Bucket List Worthy
DISCLAIMER: This post contains description, imagery, and video of festivals in which people do strange, frightening, and even horrific things. Those with a weak stomach might prefer something a bit lighter, such as this award-winning photo essay of the Canary Islands.
Cultures around the world are so different that some people think we’ll never all be able to get along. There is one quality, however, that is common among nearly all cultures: we love to gross ourselves out.
Grown men hanging from fishing hooks, faces pierced with vegetables, mud baths, live people in coffins, bombarding near-naked people with fireworks – if it makes us wish we hadn’t seen it, we we want to see it — at least once a year.
With Halloween around the corner, it only seems fitting to introduce you to some of the freakiest festivals held around the world. Not for the faint of heart, these 13 creepy festivals will make your local haunted corn maze seem like a merry-go-round.
Phuket, Thailand – I think of vegetarians as gentle people in Birkenstocks who eat a lot of kale. This is not so in Thailand. The Vegetarian Festival of Phuket sis as gory as they come. In 1825, Chinese opera band members grew ill on a visit to Kathu, Thailand. To honor the gods and cure their sickness, they practiced a vegetarian diet. The locals took a liking to the idea of pleasing the gods through vegetarianism, and the Vegetarian Festival was born.
For nine consecutive days in late September or early October each year, the Vegetarian Festival is held in Phuket (and some other parts of Thailand). Participants adhere to a vegetarian diet for at least three days, and many of them pierce their faces with absolutely freaky objects – like vegetables, skewers, axes, flagpoles, and just about any household item you can imagine. It is said that the gods protect the participants from feeling pain or becoming infected by the objects.
Nejapa, El Salvador – Every year, on August 31, natives of Nejapa, El Salvador, paint their faces, dress in wet clothes, and sling kerosene-soaked fireballs at each other into the wee hours of the night – or at least until the last fireball is extinguished.
Some locals say the event is meant to emulate a fire fight between St. Jerome and the devil, in which St. Jerome was victorious. Others claim it is to represent the eruption of the El Playon volcano in 1658, after which the town of Nejapa was forced to move to its current location. The balls of fire are said to be reminiscent of those flung from the volcano.
Whatever the festival’s true origins, Balls of Fire is scary, dangerous, and fun (in a psycho-pyromaniacal way). The only thing standing between spectators and the tightly-wound balls of old clothing soaked in kerosene are a few “security” personnel with shields. And even though fire balls are thrown in every directions by participants – including at the crowd, at eachother and off into the distance – spectators rarely receive more than minor burns.
Laza, Spain – If you don’t like masked men invading your home or fire ants thrown in your face, you may find the Entroida Festival in Laza, Spain slightly uncomfortable.
The festival takes place on the three Fridays before Lent and the Saturday, Sunday, Monday and Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. Sounds like a lot of celebrating, right? Actually, it’s really just a whole lot of pain.
On the Fridays leading up to the main events, locals in Laza run (inebriated) through the streets with torches. The citizens who decide not take to the streets with torches, throw heaps of dirt from their windows and balconies at the runners to symbolize purification.
On the official days of Entroida, masked men, known as Peliqueiros, line the streets and whip innocent people as they pass by. When they get hungry or thirsty from all of the whipping, they enter the citizens’ houses unannounced and eat and drink until their heart’s content. Before the festivities end, the people of Laza meet in the town square for a fight in which they throw rags filled with dirt, ash, mud, vinegar and fire ants at each other.
Don’t you just want to join in?
Las Nieves, Spain – Have you recently survived a near-death experience? What better place to celebrate than inside your coffin? Spain is known for some odd-ball festivals, but La Fiesta de Santa Marta de Ribarteme may be the creepiest. Each year, on July 29, the people of Las Nieves celebrate those who have closely avoided death in the past year. Family members dress in funeral attire and carry the coffin of their fortunate loved-one to a small church named after Santa Marta de Ribarteme (the patron saint of resurrection).
Even more morose, those who no longer have families have to carry their own coffins if they wish to participate in the parade.
It’s not a completely depressing day though. The celebration continues with plenty of music, fireworks, drinks, dancing and street vendors.
Nederland, Colorado – Nederland, Colorado was probably a pretty boring town until 1989, when Trygve Bauge brought his grandfather’s cryogenically frozen body to his new home from Norway. From 1990 to 1993, the body was safely kept in a cryonics facility, but when the body was transported to Trygve and his mother Aud’s backyard shed in Nederland, things got a little creepy. Trygve was deported and Aud kept the body until she was evicted.
She feared the body would thaw following her eviction, so she told a local reporter who then told city officials, who, in classic western-movie style didn’t really give a damn. The body remains cryogenically frozen by a local company in the very same Tuff Shed.
Frozen Dead Guy Days takes place the first weekend in March every year to celebrate the cryogenically frozen body of Grandpa Bredo. Participants take part in coffin races, a frozen salmon toss, brain freeze contests, a parade of hearses and a number of other outlandish frozen dead guy events.
Madagascar – The “turning of the bones” festival in Madagascar is so creepy that it is only held once every seven years. The Malagasy believe that humans are made from the body of their ancestors, and until the bodies are fully decomposed, the dead can still communicate. They hold the Famadihana festival to appreciate the dead, but the way they celebrate them is particularly terrifying.
Every seven (or so) years, the Malagasy open the family crypts and wrap whatever is left of the person’s remains in a fresh cloth. They dance and celebrate with the corpses and sacrifice animals for a grand feast.
Lerwick, Scotland – Unless you’re using it to roast marshmallows, fire has a bit of inherent creepiness — and the Up Helly Aa festival, hailed as Europe’s largest fire festival, is certainly not a marshmallow roasting event.
