This is the second part in a two part series. Read Part 1 here.
I tried a rational approach
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 or Indian, and in their own terms all agreed that what had happened was somehow supernatural and sinister. 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, first a Roman Catholic primary, and then a prominent cathedral school. Despite this religious up-bringing, I told the meeting, my interpretation of the events was rather different. After my initial shock and horror at the scene in the storeroom, my western-educated brain had come to the fore. “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 and was looking forward to returning to work. Mr Lee asked what could be done to prevent any further outbreaks, and the consensus was that some church services and blessing ceremonies should do the trick. I stuck to my guns, and again urged that we should remain on our guard against any demands for money. Again, my opinion was met with disbelief and laughter.
But never mind, life goes on. 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. I had only been there five minutes, meeting the lady who was going to run the centre, when my walkie talkie burst into life.
With a feeling of dread, I heard Mr Lee’s frantic voice: “Where’s Tommy? Where’s Tommy? Get him over here now!”
Rational explanations begin to appear unlikely
This time I knew what to expect, and wasted no time in tracking Tommy down and getting him to a room on the top floor of the main hotel building. By the time we arrived it seemed the attack had passed, and the chambermaid was huddled in a duvet, sobbing. Seeing her distress I did feel my belief in rational explanations slipping a little, but I still wasn’t ready to accept the supernatural version of events. Looking back, I was just trying to protect myself. If I admitted these girls had really been possessed, then I would be casting myself as a character in a horror film – and opening myself up to a world of pure terror.
Again, an emergency 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. We couldn’t expose guests to that danger, and the terrified staff were in no fit state to welcome visitors.
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. Next there was a call for two volunteers to let the group into the empty, dark hotel and look after them. Nobody spoke up. Eventually Mr Lee broke the silence. “It’s only fair that I play my part,” he said. “And Howard, as you think this is nothing but a blackmail plot, why don’t you join me?” By now the fear and tension all around me had dented my confidence in my theory, and I cursed myself for sticking my neck out.
As day turned into night, and the darkness fell, my imagination started to work overtime. I tried to busy myself with paperwork to keep my mind off what was going on, but the evening dragged by with a horrible slowness. By the time Tommy and his group arrived, I was relieved just to have some company.
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. They could easily have been a group of friends going out for a night at the movies. The only clue to their intentions for the evening was that some were carrying rosaries and bottles of holy water.
Combating the forces of evil
With the commanding tone of an army officer, Tommy decided to 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 possessed themselves.
At this point I thought of Mr Lee in his office, and held down the send button on my walkie-talkie for a few moments. Perhaps he’d be interested to hear what was happening? As it goes, he wasn’t. When the group had finished up and left, he rounded on me: “If you ever do anything like that again, you’re fucking fired!” It was the first and only time I ever heard him swear. I assume the unexpected burst of wailing Latin had terrified him – or perhaps he’d heard something else carried through the ether? Either way, we never discussed it again.
Perhaps it was that reaction that finally changed my attitude. My cocksure belief in a rational explanation had dissolved, and in its place was real fear. Alone again in the hotel, I could feel the hairs on the back of my neck standing up, and my flesh was tingling.
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 human resources 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 Christian service was planned for the ballroom, and that all staff were expected to attend. As it goes, I decided not to. I suppose it was just my way of holding on to my crumbling faith in the rational. However, as I sat alone in my room, I found myself saying a few Our Fathers…
The next day it was the turn of the Muslims. The HR department had really gone to town on this one, and had gathered all the top imams from across the region. The service was held at sunset, and was something to behold. There were hundreds of devotees, and as they prayed the most incredible sunset I’d ever witnessed seemed to set the sky ablaze.
The next meeting was upbeat, and it seemed all the other managers were confident the 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”! My walkie talkie burst into life – it was the 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 uniformed 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 whatever had afflicted the girls was gone and they lay still. As the blood drained from their faces, I could see the realisation of what had happened to them hitting home, and they both began to scream in pure terror.
I was then introduced to the fella, who was a local Bomo, a word that meant nothing to me until somebody translated it as “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 over her shoulders, looking away to the side. Now, I’m a big 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, that is what it should be given. Not human blood of course, but three water buffalo should suffice. He also advised building a ‘datuk’ – a small free-standing shrine – at the hotel entrance.
This was done, and that was the end of it. However, the entity wasn’t destroyed, merely encouraged to move on. In this case, the Bomo told us, the spirit had relocated to the top of a nearby hill that overlooked the resort. The site of an old government rest house, we had big plans for this place. It was the ideal spot for a top-notch restaurant, joined to the resort by a cable car. However, after talks with the local government, the decision was taken to seal it off forever. Trees were felled across the road, and all the construction work already completed was simply abandoned. To the best of my knowledge, nobody has been up there since. Or at least, nobody has ever had that tale to tell.
As for myself, I signed a legal undertaking never to reveal the location of the 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 of the entity? I’ll never know for sure. But continuing to live in Borneo as I do, I never let myself forget that just as this wonderful island has space for me, it also has room for things beyond our understanding.