Ghost Hunting in Penang

This article was written by my long-time collaborator Robb Demarest, and first published in my e-Mag, Truly Malaysian, regarding our guest stint on Malaysian TV network NTV7’s Seekers. An American paranormal investigator with a background in psychology, business, teaching and martial arts, Robb is best known for his lead roles in Ghost Hunters International and Haunting: Australia.

Robb Demarest at Penang War Museum

Ghost Hunting in Penang

I found myself alone in a small room at the Penang War Museum. Sitting in a chair, with my backpack of equipment and a walkie-talkie in hand, the room itself was fairly simple, a few posters and plaques obscured by the blackness. What made this room distinct was not what was there now, but what had happened there in the past. Countless murders of prisoners of war were said to have occurred in this very place, and it was quite clearly evidenced by the bullet markings that pocked the cement walls.


The Penang War Museum does not sugarcoat the violence and war time atrocities that took place on this isolated hill. A raw look into the history of the WWII Bukit Maung fortress turned Japanese army base is but one example of a larger theme of Malaysia – Malaysia doesn’t sugarcoat anything. History is told boldly, people laugh loudly, the colors are vibrant, and the fish looks like fish. In many countries the fish is de-boned, deep-fried, pan-seared, and breaded to look more like a grilled cheese sandwich than a fresh-from-the-sea tuna, but in Malaysia’s many road-side cafeteria-style restaurants a fish looks like a fish.

Photo for article by Robb - Fish at Lunch Buffet during Seekers Filming

This, somehow, brings us back to the Penang War Museum and what I was doing there sitting in a room with bullet riddled walls.

In January 2013, Malaysian media broadcaster NTV7 invited Jackie M and I to fly to Malaysia as guest investigators on their popular long-running paranormal television program, Seekers. To say Jackie and I were excited at the opportunity is an understatement. When your passion becomes your occupation it is supposed to be the best of both worlds. I have looked for ghosts in 30+ countries around the globe, but after several years of living out of a suitcase, my passion had become more of a purgatory… I still enjoyed what I did, but the excitement and intensity with which I did it had waned considerably.


So I took a break to pursue other interests, and found that my passion for the paranormal was re-invigorated. Packing up the suitcase again, in preparation for filming Seekers in Malaysia, the excitement was back. I was once more bouncing around like a child and brimming with anticipation at the prospect of diving headlong into the unknown.

The fortress at Bukit Maung has a dark history. During a surprise attack in 1941 it fell to the invading Japanese army and was subsequently used as an army base and prisoner of war camp. In the years after the war the 20 acre military installation was abandoned, the reputation of hauntings by ghosts of tortured soldiers enough to keep the locals away, but then in the mid-1970’s the area was restored and reborn as the Penang War Museum. We were there with the Seekers crew to delve into decades of paranormal activity.


Seated in that lone chair I pulled from my backpack an experimental device that attempts to enable communication with ghosts. The device creates an echo effect, emitting syllables of words in the hopes that the spirits will combine the syllables, and it sat humming quietly away to itself as I asked a series of questions into the air. At precisely the point where I began to doubt that any communication was going to take place, the device came to life and a male voice uttered “help”. My heart, admittedly, skipped a beat.

I answered back into the wall of darkness looking for confirmation that this phantom voice had asked for help. The device spat back immediately “HELP!” in the same male voice. With few viable choices available for response, I asked what did it want me to do. The room was silent for a few moments until a small girl’s voice responded, “to die”. Now, in many situations like this (if any situation can really be much like this) you choose between fight or flight. However in this moment neither was viable; I was alone in the room so fighting seemed useless, I couldn’t run because my pride wouldn’t allow it. So instead, I went with option C -I turned off the device.

The next voice I heard was over the walkie talkie from  the producer who was monitoring the situation via the camera.

“Uhh Robb?”, he stated in his deep gravelly voice.

“Yes…” I replied while hoping my voice wouldn’t crack.

“Turn the device back on?”

“This thing just said it wants me to die. YOU come turn it back on” I shot back.

From the safety of another room, “I’m not the ghost hunter”, was his reply. That pretty much settled that and I did as instructed. When I turned the device on things proceeded to go from bad to much worse, although to see how you’ll  have to watch the episode when it airs. Suffice it to say, in Malaysia, even the ghosts don’t sugarcoat.

This was only one part of our adventure; the energy and excitement of Malaysia helped me rediscover my passion, and for that I am quite thankful. I hope to return to Malaysia soon to continue my attempts to document the presence of life after death, and once again thoroughly enjoy my time in a country where a fish looks like a fish.

seekers3 (2)

Some photos in this post were supplied by Mediaprima with thanks.

Midnight Shadows at Istana Billah (Billah Castle)

Early last year I, along with my long-time collaborator Robb Demarest, was invited by Malaysia’s NTV7 to guest star in 5 episodes of their paranormal reality TV show, Seekers. Here is the trailer for the show as aired on NTV7 –

As is the case with any TV production, for a variety of reasons a lot of our experiences and the evidence we gathered never made it into the final cut, and I hope to cover them in future posts.

