For a Halloween episode, “Hawaii Five-0” definitely worked at making this one not only a spooky experience, but one steeped in our own unique Hawaiian culture and beliefs. I found it interesting that the three locals on the team seemed to sit back and let the “mainlander” make the common mistakes of brushing off a serious belief, chalking it all up to “silly superstition.”
And poor Danno, he paid for his cultural faux pas with two broken windows of his precious Camaro, as well as a visit from a very friendly — albeit five years dead — neighbor. Not at all that strange, and I personally don’t know anyone who would be afraid of the talented Marlene Sai, who played the ghostly Mrs. Kekoa, but to those of us who have met long dead friendly folks who have warned us of current troubles or dangers, Danno’s experience was a little close to home.
There was a lot to like about this episode, and I found myself focusing not so much on the movement of the plot and action, of which there was plenty of — a severed hand, an empty casket, a crazy girl in a padded room who could not sleep, a scary homeless man who wielded a bloody machete, explosions, and did I already mention the ghost sighting?
I’m not sure which part of the episode I liked the most, Max dressed as Neo from “The Matrix” and his decorated lab or the homage to the “A Nightmare on Elm Street” story. Was I the only one to get the veiled, “I’m a crazy girl who can’t sleep because I’m being haunted by a bad man?” similarity — or maybe I’m looking too deeply at the whole Robert Englund as the supposed bad-guy-serial-killer set up?
For those of you reading this who have visited Hawaii, have ever lived or are currently living in our fair islands, you might know locals and Hawaiians alike are very spiritual people. Some may call that being superstitious. Others may call it a little silly. But we tend to believe that if we respect our ancestors and the ancient beliefs, life will stay pretty copacetic.
We surround our homes with ti leaf plants to protect our families from spirits and from the nightmarchers who tend to still march on the paths of their original battle lines. We tell tales of little men, those we call menehune, who steal special items we love, only to replace these items after we leave out money or food as an offering of goodwill. We whisper about a beautiful wahine who walks down a lonely road and what happened to our car after we passed her and did not recognize her as the goddess Pele.
Nightmarchers (the huaka’i pō), the legend of Pele, and tales of menehune who come in the night to make mischief are all part of local folklore. Even small keiki can tell you a tale or two about experiencing friendly ancestors or hearing the not too distant drum beats that foretell the marching of our ghost warriors. In local culture, ghost or spirit folklore are called “obake stories,” after the Japanese word for ghost.
The late Hawaii folklorist and historian Glen Grant, who collected stories and tales from around the islands and published them in his most famous text, “The Obake Files,” made many of these traditional local stories famous. Hawaiians were polytheistic and worshipped many gods, which over time wove into the material of local folklore. With the introduction of different ethnic groups, called to Hawaii to work in the cane and pineapple fields, the mix of urban legend, Japanese obake stories, and all manner of ghost and spirit stories from the Philippines, Portugal, Spain, Korea, and China have woven their way into the combined superstition of local residents.
In Hawaiian culture, there are less ghost stories as there are legends and mythology. According to my Hawaiian language expert, T. Ilihia Gionson, ghost stories are more a western concept and not really a Hawaiian concept. Hawaiian stories are less about scaring someone and more about warning you away from something that may harm you.
For example, when Chin Ho and Kono tell Danno to wait for the Kahu to bless them before entering the heiau or when Mrs. Kekoa warns Danno away from the elevator, they all do so to protect Danno from being harmed — not necessarily to scare him.
The interesting part of the story, which I really admired, was the care and respect it gave to our belief in the sacredness of our iwi, or bones, and for our heiau. In Hawaiian language, “kapu” does mean sacred or forbidden, but something that is deemed kapu is usually forbidden out of respect for the place or action. It is not a random declaration; it is made to help and is usually stated so as to steer people away from danger.
To Hawaiians, iwi holds our mana, and mana is our internal or spiritual power. So the treatment of our bones is as sacred as the treatment of the dead. That might seem like a given to most of you, but this is always an argument — even in today’s news as we find more and more iwi as we build and expand our modern world.
So even though scary Robert Englund swears to protect the heiau, he really is protecting the people who are trespassing more than the heiau itself. That’s because the person who trespasses has more of a chance of being harmed than the ancient artifacts or the rocks that make up the heiau. He is more like a warning siren than a protector of an ancient and spiritual place.
Overall, I thought this episode brought to light much of what makes Hawaii so special. It’s our culture and beliefs and even our treatment of friends who perhaps don’t share our spiritual nature that sets us apart from other places. This episode was a great showcase of what Peter Lenkov keeps saying is one of the major characters in the show — Hawaii itself.
Wendie Burbridge is a published writer, playwright and a teacher of literature and fiction writing at Kamehameha Schools-Kapālama. Reach her on Facebook and on Twitter.