After a career managing hotels and resorts across southeast Asia, Howard Stanton says that nothing has ever matched the strange and terrifying events that unfolded when he took on his first job. Many expats tend to dismiss or even mock local beliefs, but Mr Stanton says he will never again be one of them after what he experienced…
Although I’ve told this story many times, it has never lost its power to set my skin crawling as I remember the most terrifying experience of my life.
Before I go on, I should mention that I’m legally limited to what I can say after signing a strict undertaking never to reveal the name of the hotel at the centre of this story.
I had been working in Malaysia for about 10 months setting up the recreation facilities of a new five-star beach resort. This included building a golf course, developing a jungle reserve and attending to the 1,001 other things necessary to create a world-class holiday destination.
There were just six weeks until the opening of the resort. I had employed 32 full-time staff, three assistant managers and a whole army of workers – Malay, Indian and Chinese – from the local area. Of the 457 staff at the resort, I was the only ‘orang puteh’, or white fella.
Things were coming along nicely, with riding stables, water sports centre, gym, massage rooms, swimming pool, kid’s club, obstacle course, nature centre, tennis courts and much more taking shape. I was loving the job, but it was hard work, and a lot of responsibility to heap on my 22-year-old shoulders — it was actually my first proper job.
Just another day
One day I was teaching some staff about the complexities of Japanese etiquette. For my team, the intricacies of bowing, business card presentation and noodle slurping were all new, and there was a lot of fun and laughter.
I was just hitting my stride when – oomph! – something hit me like a sledgehammer. It felt as though some force had ripped out my insides and left me a hollow shell. I leaned heavily on the table, determined not to collapse. I couldn’t speak, and stood, struck dumb, in front of the confused faces of my staff. I seemed to lose all sense of time. Had I been standing there an hour, or just for a second? When I managed to find my voice, I asked my assistant to take over while I went to my office to recover.
I soon felt better, but had no idea what had just happened. I was about to return to the training when my walkie-talkie burst into life. It was my immediate boss, Mr Lee.“Where’s Tommy? Where’s Tommy?” he demanded. “I need him over here. Now!”
Something major was going on. As I approached Tommy’s team, he immediately ran towards me with a look of concern, as though he knew exactly what was happening. I thought the worst – what had he done? He was normally such a cheerful chap, but he fell into step beside me with hang-dog look.
As we walked I asked him what was going on. “Tommy, unless you tell me, I can’t help,” I said. “What’s happened?”
He stopped, and gave me a sidelong look. I could see he was struggling to find the words. “You know when you felt strange just now, well it was…”
Before I could ask him how he knew that, it was Mr Lee again: “Where’s Tommy! Come on, make him run! Get here now!”
The horror begins to unfold…
We were both out of breath when we rounded the corner and saw Mr Lee straining for the sight of us. Without a word, he gestured for us to follow him into the hotel’s housekeeping department.
As we approached another ear-splitting scream erupted from beyond the door.
By now I was sure that Tommy – always so kind and gentle – had done something terribly, terribly wrong.
When we entered the room I saw several senior members of staff standing in silence and staring down at the floor. I followed their gaze, and saw a young girl from the housekeeping staff lying on a duvet. Her eyes were drawn up backwards into her head and she was writhing around as though in great pain. Now and then she would arch her back and throw her head from side to side, gurgling some incoherent phrase again and again.
As I was taking in the scene, Tommy rushed forward and made the sign of the cross over the girl and began to mutter in a gentle but insistent tone. Then he moved to a corner of the room where three other staff members were waiting. The four joined hands and began to chant, moving in a clockwise circle.
With a jolt of recognition, I realised from my few years of learning the language at school that they were speaking Latin. I watched, bewildered, as their chanting grew louder and more intense, and their strange circular dance increased in speed. All the while the girl was thrashing around on the floor.
My mind was racing at 100 miles-a-hour as I finally worked out the words the girl was growling out again and again: “Give me blood! Give me blood! Give me blood!”
