“We’ve had apparitions here plenty of times, possessions too. Usually, when that happens, all the guides come together and pray for the spirits to leave the person they possess.”
These words were used by Mr. Bambang, one of Lawang Sewu’s tour guides who showed us around as we walked around the building dubbed as the most haunted building in Indonesia by multiple travel sites. I hated visiting haunted places or going anywhere near anything with scary stories attached to them. But on a Sunday in April 2016, I somehow found myself at the gates of Lawang Sewu, paying IDR10.000 for entrance. since the rest of my family wanted to go.
Lawang Sewu literally translates into “a thousand doors”. It was a name given by locals – its fancy, real name is Administratiegebouw Nederlands-Indische Spoorweg Maatschappij (try saying it for a tongue twister!) The building got its local name because locals thought that there were too many doors and windows in a building for them to count and so they simply claimed that the building had 1000 doors. It turned out, when the doors and windows were actually counted, there were only 600 of them.
It was built in the 1900s as the headquarters for the Dutch train company during the period of their colonialization. Most of the horror stories came from the Japanese Occupation era when the Japanese used this building as their torture and execution building. These days, it has been converted into an event space and a museum to learn about Indonesian trains.
“Even after the conversion into an event space, the keeper of the keys still has to leave offerings in front of a certain, locked door and pray for no apparitions or possessions or any disturbances during the event or else something will certainly go wrong,” said Mr. Bambang matter-of-factly.
We started our tour of the building at a small building containing pumps near the entrance. The pumps could push 5 liters of water up straight to the topmost level of the building back then. The water then moved downwards to the ground and the pipes in which the waters flowed kept the lower levels of the building cool, keeping the hot air up on the attic. This plumbing ingenuity arose from the Dutch’s inability to stand the tropical heat back then.
We then continued to the one and only bathroom in Lawang Sewu near the tickets’ checkpoint. For a building complex as large as 2.5 hectares with railroads criss-crossing it back then, it only had one bathroom! I couldn’t imagine the toilet lines and how the Dutch felt back then when they literally couldn’t hold it but had to run 2.5 hectares, wait for the train to pass, and then get to the bathroom. The bathroom itself looked something straight out of the Hogwarts set.
Most of the tiles and sinks were imported from Italy and can still be used now. That is pretty awesome.
We went on to tour building A, B, C, D. There air inside the buildings was colder than temperatures outside, but the whole Dutch plumbing system explanation gave me enough rationalization for it. Apart from the gloominess I felt inside the hallways because there simply wasn’t enough lighting, I was struck in awe as I see the way the buildings were constructed. Everything about the building was literally symmetrical! For a photographer it was a heaven for rule-of-thirds composition shots. There were a lot of towering arcs in the building and sure enough, plenty of doors and windows.
But the one feature of Lawang Sewu that really made my jaw drop was its beautiful, stained-glass window. Depicting fortune, gold, and wealth, it was the center piece of building A with two sets of marble staircase sweeping at its sides and a beautiful stone one in front of it. It was a brilliant spot for silhouette photos and simply admirable.
The area up those stairs were unfortunately off-limits because it was one of the places that require the keeper of the keys to perform a ritual for you to visit. Nevertheless, it was a sight that stopped me in my tracks.
We then made our way to the museum wing in building B which contained a lot of photos from the 1900s-1930s, old train tickets, ancient calculators, maps of train routes, and newspaper cuttings about trains. If you happen to be as much of a historical artifact enthusiast as I am, this will excite you.
Afterwards, we moved on upstairs to the brightly-lit upper terrace area. There wasn’t much that was special about this area of Lawang Sewu. What the terrace overlooked was the interesting part. You see, the terrace happened to be overlooking the plains used as a dumping ground for torture victims. Mr. Bambang pointed out a trap door from the basement through which guards carried dead bodies and dumped them to the river by the building or the plains next to the building.
