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Chaos Trifecta #11: Places of Death

chaos trifecta
Written By Ai Jiang

Ai Jiang is a Chinese-Canadian writer and an immigrant from Fujian. She is a member of HWA, SFWA, and Codex. Her work can be found in F&SF, The Dark, Uncanny, among others. She is the holder of Odyssey Workshop's 2022 Fresh Voices Scholarship. Her debut novella Linghun (April 2023) is forthcoming with Dark Matter INK. Find her on Twitter (@AiJiang_) and online (aijiang.ca).

(CW: animal death)

For this month’s piece, I’ve decided to do something a little different and focus on the places of death I’ve visited in 2023. Of course, death has occurred in all places, but these three specific locations have some intriguing dark histories that have become a part of their identities.

I’ve had the pleasure of travelling far more this year than I ever have in my life leading up to this point in life, and what I took away most from these trips is the importance of learning about the histories of the places I’m travelling to, their people and their customs, rather than what I used to think travelling was all about as a child—scenic landscapes and pictures.

It’s fascinating now to think about what is behind the beautiful pictures we see online, how these places came to be, the hands and feet and events that had shaped and reshaped these places and left its trail of histories; the ways humans have fallen victims to the land; the way that we as humans give land human identities. We give both the things we have created (streets, buildings, statues) and the things that have always existed (mountains, rivers, oceans, forests) human names. Something I’ve always wondered myself is what the land would call itself if it could tell us its name. But that is complex conversation for another time.

Death Valley, California, United States

When we arrived, it was already near sunset, but the bleed of blues and purples were a magnificent backdrop for the barren desert with dead trees like gnarling bones of fingers and amazing textured landscapes. But what interested me most was the name “Death Valley.” After digging my shoes into the sand, I went home and dug my mind into its history.

In 1848, with the discovery of gold at the Sutter’s Mill in California, groups of people who are now known as The Lost 49ers trekked their way in search of riches in the Golden State. Unfortunately, many of these individuals took a shortcut that in turn took their lives before they were able to find their fortune. Some were able to escape—only the lucky ones. On this grueling journey, the travellers had to slaughter the oxen that pulled their wagons and continued on foot. They had to abandon their horses, or their horses were ridden to death.

Death Valley is known to be one of the world’s driest and hottest of places. Even today, hikers meet their demise if they come ill equipped for their trails. Cars break down due to the heat. Visitors even note that it feels as though their skin is burning off when visiting Death Valley during the height of summer.

My visit was during December, so my skin neither burned nor did our rental car break down, but I am curious as to what my own trip might be like should I revisit when it’s much warmer. Though perhaps if I do return, I’ll be armed with a case of water and my best hiking shoes.

The Forbidden City, Beijing, China

I’ve always wanted to visit the Forbidden City ever since I was a child. It seemed magnificent in the photos and on TV, and considered one of the most popular tourist attractions, both among those foreign to the country and those who reside within China. But what I didn’t know was its haunted history and the reason why the Forbidden City closes its doors every day at 5 p.m., no later (though it’s open during the night only for specific occasions and for honored guests), as it is said that after 5 p.m., the Forbidden City belongs to the realm of ghosts and spirits.

The Forbidden City has seen the rise and fall of numerous emperors and dynasties. But there is one emperor in particular who went above and beyond in painting his hands with the blood of his people. Emperor Yongle was known for his cruelty and indulgence. He burnt his own nephew who was in line for the throne so he could claim it as his own. In 1421, Emperor Yongle killed 2,800 (some sources say 3,000) members of his harem—concubines, servants, eunuchs—and left only 15 (some sources say 16) of his favorite concubines and their eunuchs to avoid scandal concerning the size of his harem compared to previous emperors.

When Emperor Yongle passed, he hung the remaining living concubines from silk nooses, bringing them with him into the afterlife.

Visitors have said that they’ve spotted ghosts strangling victims at the Forbidden City. They have seen victims being pulled under bridges and strange animals running around the palace grounds. Other strange occurrences include the appearance of weeping women ghosts with long black hair, dressed in white, featureless, and flute music seeming to drift from no source.

It seems I have a pattern of always going to places right before closing, which was the case with the Forbidden City as well. We left around 4 p.m., though there were no supernatural occurrences that I myself detected, perhaps I shall return and lurk about its walls later at night the next time I visit.

Torii Gates, Japan

There is no direct flight to my spouse’s hometown Hohhot in Inner Mongolia, so we were fortunate to visit Tokyo, Japan before making our way to Hohhot. This feature doesn’t include one specific location but will focus on the presence of torii gates scattered across Japan.

Photo by Dave Weatherall on Unsplash

Torii gates are bright red, made to ward off evil spirits, and serves as a passage to liminal and sacred spaces. It is the boundary between ordinary spaces and shrines, distinguishing between the human world and sacred grounds. They are also used as identification markers to sacred spots like rocks and mountains, though they are usually found in front of Shinto shrines in Japan.

Atop the gates sit yokai called Otoroshi that guard the gates. These are beasts both hairy and large that will attack those who they sense as evil and allow passage for those who are good. However, when passing the gates, one must always pass to the side of the gate. You must not walk through the middle of the gate as that is reserved for the kami to enter the realm of gods. It is a Japanese belief that when people pass, they become kami (Shinto gods), sacred spirits, worshipped by the living. It is also believed that humans are innately good, and that they only become evil because of evil spirits.

What is fascinating in my research about the torii gates is that in Shinto, death is seen as impurity, and so Shinto shrines are not built near cemeteries and funerals are not held within the shrines, but often weddings are held and parents often bring their new born babies.

I myself missed catching these beautiful gates on camera, so I will have to return to visit the most known torii gates next time around.

Photo by D J on Unsplash

If you have a place of death you’d like to share, do drop me a message through the contact form on my website or message me on whichever social media platform you most use. I’d love to hear about other places of death and visit them when I get the chance!

Reading Recommendations that pair well with these deathly locations:

This Wretched Valley by Jenny Kiefer

Keeper of the Night by Kylie Lee Baker

“A Realm Alive After Dusk” forthcoming in The Map of Lost Places Anthology (a little shameless self-promo for a story I’d written which was inspired by my visit to the Forbidden City)

[images by the author unless otherwise specified]

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