The situation was critical…
With only weeks until our official opening, it was the first major crisis to be faced by the hotel team. We’d all watched the girl writhing on the floor, seen her eyes rolling into her head, heard her growling demands for blood, and now we were all summoned to an emergency meeting to discuss what, on the face of it, seemed to be a case of demonic possession.
Mr Lee headed the meeting and took the opportunity to explain his background. Born in Malaysia, raised in Australia and educated at an English university, he made it clear that nothing in his experience had prepared him for such a situation. He opened the matter to the rest of the staff. They gave their backgrounds as Malay, Chinese, Filipino or Indian, and all agreed that what had happened was somehow supernatural. Their explanations were filled with talk of ghosts, spirits, demons and even Satan himself.
When it came to my turn to speak, I explained how I had attended church schools in England. Despite this religious up-bringing, I told the meeting, my interpretation of the events was rather different. “It looks to me like an attempt at blackmail,” I said. “If anyone threatened to go public with this, we’d have to pay them off.”
My colleagues – who moments before had been discussing witches and monsters – were shocked at my explanation, and some even sniggered at my “outlandish” conspiracy theory. In maintaining a “rational” approach to the incident, I was in a minority of one. However, Mr Lee conceded that all possibilities should be considered, and he adjourned the meeting until the following morning.
In the bright sunshine of a new day, everybody seemed almost relaxed about the previous day’s incident. The girl, we were told, had recovered from her supposed possession and was looking forward to returning to work.
There was still a mountain to climb to get the hotel open and no time to dwell on what, we all hoped, was a one-off incident. That day was particularly busy for me, making sure our riding stables were ready to receive customers. Suddenly, it was Mr Lee again: “Where’s Tommy? Where’s Tommy? Get him over here now!”
Rationality started to wear thin…
This time I knew what to expect, and wasted no time in finding Tommy. By the time we arrived it seemed the possession had passed — a chambermaid was huddled in a duvet, sobbing uncontrollably.
Again, another meeting was called. Mr Lee was all business. We were just a few weeks from the opening of a 120 million dollar resort. Something had to be done to prevent any further attacks – or “whackings” as we were now calling them.
Tommy was called to the meeting, and asked to gather his church group and organise a blessing. Given the urgency of the situation, it was agreed that the ceremony would be held that very evening. At midnight, to be precise.
Mr Lee and I volunteered to let them in to the building and look after them.
I’m not sure what exactly I expected this crack team of ‘blessers’ to look like, but they were just a typical group of Malaysians – big beaming smiles and wearing smart everyday clothes. The only clue to their intentions for the evening was that some were carrying rosaries and bottles of holy water.
Taking on the forces of evil…
Tommy split the group into two teams to bless various areas of the hotel. I would go with one, and Mr Lee with the other. This was all done fairly quickly, with lots of chanting and spraying of water. By now, my cynicism had come to the fore again, and perhaps immaturely, I’d started to find the whole procedure slightly amusing.
With these initial ceremonies performed, the two groups regathered at the location of the original whacking. Mr Lee left me to keep an eye on them, and returned to his office. The room was empty apart from a chest of drawers, which served as a seat for me to watch the action. The group formed a circle in the centre of the room and started to turn slowly in a clockwise direction. In low reverent tones, the Latin chanting began and the circle began to turn more swiftly.
By now, some of the group were grimacing as though in pain. As the ritual continued it was obvious that some of them were really struggling with something – the strain on their sweat-streaked faces was awful to see. The intensity continued to build and build, until the whole group was writing and wailing as though themselves in the grip of possession.
Watching this unfold, my cynicism faded again, and I was starting to get scared.
Hedging our bets…
Another day, another meeting, and I was asked to brief the team about the night’s events. They all sat transfixed as I described the blessing, and they seemed satisfied that it was a job well done. However, everyone agreed that it should only be the beginning of the fightback, and that further services were needed. The HR manager was given the task of bringing in holy men from all the island’s major faiths.
In the meantime life went on as normal, and there were no further whackings. After a few days, the HR department announced that a large Christian service was planned followed by a Islamic prayer session. These were held, and were quite something to witness.