Since the 1880s, Up Helly Aa has been an annual event in the Shetland Islands, and it now occurs on the last Tuesday in January every year. This festival is as resilient as they come. It has only been canceled for the death of Queen Victoria, during both World War I and World War II.
On Up Helly Aa Day, citizens enjoy marches of the Jarl Squad (Vikings) and their leader the Guizer Jarl. When night falls, processions are held in which participants march with giant torches and a hand-built replica Viking ship (known as a galley). The procession continues to the King George V playing field where the participants circle the galley, throw their torches in it and watch it burn to the ground. Songs are sung, and as when they flames die, a night of debauchery begins.
Taitung, Taiwan – Forget tickets. We’ve got fireworks! Each year on January 15, during the Yuanxiao Festival Taitung locals gather for the Bombing of Master Han Dan – an event in which they throw fireworks at a shirtless volunteer in hopes of a prosperous new year.
Master Han Dan was a rich Shang Dynasty general who eventually became the god of wealth. It’s also said that he despised the cold, so locals believe the more fireworks they throw at him (to keep him warm), the more wealth they will enjoy in the coming year. A volunteer, posing as Master Han Dan, stands shirtless on a chair with a tree branch over his face and earplugs in his ears as citizens pelt him with fireworks.
If the noise isn’t unbearable, the smoke usually is, but participants who come prepared with goggles, face masks and protective clothing continue to bomb away. And while most of the temporary Master Han Dan’s come out with only minor injuries, one volunteer did lose his hearing a few years back. Despite how difficult this event can be to watch, it sure does bring the people a lot of joy.
If you think can handle it head over to Matheson’s website, The Taiwan Photographer for more photos, or watch the video below.
South India and Malaysia – Thaipusam is a widely celebrated and ultra-creepy Hindu festival held each year during the full moon of the tenth month of the Hindu Calendar. It’s hard to believe that any participants could look forward to the festivities considering the amount of bodily harm they cause themselves, but it’s so widely celebrated that it’s actually a public holiday in Malaysia.
The event is held to celebrate the victory of Lord Murugan over the tyranny of Soorapadman. Many participants fast for days or even weeks and shave their heads to show their gratitude to Lord Murugan and ask for his blessings. They hold processions filled with bright colors, loud noises, beautiful songs and ceremonial dances.
But what makes this festival one of the creepiest in the world, is how the people show their devotion. Many pierce their tongues, cheeks and skin with giant skewers, while others stab hooks into their backs and dangle loosely from decorated carts. The processions of devotees eventually lead to various shrines where offerings are made.
Ottery St. Mary, England – Tar barrel celebrations have been banned in multiple cities due to flaming-barrel-related tragedies. But stories of life-changing injuries and third-degree burns don’t phase the citizens of Ottery – who have taken part in the Tar Barrel tradition for hundreds of years.
The event happens every November 5th, and although it was once a common festival among western towns in England, Ottery is the only remaining one to “roll” full-sized flaming barrels through the streets. In fact, as the traditional rolling of the barrels started to get a little boring, the citizens decided carrying the barrels above their heads would be more exhilarating. And this is how the tradition stands today. Seventeen flaming barrels, their interiors coated with tar, are carried through the town center from afternoon until midnight, when the final barrel has burned.
Talkeetna, Alaska – The Talkeetna Moose Dropping Festival wasn’t always terrifying. In fact, celebrating moose droppings was a wholesome mid-summer event for Alaskans for many years. Families enjoyed food and craft vendors, live music, and a highly-anticipated main event where numbered pieces of moose poop were dropped from a helicopter onto a target. The person with the raffle ticket matching the number on the piece of poop won.
But the Moose Dropping Festival grew into a steaming mess over the years, and after tragic events in 2009, the festival was shut down. While most attendants of the festival were just there to enjoy the events and good food, many came to get drunk, use illegal drugs and wreak havoc. In the event’s final year, state troopers could hardly control the mayhem, and a 22-year-old man drowned in the Susitna River. The underage drinking, drunk drivers and unruly crowds just became too much for the historical district of Talkeetna, whose honorary mayor is a cat named Stubbs.
Boryeong, South Korea – Boryeong, South Korea, is known for it’s gorgeous mountains and pristine beaches, but the city’s real fame is derived from mud flats and skin rashes. Boryeong is home to the Boryeong Mud Festival – the filthiest festival in the world. Simply created as a promotion for the cosmetics produced from the mud in the Boryeong mud flats, the festival has become overwhelmingly popular among Koreans and tourists.
With popularity (over 2 million attendees) comes creepiness. In 2009 the festival took some serious flack because a number of children attending the festival broke out in skin rashes following the event. Some spectators are now a bit more weary of splashing half-naked in the mud with complete strangers, but the festivities continue to rage each year with tons of muddy competitions, games, live music and an impressive firework display.
Islamic Communities – It only makes sense to end with the festival that is likely the bloodiest on the list. The celebrations on the Day of Ashura, the 10th day of Muharram, are to represent the death of Husayn ibn Ali. Husayn, the grandson of the prophet Muhammad, was killed in the Battle of Karbala as he fought against the corruption of Yazid I. Husayn was beheaded then his body was mutilated in front of a crowd of witnesses.
To remember that day in 680 A.D., young men and children reenact the mutilation of Husayn’s body by beating themselves with knives and other sharp objects. Only when the self-beatings appear life-threatening do the parents and family members ask the boys to stop. Did I forget to mention the joyous processions and delicious food?
Next time you walk through that corn maze you always thought was creepy or the haunted house that made you jump into your little sister’s arms, think of these 13 creepy (and meaningful) festivals and be thankful that you belong to a relatively sissy culture whose idea of pain is a an encore by Nickelback.
Well, actually, that can be pretty painful too, as Nickleback already knows.