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In the seventh month of the lunar year, ghosts and spirits are said to cross over from hell into the realm of the living

The Hungry Ghost Festival (zhongyuan jie in Chinese), which marks the opening of the Gates of Hell, is a traditional Taoist and Buddhist festival celebrated in certain Asian countries such as China, Malaysia, Singapore, and Taiwan. This is when ghosts and spirits, including deceased ancestors, enjoy a ‘vacation’ in the human world as they wander around searching for food and entertainment or visiting the living.

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According to the Chinese calendar, the festival officially falls on the 15th night of the seventh month, but the ‘festivities’ are a month-long affair. During this month, believers would prepare food offerings, burn incense and joss paper, and paper-mâché form of material items such as clothes, gold and other fine goods to pay homage to the deceased and appease them. As it’s considered an inauspicious month, some may also adhere strictly to superstitions and beliefs to avoid encountering ‘bad luck’.

Officially, the Hungry Ghost Month kicked off on August 8. It will culminate in the main festival on August 22 before closing out on September 6. Whether you're superstitious or not, here are some things that you may want to avoid doing during the month-long festival.

1. Stay out late/in the dark

Similar to what you see in the movies, ghosts and spirits thrive in the dark and are at their strongest at night because the yin energy from the moon strengthens them. During the seventh month, they’re free to loiter in the living world and they’re said to prey on unsuspecting victims at night, especially children and pregnant women. Hence, it’s best to get home before sunset and avoid nighttime activities.

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They’re also believed to loiter around dark, shaded areas such as at a bus stop or under a tree so avoid those—and while you’re at it, postpone jungle trekking, hiking, or camping.

2. Disturb the offerings

It’s common to see temporary prayer altars erected to pay respects and extend offerings for the deceased by the streets or in the corner of a walking path. At no point should you insult, touch, step, or kick these offerings­–ever. Should you have done so by accident, offer an apology quickly; otherwise, a spirit might get offended and follow you home.

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3. Engage in water-related activities

Mischievous spirits and vengeful ghosts are said to linger in water, waiting to claim a victim to take their place in order to get a chance at reincarnation. So if you happen to be swimming or engaging in any water sports, they might try to pull you underwater. If you must go swimming, go during the day. Avoid the sea or any travel by sea at all costs.

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4. Take photos at night

Cameras accidentally capturing strange orbs or ghostly figures and faces are not new occurrences, much more so in the 30 days when beings from the underworld are free to be among the living. Photos and videos are also known to ‘trap’ spirits (Shutter, anyone?) or invite them to associate with you. So if you don’t want your selfie to turn into a wefie, it’s best you avoid taking pictures at night. Yes, that Instastory/TikTok can wait till daybreak.

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5. Sit in the front row at street performances

Ordinarily (especially pre-Covid-19), makeshift stages and tents would be set up for Chinese opera performances and getais (concert-like stage shows), held side-by-side with prayer altars, to ‘entertain’ the wandering ghosts and spirits. The front row seats at these shows, usually left vacant, are specially reserved for the ‘unseen’ as a form of respect so under no circumstances should you plant yourself on any of these seats.

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You should also avoid looking under the prayer altar as these ‘VIPs’ may be having a feast there and they do not take too kindly to being disturbed.

6. Acknowledge strange things

If you stumble upon an out-of-place item on the street, especially coins, ignore it. If you hear an unfamiliar voice calling out to you, ignore it. If you feel a sudden chill, ignore it. If you catch a whiff of a particularly sweet scent, ignore it. If you feel a tap on your shoulder (and you're alone), ignore it. Don’t scream, cry, shift your eyes, or start talking to yourself as this will give the spirits power over you. Keep calm and carry on.

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7. Make big life milestones

During this time, it’s best to avoid making any big life milestones such as moving into a new house or tying the knot. Moving items into a new, previously unoccupied space, renovating a house, buying new furniture, or throwing a housewarming party could inadvertently invite the uninvited into your new home.

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It’s also considered inauspicious for couples to get married during this period as it’s believed that weddings during this month may be hexed by spirits, leading to the eventual not-so-happily-ever-after.

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