The next meeting was upbeat, and it seemed all the other managers were confident the possession issue had been dealt with. Although it may seem that they were “hedging their bets” by calling on multiple Gods for assistance, it’s quite typical of the multi-faith nature of Borneo. It’s one of those rare places that adherents of different religions seem to rub along quite well with each other.
A final solution…
And in that spirit of cheerful harmony, life and work continued at the hotel for the next couple of days, until… whack, another possession!
My walkie talkie burst into life – same old story. I rushed to a room on the sixth floor to discover it was rather worse – two girls were lying side by side, both writhing on the floor with their eyes rolled back into their heads and their deep gurgling voices demanding blood.
The room was full of security guards and a local fella I hadn’t seen before. As the guards held the girls down, this chap took charge. Commanding the guards not to look into girls’ eyes, he produced what looked like a knitting needle. With a smooth flowing motion, he dragged this across the soles of their feet and muttered some words in a language I didn’t recognise.
Immediately, the girls lay still, apparently freed from possession. As the blood drained from their faces, I could see the realisation of what had happened to them hitting home, and they both dissolved into sobbing screams.
I was then introduced to the fella, who was a local “bomo”, or witch doctor. No sooner had we been introduced, and just I was digesting the fact that the entity had doubled its efforts by possessing two people at once, my walkie talkie crackled into life. Another whacking! Somehow the thing had jumped six storeys and was attacking somebody at ground level, at the site of the original whacking.
We flew down the stairs and found the girl writhing on the floor. “Help hold her down,” I was told. “And don’t look into her eyes.”
I didn’t need reminding of this as I leaned over the girl. She was a tiny little thing, petite even by local standards. I gently put my hands on her shoulders, looking away to the side. Now, I’m a big burly bloke, and back then I was at the height of my rugby playing career. But as I leaned over this tiny girl I felt myself being lifted by her. I had to lean forward with all my weight and even then I could barely hold her still.
Knowing that her eyes were directly below mine, and hearing her growling demands for blood I finally gave in to pure terror and began to pray.
Fortunately, the bomo was on hand with his magic knitting needle, and the girl was soon free of possession, and sobbing hysterically.
At this point things felt pretty bleak. It seemed that somehow all our efforts had made this thing stronger. Fear was hanging heavily in the air, and I wasn’t the only person wondering if it was the end of the road for the hotel.
If this was a Hollywood horror film, there would now be a final showdown, with a group of terrified staff somehow trapped in the hotel, being picked off in increasingly horrible ways by possessed chambermaids. But no, it all ended rather suddenly after Mr Lee had a brief meeting with the bomo.
Rather sensibly, he advised that as the entity was demanding blood, then that is what it should be given. Not human blood of course, but three water buffalo should do the trick. He also advised building a ‘datuk’ – a small free-standing shrine – at the hotel entrance.
This was done, and that was the end of the epidemic of possession. However, the entity wasn’t destroyed, merely encouraged to move house.
In this case, the bomo told us, the spirit had relocated to the top of a nearby hill that overlooked the resort. A site that we had big plans for. It was the ideal spot for a restaurant joined to the resort by a cable car.
However, after talks with the local government, the decision was taken to seal off the site in perpetuity. Trees were felled across the road, and the construction work already completed was simply abandoned. To the best of my knowledge, nobody has been up there ever since.
As for myself, I signed a legal undertaking never to reveal the location of these incidents, so I hope I’ve not given too much away in this account.
Strangely, it was only at this point that I remembered the very first day of the horror, when I was leading that class in Japanese etiquette. I remembered that feeling of a sledgehammer hitting me in the guts, leaving me dumbstruck and winded. Perhaps I had been the first target for possession by the entity? I’ll never know for sure.
But continuing to live in Borneo as I do, I always have consideration for the unseen world. At my new resort, I was recently planning to create a small paved area at the foot of a beautiful jungle stream. I just know my guests would have absolutely loved relaxing or cooling off there. Unfortunately, a local wise women (my mother-in-law, as it happens!) advised me that the site was the abode of a spirit — so that was that. I never want to put my guests through the sort of terror that I have witnessed.