused to blow the candles out.
"I was calm until I blew out those candles. Then I felt like my mind was playing tricks on me again — the hair on the back of my neck went on end."
During the Hungry Ghost Festival some say there should always be a light on in your home, because ghosts lurk in the shadows. This thought crossed my mind as Grace finished her story.
Trying to shake off her heebie-jeebies she headed to her bedroom in the dark, when —
That was the last time she heard those three knocks.
(NOTE: I know in many cultures hearing three knocks at the door, and then finding nobody there is a harbinger of death or misfortune. For the record, "Grace" is just fine and so are her loved ones. Who knows, maybe during the Hungry Ghost Festival, the wires to the spirit world got crossed?)