“Until now, every developer who has tried building anything on those plains somehow had a member of their team dropping dead as soon as they signed the deal so it has been left as is.”
That. Was. Creepy.
After a lot of staring in awe for the architecture and history, we finally got to the parts of Lawang Sewu known for the horror stories attached to them. We were led upstairs to the attic of Lawang Sewu which was a vast, plain attic with several lines of tape attached to its floor, seemingly marking badminton lines. This was known as the place where photographers usually have ghosts suddenly show up on their photos. I only took one shot there and there was a blue bit of light flaring across on the shot when I got a good look at it. Maybe it was a sunlight flare from the one of small windows around the attic, maybe my shutter speed was too low and my hands shook a bit – I don’t know and I would rather not know where that blue light came from honestly.
Our guide, Mr. Bambang also talked about the possessions that once happened there.
“I once took a group of students around Lawang Sewu and they were all somehow possessed,” he said in a low voice. “The spirits spoke through those students and asked for the keeper of the keys’ ritual to be started and done every Thursday night or else they would keep bothering people. I got all the other guides together and we spoke to the spirits and started a prayer circle for the students. Now, every morning, we always start our day praying that nothing bad happens to the our groups.”
I’m legitimately getting chills re-telling this story.
We also got a peek at the door that led to the famously haunted basement. During the Japanese Occupation era, the basement was the part of the building reserved for the worst tortures. It had three forks within it, giving prisoners the illusion that one path would lead to their freedom. However, all three paths eventually led to a dead-end and prisoners were left for dead starving in neck-deep waters.
Mr. Bambang said that a lot of these tortured spirits still showed up through possessions or apparitions, not sure of where to go and asking for help to cross over to the other side. When this happens, the guides usually come in a prayer circle, ask for that spirit’s name, and pray that they may be given peace.
However, the basement has been off-limits for the visitors for a while. The sign said that there was a construction down there, but Mr. Bambang said that the truth was the management people came in conflict about the basement and decided to just close it off for good to get rid of the spooky image of Lawang Sewu.
We finally walked outside to find an old train coach formerly used by the Dutch at the lawn. The coach overlooked a grass field used by visitors for picnics and kids to play.
“They don’t know that this used to be a grave for dead soldiers at the Five-Day Battle of Semarang. The bodies were then moved to the grave yard for war heroes,” Mr. Bambang said.
Indeed, the only thing that would let people know that a battle was fought there is a monument for fallen soldiers.
I saw the people on the field, smiling and laughing, not aware that the people who died for what they can do now were once buried under that grass. They may not be aware that some of the innocent people killed for simply being Indonesian died in the basement under their feet. This thought gave me the idea to ask Mr. Bambang something.
“Have you had to give a tour of Lawang Sewu to Japanese people?”
“I have,” he said.
“How did they react when you told them about the torture and deaths that happened here?” I asked again.
“They actually apologized to us on behalf of their countries. They apologized for what their ancestors did to us.”
This answer left me stunned for a while and I walked away from Lawang Sewu thanking Mr. Bambang and haunted – not by anything articles often described you would be haunted with, but by the thought of how wars actually have a lasting effect. Thousands of people were tortured and killed in Lawang Sewu for the sake of those in power trying to assert their influence, which as far as I’m concerned is for nothing. Until now, apologies were still being made for what happened in the past and relationships are still worked on because of damages done by war, by desire for power. But then now, wars are still being fought in countries and people are still ripping at each other’s throats trying to assert power over each other.
I left the most haunted building in Indonesia haunted by only one question: what are we fighting each other for?
(That guy in the middle of our family is Mr. Bambang. If you need a guide around Lawang Sewu, this guy is it! He knows so much about the building complex and provides explanation about the horror stories in such a matter-of-fact way that it didn’t seem scary at all.)
Lawang Sewu | Komplek Tugu Muda, Jalan Pemuda, Semarang, Jawa Tengah | Open 6 AM-6 PM