In the Buddhist and Taoist traditions of
China and certain other countries such as , the gates of hell – usually closed to the hungry ghosts – are believed to open during the 7th month. The hungry ghosts are allowed to roam the earth seeking not only food but also amusement in the form of theatrical productions and music. At this time, children are warned to be home before dark so that the ghosts will not mistake them for the food they crave. Swimming is generally avoided; the hungry ghosts are often thought to cause drowning. People try not to drive at night, and the word “ghost” – which is usually appropriate in regular conversation – is not uttered. The terms “good brother” or “backdoor god” are used to avoid angering the spirits. Malaysia
Hungry ghosts are believed to be the souls of people whose descendants no longer do them honor through offerings and remembrance. To feed their ravenous need for not only food but earthly possessions as well, people burn joss papers in various forms. Sometimes the papers look like cars or houses. Other times they are replicas of money. This so called “hell money” is said to be the currency of the netherworld. Offering it to the hungry ghosts makes it possible for them to live in relative comfort and thus leave the living alone.
Altars of food and incense will also be set up, sometimes in the streets. Local businesses will close to facilitate the hungry ghosts’ acceptance of these offerings. Stage shows with live or recorded music will also be mounted with the first few rows of seats reserved for the phantom visitors. Sitting in these seats will bring horrible luck or, at worst, possession by one of the “good brothers”.
Hungry ghosts are pictured as painfully thin people with huge, distended bellies, ribs showing, gray skin and disheveled or missing hair much like someone suffering from prolonged malnutrition. Their necks are often imagined as pencil thin and very long, making it impossible for them to swallow what food they can find. Tales are told of hungry ghosts failing to find their way back to hell and scavenging through garbage dumps at the edges of human towns. They are invisible in daylight, but take form in the darkness.
In some places, the end of the Festival of Hungry Ghosts is marked by the lighting of lanterns which are then set afloat on outbound streams and rivers. These are to light the ghosts’ way back to hell. It is said that when the lanterns’ lights go out, the ghosts have gone home. Hopefully, that means all of them.
Header: Japanese scroll depicting the realm of the hungry ghosts at left and how to make offerings to them at right via Wikipedia