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From Oral Lore to a Mini Encyclopedia of Folk Demons, Ghosts, and Restless Spirits

River entities hiding the bodies of drowned victims, spectral ma lai whose head and guts hover in the air, ma trành spirits luring unassuming victims into the path of tigers, or the ghosts of a family with consecutive deaths — these are just some ghastly myths from Vietnamese folklore that the Ma Quỷ Dân Gian Ký project (The Chronicle of Folk Spirits) was inspired by.

Duy Văn (Diwan).

Ma Quỷ Dân Gian Ký is an illustration project by Duy Văn (also known as Diwan), who conceptualizes the spirits and entities in our time-honored lore as colorful character illustrations. Rendered in various styles like line art, doodles, and Đông Hồ, these ghoulish creatures appear in the project via Diwan’s distinct personal lens. Accompanying each ghostly depiction are relevant stories that the author collected from history and traditional texts surrounding the featured creatures.

From left to right: River spirits, linh miêu, and quỷ nhập tràng.

Duy Văn says that, compared to countries like Japan, Thailand, China and South Korea, Vietnamese spirituality is a diverse tapestry of indigenous entities, showing our ancestors’ rich cultural wealth.

“Still, they [other countries] have very specific portrayals of supernatural beings. Japan went as far as compiling an encyclopedia of yokai, their version of spirits, to document their names and distinct features,” he explains. “This helps inspire cinema, manga productions and contributes to the promotion of their culture to the rest of the world. Vietnam also possesses a similarly eclectic trove of native spirits, but our folk traditions are still not respected and capitalized on in an effective manner.”

Motivated by that lack of recognition of Vietnamese culture, Duy Văn went ahead with Ma Quỷ Dân Gian Ký to encourage young people to discover more of their own spiritual and traditional heritage. “Who knows, maybe in future Halloween parties or horror flicks you’ll see ma da, ma gà or the one-leg goblin of Vietnam,” he says.

From left to right: Blinding ghost, hungry ghost, and ghost-in-a-can.

As is the case with many other creative endeavors based on history, the first step of compiling and gathering reference materials is always the toughest. The research was especially challenging for Diwan as the origin stories are all propagated via oral traditions instead of textual forms. “The narratives I managed to collect mostly come from…ghost story-telling clips, forums, and even told by friends and family. I listened to a lot of different sources and synthesize the information into one final depiction,” Văn recalls.

Stories spread via spoken words tend to have a range of regional variations and versions depending on the locality and even ethnic background of the tellers. Therefore, with each mythological creature, each version will comprise a different set of behaviors, physical manifestations, and even reasons for their death. Each of Diwan’s completed illustrations, therefore, is influenced by personal taste and creative compilation.

Duy Văn describes his creative process behind Ma Quỷ Dân Gian Ký as led by “divine intervention” as he rarely plans how to start crafting the characters, but instead waits for ideas to find him, then plunges into researching relevant lore — like anecdotes from the alleged “victims” of past hauntings or how previous generations organized seances — and begins drawing for up to five hours in one sitting. After coming up with a design, he starts editing the story behind the inspiration to help viewers get an idea of which spirit he’s depicting.

From left to right: Hanged spirit, bosom ghost, and boogeyman.

Working on preternatural beings of course would send chills down his spine sometimes, like when he was illustrating river ghosts, quỷ nhập tràng, or feline spirits. To Duy Văn, the character that stood out the most to him during his research was chó đội nón mê. This entity is often described as an ancient dog that stands on two feet and wears a hat. It lurks on roofs during full moons to monitor chicken and duck coops. When it spots houses with beautiful women, it will sneak in to haunt them. Whoever comes across chó đội nón mê and accidentally opens their mouth will have their soul sucked away. “Imagine one day your lovely dog suddenly stands up on two legs, holds a stick, and walks on the roof. That really creeps me out,” Duy Văn explains.

The one ghost story that gets people talking the most on the Facebook page for Ma Quỷ Dân Gian Ký is the tale of the long-haired nymph who sets up a hammock on tree tops to sing lullabies at night. According to local lore, in recently explored patches of wilderness, the patriarchs of village households more often than not were away for days at a time to clear jungles and hunt. Their wives, left alone, sometimes passed away during childbirth, dying mournful deaths and unable to move on to the netherworld. They remain in our plane as wandering spirits haunting others while singing eerie lullabies on top of trees. The illustration of these maternal spirits has prompted many netizens to contribute with their own tales from their grandparents.

From left to right: Ma lai, chó đội nón mê.

Duy Văn shares that he’s been busy recently so could only manage to produce one illustration and accompanying text per week. Even though the process to come up with new character depictions is tough, it’s all worth it when it’s well-received by readers. In his long-term plan, he wants to release some 30 works for the project before moving on to a more ambitious initiative to publish the illustrations.

“I want to publish an encyclopedia of Vietnamese spirits. This would provide illustrations and information for readers, in addition to a small exhibition,” he adds. “I’m super impressed by the Japanese series Yamishibai. But to arrive at such a polished product, I have to put in a lot more effort to fine-tune both the content and visuals in accordance with the motto ‘the more familiar, the scarier.’ That’s just my dream; I can’t promise a lot, but I can say that I’ll try my best to release better results.”

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