Southeast Asia's Vengeful Man-Eating Spirit Is a Feminist Icon
The pontianak is a ghost that avenges women who die in childbirth. Her fearsomeness is linked to her femininity, and she'll rip your eyes out if you look at her the wrong way.
Left, a still from "It's Easier to Raise Cattle", photo courtesy of Amanda Eu. Right, an imaage from I-Lann Yee's 2016 exhibition on the Pontianak. Photo courtesy of I-Lann Yee.
In Southeast Asia, legend has it that a man out alone at night must never look directly at a beautiful woman, because she might be a ghost that rips his guts out. For anyone who's ever been harassed whilst walking late at night, that sounds like one refreshing rule.
According to folklore in Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore, a pregnant woman who dies in childbirth or as a result of male-inflicted violence turns into a ghost known as the pontianak. Wearing a white dress with long, dark hair (an aesthetic shared by Sadako from Japanese cult novel Ringu), the pontianak seduces men before using her dagger-like nails to tear open their stomachs and devour the organs in a bloody feast. Her presence is usually associated with the sweet scent of the frangipani flower, followed by a stench meant to resemble a rotting corpse.
A source of terror to both children and adults, she is one of the most popular spirits in Southeast Asia, a region where superstitions make up the fabric of daily life. Parents often use her as an example for children. Young girls are ordered to tie their hair back by elderly relatives, otherwise they’ll look like the pontianak. Bring the pontianak up in conversation, I've found, and at least one person will claim to have known someone who’s seen her in parks or the woods.
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A favorite of horror film directors, the pontianak (or kuntilanak, as she’s called in Indonesia, or churel in Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan) is often portrayed as a social outcast who's fallen in some way, often by failing in her duties as a mother. But the pontianak also embodies a subversive female energy that is increasingly being embraced by a new wave of writers and film-makers.
“She can walk alone and not have to be accompanied by a man; she can be as beautiful and provocative as she wants; she can be extremely gentle or a massive flirt—but if you dare touch her without her consent, her claws will come out,” Kuala Lumpur-based filmmaker Amanda Nell Eu tells Broadly. Eu's 2017 short film, It's Easier to Raise Cattle, screened earlier this year at the Singapore International Film Festival, depicts a friendship between two countryside girls, one of whom is revealed to be a pontianak. Rather than focus on her killings however, the film pays more attention to how the bond between the two protagonists lasts even after the pontianak's nocturnal activities are discovered.
The pontianak’s fearsomeness is linked to her femininity—a concept that feminist theorist Barbara Creed calls the monstrous-feminine. The pontianak appears fragile, but is ferocious when provoked. “The pontianak mimics vulnerability and seeming gentility through her high-pitched baby cries and frangipani scent, but try and take advantage of her and she'll suck your eyeballs out,” explains Singaporean author Sharlene Teo, whose debut novel Ponti was inspired by the myth. The book, released this year, is an account of three Singaporean women whose lives become intertwined through the pontianak's myth. (One of the protagonists is an actor who plays the pontianak in B-grade horror movies.)
The myth resonates with up-and-coming directors, artists, and writers in part because the pontianak challenges the social expectations of traditional Malay societies. "The pontianak isn't able to be a mother in a culture where reproduction is essential to a woman's identity, so she disrupts Malay ideals of femininity," Dr. Alicia Izharuddin, senior lecturer in gender studies at the University of Malaya, tells me.
And the pontianak's vindictive nature helps to provide a mythic counterpoint to the real-life experience of being a woman in a patriarchal society. The pontianak, who has endured violence and suffering, avenges the real-life crimes women living in misogynistic societies experience on a daily basis: the femicide, rape, and domestic abuse. "She is righting the injustices within a traditional society that has many constraints for women," explains Adeline Kueh, senior lecturer at Singapore’s LASALLE College of the Arts.
The pontianak's murderous violence, however, is only viewed as legitimate because she's dead. “It says a lot about Asian society that that we cannot grant agency to living women but only when they’re undead,” Izharuddin says. Some may view the pontianak’s violence as morally questionable, but according to Eu, it can be interpreted as as a form of power and freedom. "[It's about] letting your freak flag fly and not giving a shit," Eu explains.
"I feel great sympathy for the pontianak," Eu goes on, explaining that the ghost is a creation of social fears. "On first sight, you're afraid of her, but afterwards you realize that the real monsters are humans and society. All horror stories are created from this." Eu is on a quest to dissect and re-tell tales about Malaysia's female ghosts. Her planned follow-up to It's Easier to Raise Cattle will be a dark comedy involving the penanggalan, a blood-drinking creature with a floating head and a trailing mass of internal organs. "I want to portray these spirits as badass, freaky women who shouldn't be feared or pushed away, but instead adored," Eu says.
Teo also hopes that her novel will help change our deep-rooted perceptions of monsters, highlighting the Babadook as a case in point. A tophat-wearing creature from the 2014 Australian psychological thriller film of the same name, the Babadook hides in dark corners and has since been turned into a LGBTQI icon. “Revisionist interpretations of famous monsters can be positive,” Teo tells me. “Why not seek positivity in popular representations of horror and fear?
But favorable illustrations of female ghosts still remain an outlier in Asian culture, although Izharuddin hopes this will change soon. “The time is right for more diverse representations of the female supernatural in Asian cinema,” she says. Until then, a generation of film-makers, writers, and artists will continue to embrace the pontianak myth, in all its gruesome glory.