Reverence – or even fear – for the spiritual realm is shared across different cultures. In the western world, we are familiar with Halloween, a holiday with pagan roots that has become an excuse to have a fun and spooky party. But for other cultures, like the Chinese, such a celebration has not lost its seriousness.
The Hungry Ghost Festival occurs on the 15th day of the 7th lunar month, the "Ghost Month" where the gates between the spirit realm and our mortal earth are opened for ghosts to freely roam. According to Buddhist superstition, there are good and evil ghosts: the ghosts of your ancestors, for instance, would return to visit your family, while demonic spirits would look for humans to prey on (Qiu).
On the day of the festival, family members will cook a large meal and leave an empty seat at the meal table so that the spirit is invited to eat with them. Incense, hell money, and papier-mâché sculptures of material goods such as cars are also burnt by family members to be sent into the spirit realm for their ancestors. This is a way for them to show their filial piety: by ensuring that any needs of their ancestors are well-taken care of. In return, the spirits of the ancestors will bless them ("Hungry Ghost Festival") .
In South-East Asia, "getai (歌台)" performances are also held during this month. These performances feature live singing of Chinese folk songs, and Chinese opera dramatizations of traditional folk stories. These performances are held in public areas and are free for anyone to watch. However, the first row of seats is left empty for spirits, and it is considered unlucky and disrespectful to sit there ("Hungry Ghost Festival").
At the end of the Ghost Month, Buddhist monks will chant incantations and perform rituals to send the spirits back to their realm. Lanterns will be lit to show spirits the way home, and the gates to the spirit realm will be shut once again for another year (“Zhongyuan Festival”).