Encountering the supernatural is a weekly occurrence for Um Kosal, a producer and DJ at Vayo FM Radio.
Every Saturday and Sunday night, as the clock strikes 9pm, 34-year-old Kosal, alone in the studio on Phnom Penh’s Norodom Boulevard, dims the lights and prepares for his last show of the day.
The station’s other staff have left the studio. Kosal takes his place in front of a microphone, adjusts his headset and presses play.
“Here comes the Horrific Night!” announces the radio jingle, followed by the eerie howls of dogs and night-time creatures. So starts an hour-long show on a topic that permeates Cambodian society: spirits and the paranormal.
Other radio programmes on the Kingdom’s airwaves tell ghost stories, but Kosal’s show is unique. He asks his listeners nationwide to call in to recount their personal encounters with the supernatural.
Kosal’s first anonymous caller on his show last Sunday was a woman in Battambang province, who described her experience living in a “haunted” house she rents. She claimed she saw a ghostly human figure around her home and hearing the mysterious, echoing cries of a man, rumoured to be the spirit of a previous owner of the house who died after falling from a tree.
The next caller is a janitor, who relayed how one night the door of a hospital room she was cleaning suddenly shook of its own accord. It was a ghost, she said.
Kosal always interviews his show’s callers on air, asking them questions to try and unearth the truth behind their stories, and often gives them sensible advice or cautious warnings. He does not take kindly to listeners who call in to make jokes, not pausing to unleash serious or angry comments. Spiritualism is serious.
“This is a platform for people to share their real abnormal experiences, not the ghost stories that they make up or a comedian show,” Kosal says.
“If you don’t believe in these things, you can turn off the radio, or change the station. But, this show is created for everyone.”
Kosal says local belief in true ghost stories, and their popularity, motivated him to start Horrific Night about six years ago. But his personal experiences with the “unseeable” also played a part.
“The belief in ghosts and other spirits has been a part of Cambodian culture since a very long time ago,” he says. “My own experiences should be enough, at least for me to say that they are true.”
Nearly 10 years ago, he says, he was hospitalised from a bad bout of bronchitis. In the middle of the night, he experienced feelings he describes as exposure to the spirits of the dead. Others on the ward that night say they saw their ghosts.
On occasion, stories on the show have so piqued Kosal’s interest that he leaves the confines of the studio to investigate further, often helping his guests to deal with the spirits. “I once went to an abandoned haunted house in Takeo, and I really felt what the guest had told me, although I did not see it,” he says.
One dedicated listener is Tean Pisey, a 17-year-old student in Sihanoukville, who tunes in every week. He became a guest on the show himself after a mist in the shape of a human face appeared as he was doing the dishes at his mother’s restaurant. The apparition disappeared when he called for his mum, he says.
“Even without this personal experience, I really love the show, and want it to continue forever,” Pisey says. “Kosal is a great host, and the true ghost stories add thrill to our lives, and are even better than fake ghost movies.”
Ka Sunbaunat, prominent psychiatrist and the former dean of Phnom Penh’s University of Health Sciences, insists that the stories told on the show do not reflect reality, and that neither ghosts or other kinds of spirits exist.
“It is just the people’s imagination or mental disorders that cause them to see these things,” he says.
“One of my patients, for example, kept saying that he saw a ghost, because he suffered from post trauma disorder after seeing dead people during the Khmer Rouge.”
Such issues need to be medically treated, he says.
Kosal’s beliefs, nevertheless, are steadfast. “Science still cannot explain ghosts,” he says.
Spirits “exist in every culture in the world”, Kosal says. “Even if you don’t believe them, please do not insult them.”