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The Pocong, Indonesia’s Response to Modern Pandemic

So you don’t want to stay inside?
Neither did the residents of the village of Kepuh on Java Island.

Horror culture in Indonesia seems to be sparking interest around the world these days–with nothing but news about the global pandemic, they gave us an interesting view into a culturally relevant practice that they’ve started. The village of Kepuh on Java Island in Indonesia has been using a figure in their horror culture to scare people into adhering to social distancing guidelines. The pocong have been appearing randomly, as volunteers have been taking to the streets dressed in a burial shroud in an effort to encourage people to go home after evening prayers.

First of all, we want to be different. Secondly, to create a deterrent effect because ‘pocong’ is spooky and scary.”

Anjar Pacaningtyas, Head of the Youth Volunteer Group

Since Indonesia has been experiencing a rise in the number of confirmed cases and virus-related deaths, they began to try something new; due to the fear that the true scale of infection country-wide is much worse than statistics show, the started talking through fear. So we were fascinated when we found out that the locals were forming volunteer groups dressed as the trapped souls of the dead. The head of Kepuh village decided, with the hope that it would help to keep people indoors, safe, and healthy.

Residents still lack awareness about how to curb the spread of Covid-19 disease. They want to live like normal so it is very difficult for them to follow the instruction to stay at home.

Priyadi, Kepuh Village Head

Unexpectedly, it initially had the opposite effect, saying that people would venture out in search of the pocong, but by deploying these troops at more random times that things have improved–parents and children have been staying at home. There has been success not just due to the horror factor, but because it has reminded residents of the potentially deadly outcome of contracting the disease.

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Using Horror to Flatten the Curve

Pocong refers to a fabric shroud that is used to wrap a corpse before it’s ready to be buried; in Muslim burials, the body is tied just above its head, around the neck, and under its feet. According to local legends, the soul of the deceased would continue on in the realm of the living for forty days and that at the end of this forty-day period, the body must be untied so that the soul could be set free. If the body is not untied and the soul does not get released, the corpse would become a pocong, taking on the form of a ghost. Since the pocong is tied at its feet, it can’t walk or run in a typical fashion, so instead, it rolls or hops along the roads looking for someone to set it free. While this may seem like a silly way to move around, it’s said to be able to leap fifty meters (approximately 164 feet) at a time.

So is the pocong the answer to a lack of social distancing? Perhaps–but there is folklore to suggest that if you’re brave enough to hug a pocong and then untie its shroud you can release the soul of the pocong, causing a really grateful spirit to kindly grant you with wealth.

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