The first rule of Ghost Month

The gates of hell quietly opened two weeks ago. So now’s a good time to brush up on ghostly taboos…

Artificial intelligence-generated image of a ghost sitting on a beach at night.
A ghost at the beach.

The gates of hell opened on August 16. Since then, I haven’t seen any floaty bois in Taiwan (more on this later), but there have been some changes on the streets.

The most conspicuous tradition is intended to keep the floaty bois happy, by giving them plenty to eat and drink:

A table, approximately 1 meter square, covered in dry foods, fresh fruit and vegetables, bottled water, beer, and burning incense sticks. A red washbasin is to the left of the table. It is fulled with water and has a dry towel resting across the top.
This is a table of offerings outside a friend’s family home in Kaohsiung. These honor the family’s ancestors, plus any wandering floaty bois who pass by. There’s a mix of fruit, vegetables, and dried foods, plus bottled water and beer. The burning incense is intended to help the spirits to live a better afterlife. The basin of water is for them to wash their hands. (Note, although I had nothing to do with this impressive array, I was proud to see New Zealand kiwifruit on the table.) Photo: KianKok Tan.
A table of food offerings on a sidewalk in Taiwan. The table is heaped high with food and drinks and burning incense sticks. On the far side of the table, a metal cylinder, slightly larger than a bucket, is sitting on the sidewalk.
Here’s another view of the same table. Note the box of paper on the right—joss paper and praying money will be burned in the ‘metal basin for burning money for the dead’ (金爐) at the top of this photo. Cash is king in the underworld, making this support especially helpful for the spirits. Photo: KianKok Tan.
Daytime photo of the entrance to Dream Mall. It is a large building with a ferris wheel on the roof.
A few kilometers away, here’s a Google Street View image of Dream Mall. It has over 2,000 stores, plus an amusement park with ferris wheel on the roof. Yesterday, each of these stores provided offerings to the floaty bois…
Hundreds of round tables under a large marguee. Each table has multiple cardboard boxes on it, filled with foot. The front-most cardboard box has ‘The Body Shop’ branding on it.
…Under this enormous marquee out the front. All stores contribute, including international brands such as H&M and The Body Shop. Closer to home, there are also tables with offerings and incense outside most stores in my neighborhood. (After the floaty bois finish eating, the food is brought back inside and shared amongst the living.)
A man tossing yellow paper into a fire inside a metal bucket on the pavement.
It’s common to see joss paper burning in the ‘metal basins for burning money for the dead’ (金爐) outside small businesses, like this one. This is a relatively small burner. The first one I saw, back in January, was around 2 meters tall and 1 meter wide. It was on the pavement outside a government office, which led me to misinterpret it as a form of document destruction. (Which I guess, technically, it was.)

While the food offerings and sidewalk fires are obvious signs of Ghost Month, there are also more subtle behaviors to also consider.

Below, I’ve listed my top 10 rules of Ghost Month—including why you should call them floaty bois.

I’m yet to photograph a floaty boi, so I’ve used something similarly spooky to illustrate the rules: images generated by artificial intelligence.

Top 10 rules of Ghost Month, illustrated with AI

1. Don’t say the word “ghost”

Artificial intelligence-generated image of a man in the foreground and a shadowy figure in the distance.
This rule may be the most important of all, for they’ll be deeply offended if you remind them they’re dead. But it is safe to say floaty bois or good brothers and good sisters instead. You should also avoid whistling, because the good brothers and good sisters are drawn to the sound.

2. Don’t sit in the front row at the opera

Artificial intelligence-generated image of three ghost-like figures performing on stage at an opera house.
The phantom could get you!

3. Don’t hang clothes to dry at night

Artificial intelligence-generated image of four items of wet laundry hanging on a line. One of the items is shaped like a ghost.
Floaty bois stick to wet laundry. (Curious about this, I walked outside to survey my own apartment building. Usually 50–75% of balconies have clothes drying on them at night, but since Ghost Month started, the proportion is closer to 25%.)

4. Don’t open an umbrella indoors

Artificial intelligence-generated image of a humanoid figure holding an umbrella, with a ghost-like figure reaching towards it.
This invites floaty bois to shelter with you.

5. Don’t pick up money on the street

Artificial intelligence-generated image of a ghost touching some oversized coins on the road, as a person walks past in the background.
This brings bad fortune. Which is a shame, because a lot of people toss coins on the street after ceremonies at this time of year. You should also avoid picking up joss paper: doing so insults the spirits. And you should definitely avoid picking up a red envelope—this may force you to marry a ghost (per the Taiwanese Netflix comedy Marry My Dead Body).

6. Don’t take photos at night

Artificial intelligence-generated image of two ghosts standing on a field at night. One of the ghosts is holding a large camera.
Floaty bois can appear in photos, haunting you for years to come.

7. Don’t turn around if someone calls your name or taps you on the shoulder

Artificial intelligence-generated image of a man facing a smiling ghost.
If you turn too quickly, you’ll extinguish your protective flames. This makes it easier for floaty bois to attack. For this reason, you should also avoid calling out to others or tapping their shoulders. (But if you must turn around, do it slowly to keep the protective flames burning. )

8. Avoid beaches, lakes, and rivers at night

Artificial intelligence-generated image of a ghost sitting on the beach at night.
The floaty bois can pull you under. (You should also avoid swimming, for the same reason.)

9. Don’t lean against walls

Artificial intelligence-generated image of a person, covered in a ghostly sheet, leaning against a wall.
Walls are where the floaty bois hang, and you don’t want to disturb them.

10. Don’t take the last train home

Artificial intelligence-generated image of a series of train tracks at night, with a blurred train passing a ghost-like figure that is standing on the tracks.
It might be the last train you ever take!