In the meantime, here is an article I wrote about one of the places we investigated for the show, called Istana Billah. This was originally published in my Digital Magazine, Truly Malaysian but I’m sharing it here due to the inordinate amount of interest in my previous writings about ghosts & the paranormal 🙂


Istana Billah

Istana Billah

Midnight Shadows at Istana Billah
I’ve done more than my fair share of travelling, and many times while in a non-English speaking country I’m expected to speak the local language – French, Japanese, whatever the case may be. In Malaysia, if there’s any doubt about your background, they speak to you in English. Watch any movie in Malaysia and you’ll find not just subtitles, but subtitles in several languages. Maybe our multi-cultural makeup, coupled with our colonial past, have made us very adaptable and linguistically tolerant?

When the opportunity came up for Robb Demarest and I to guest host on Seekers, a local TV show that’s aired in Malay, there was some concern on Robb’s part about the language barrier.

“Don’t be silly”, I told him. “Everybody understands English, they’ll just subtitle your lines in the show, they do that all the time.”

And so it was that the entire production crew communicated with Robb in English. But they also talked to me in English. I put it down to their gracious hospitality – I haven’t lived in Malaysia for nearly 30 years after all, so it’d be fair to assume I’d lost most, if not all, of my Malay language ability.

Anyhow, our second case rolled around and we were investigating Istana Billah, an old castle in Perak that used to be the residence of Raja (King) Billah. The castle stands empty but is maintained by two lady caretakers who live onsite.  It has a tiny wooden mosque built within the area and the Chinese locals claimed to hear sounds coming from it at night. There are also reported sightings of an old lady in the mansion.

We were introduced to the history of the castle during the day, and suffice it to say I was pretty creeped out by some of the rooms in the building – one upstairs in particular had holes in the floor. Why?  Because that’s where they prepared bodies for burial; the holes were where water from cleaning the bodies would drain out.  Then there was another room that was locked up, but we were told it was where funeral ceremonies were conducted.  So many death-related activities under the one roof made for a very uncomfortable night ahead for someone like me with a morbid fear of dead bodies.

Now I’m a cook, not a paranormal investigator, so I had no experience at all going into my Seekers stint. But I’ve watched plenty of ghost hunting shows in my time and I didn’t want to fall into the stereotypical screaming crybaby role usually delegated to the female in the team. I had my Hakka pride to maintain, after all.

The castle, whilst not very big, was very dark on the inside, and extremely eerie at night. We started out investigating in groups, but in the middle of the night, the producer decided he wanted me, Jackie M, to stay alone in the castle whilst all the other investigators went back to base. GREAT.

I kept telling myself to keep my cool; the whole place was wired with CCTV cameras after all and everyone would be monitoring me from base camp. “Nothing’s going to happen”, I kept thinking.

Production crew on set at Istana Billah

Production crew on set at Istana Billah

So I sat in the pitch black hall with an infra-red camera to try and capture evidence of ghostly activity. I talked to whatever might be out there to see if it would make contact with me.  Maybe touch my hair or hand to show they were present in the room?  All things that I quietly hoped wouldn’t happen – certainly not when I was alone in a big empty building at night.

There’s a school of thought that paranormal activity happens to those who invite it into their lives. I dwelt on that as, against my better judgement, I continued to implore whatever entities were out there to make contact.

And then I saw it – a shadow near the main doorway about 30 feet away.  I froze for a second, thinking the light from the night sky outside must have played a trick on me.  Stay calm, I told myself.

It disappeared, but quickly appeared again, and this time I yelled out: “Hello?”

As though in response, a SECOND apparition showed up next to the first.

Again, “Hello?” Still silence. The two dark ghostly shadows stood at the doorway facing me, watching me.

Well, I figured this was an old Malay castle; it would probably make more sense for me to communicate in the local language to whatever ghosts were haunting this place.  So, for the first time on this trip, I spoke Malay. “Siapa tu?” (Who’s that?), I tentatively asked the shadowy figure.

Upstairs room in Istana Billah used for the preparation of dead bodies for burial.  The floorboards had holes in them, for blood to drip downstairs during the process.

Upstairs room in Istana Billah used for the preparation of dead bodies for burial. The floorboards had holes in them, for blood to drip downstairs during the process.

It worked. The ghostly response came back, “Ada tengok anjing?”

Alright, my Malay may be rusty after 30 years, but I think the ghosts just asked me if I’d seen any dogs.

“Anjing? Takde, saya tak nampak” (Er, dogs? No, I haven’t seen any).

And so it turned out the ghostly figures were not in fact ghosts, but the two elderly lady caretakers trying to tackle an ongoing stray dog problem.

The upshot of the encounter was that the production crew discovered that Jackie M actually speaks Malay, so thereafter there was no stopping them bantering with me in Bahasa. Not to mention the producer insisting in subsequent episodes that I did my EVP sessions in Malay.

Did I encounter any real paranormal activity in that or any of the other cases?  You’ll have to tune in to NTV7’s Seekers Season 9 to find out.

My co-presenters in Seekers Season 9 - from left - Syai, myself, Robb Demarest, Jufri Rayyan

My co-presenters in Seekers Season 9 – from left – Syai, myself, Robb Demarest, Jufri Rayyan