At dawn a cluster of Khmer teenagers stand closely cooped together between steel barriers and wait for a door to open. They scream and cling to one other. Those who are first in line try to push back like cattle in a wagon at the gates of a slaughterhouse. When the door opens, the floor, walls and a pitch-black ceiling are illuminated by a sallow yellow glow. A smell of mouldy sweat hovers through the thick air. The sounds of heavy smacks, cracks, high-pitched screams and croaky bellows echo from behind the door.
Welcome to the ghost house: the star attraction of Dream Land, the theme park (beloved by teenage couples) near Koh Pich.
An hour earlier, we spoke to ghost house owner and manager of ghouls, Hien Rensei, 33, in his office, facing the attraction’s entrance. The smell of old sweat was omnipresent. Rensei runs the ghost house with his Japanese partner, 80, who doesn’t want to be named.
“My partner… used to see Japanese ghost houses in the old style from before World War II,” he said, adding that the original ghost houses used people instead of machinery.
“We tried to imitate these old ghost houses, so ours should be very different from other ones in Cambodia and also those in the west,” he told us.
This may be true for now.
Until the mid 20th century it was common in many societies to publicly display and entertain with the disabled and deformed.
A 1937 poster advertisement for showman and scam artist P.T. Barnum’s Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan & Hippodrom- a famous US freak show- declared to present “the tallest, smallest, thinnest and fattest (people) ever to walk the face of the earth.”
Likewise, the Sicilian born Francesco A. Lentini toured Italy and later US fairs to show off his three legs and two penises from the early 1900s until the 1950s. Today, it would be out of the question to draw amusement from people with eye-catching conditions or disabilities in western countries.
“We employ about ten little people,” said Rensei.
He adds that there is also a man with a crippled hand and a man who has a deformed leg performing at the ghost house. Prior to opening, Rensei and his partner had large posters printed and hung them up in motorbike parking lots, advertising jobs at the ghost house for people living with dwarfism and disabled people.
Some were also recruited by word-of-mouth and recommendations.
Through the management’s office window one can see sweaty people with smeared makeup and spooky costumes running up and down a dark corridor.
We overhear someone saying: “From now on the little people can no longer leave the building. It spoils the scare for the visitors.”
Intrigued, we take our first steps inside. The light goes out and we are instinctively drawn into a corridor cast in a red glow. First, a small beggar woman dressed in white with a black painted face is shoving a fake baby wrapped in cloth into our faces. The situation feels familiarly uncomfortable – as intrusive as it sometimes does in the street- and the act seems more discomforting than her eerie dress or ghoulish make-up.
The air is filled with screams.
Nobody wants to make the first move around the next corner. I sort out who goes first by playing rock, paper, scissors with one of the teenagers. He loses and I’m relieved.
After we turn that corner, the whole experience feels like one huge scare. All members of the group start screaming and clinging to each other. White ghosts jump into the narrow hallway from behind corners and scream, swing hammers and ripped off legs. Arms reach out of walls and limbs dangle down on the group from above. Blood smudged man-eating prisoners jolt from side to side on bars and more small white dressed figures jump into the way, bellow, and roll their eyes back into deathly pale faces.
Everything is close and loud.
The day after our spook-tour Horm Sivon, 28, sits on the sofa in the ghost house office. She is 127 centimetres high, plays a devil-eating human and could be mistaken for a child until one hears her voice. Before Horm started the job at the Ghost House she had difficulties finding and keeping a job. Her last one was at a garment factory.
“They made me carry heavy things which I couldn’t do as well as the other workers. So they just gave me $40 instead of $65 a month, but I got fired quickly anyway.”
She says she is happy with her new job, where she earns at least $90 a month. After three months probation, the salaries raise to $110 a month.
Before work starts, the ghost house employees are also provided an early dinner they share with Rensei. When asked whether it was ethically questionable to exploit people’s disabilities in order to run a business, Rensei argued he was providing jobs for people in developing countries who faced immense difficulties finding stable employment.
“Some people may consider it immoral, especially in western countries. But in Cambodia we have the situation that people with disabilities just don’t get hired.”
Rensei says how he himself was confronted with discrimination when he lived in Japan for ten years as well as in England and Germany.
“For two years I couldn’t find a job because I didn’t speak the language and at airports my passport was checked much longer than the ones of my Japanese friends,” he says.
Sitting next to her bos, Horm looks very relaxed. When asked what the oddest reaction to her scaring tactics were she jumps up, laughs and says she would rather play out the scene than answer. She throws herself to the floor and starts crawling and scrambling about.
She says it’s not her short height that scares people but rather her acting, the white makeup, and especially the rolling of her eyes.
Whoever finds that a little intrusive must still admit that she is very good at that.
To contact the reporter on this story: Julius Thiemann at [email protected]