Why Ghosts and Goblins Are Scarier in Southeast Asia

If you think a sinister clown is unnerving, then get acquainted with ghouls and demons. On this side of the world, you’ll be terrified.
Saturday 27 October 2018
Run! Photo: iStock

Werewolves, vampires, evil nuns, mummies, ghosts and monsters are upon us! They’re attending parties, dancing in clubs or trick-or-treating down some street. That can only mean, goodness gracious, it’s Halloween! That very thought sends a shiver up my spine. But not from these creatures of the night, for they’re not all that scary. It’s the crass commercialisation and the craving for sugar-laden confectionery that make my palms go sweaty.

These creatures from the West are mostly fictional characters. Dracula is a creation of Bram Stoker, Victor Frankenstein’s monster was stitched together by Mary Shelley, and the Mummy first crept out of its crypt in a science fiction novel. The Evil Nun is a more recent creation, right out of the movie The Conjuring. It is perhaps only the werewolf, also known as lycanthrope, that comes from legend and was later immortalised in the movies.

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But these ghoulish characters, although dark and disturbing, will not send us fleeing under our beds when compared to our home-grown demons. Our creatures are born out of the primordial swamp, the depths of the mosquito-ridden jungle, and from the swirling darkness of the human psyche. And frightful demons they are too.

Hantu Penanggalan
Take for example, the Hantu Penanggalan. The penanggalan ghost should be avoided. She’s a female vampire with long hair flowing down her head, below which floats nothing but her trachea, stomach and entrails. So imagine this detached female head with her guts dangling and dripping blood, floating through your bedroom window. See her mouth opening and her glinting, saliva-dripping fangs lunging for your throat. This is our Penanggalan!

Anyone wandering down some lonesome jungle trail with trees on either side should wonder if a Penanggalan is floating just ahead. You may not be safe even in the city. If you are driving with an empty passenger seat in the dead of night, how terrifying would it be if a gruesome head is hovering behind your seat, her cold breath against your neck. What makes the Penanggalan (also called the Balan-Balan in Sabah) even scarier is that she appears in folklore throughout Southeast Asia.

She’s called Manananggal in the Philippines, Krasue in Thailand, Kasu in Laos and Ahp in Cambodia. In the Indonesian archipelago, she is known as Leyak among the Balinese, Kuyang among the Dayaks and Palasik among the Minangkabau. You may wonder why the legend of this horrifying demon is known so widely. Could it be that such a ghoul exists? Is it is more fact than fiction?

Moving away from Penanggalan, there is another famous vampire called the Pontianak – a name so scary that the wise would hesitate to say its name out loud, for fear that the utterance may summon the creature.

According to lore, a Pontianak is the spirit of a woman who died while she was pregnant. In another version, it is the ghost of a stillborn child. Whatever its origins, if you do come across a hideous red-eyed woman dressed in white in an empty car park or perhaps standing outside your home even as the moon shrinks behind the clouds, run for your life.

That’s because she has a tendency to rip open your stomach with her sharp fingernails and feast on your internal organs. This demon is not to be messed with. She’s famously known to change her appearance, shapeshifting into an animal or a beautiful woman and lure hapless men to their bloody deaths.

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Before the Pontianak makes its hideous appearance though, you may smell a fragrance – something floral. So if a lovely scent suddenly envelops you for no apparent reason, it’s best that you quickly leave as a Pontianak may be on the way.

Like the Penanggalan, the Pontianak is not restricted to our shores. On the Indian continent the vampire is known as the Churel and it lives in trees. In Indonesia, it is known as Kuntilanak and it often takes the form of a bird and particularly enjoys sucking the blood of virgins and young women.

The Pontianak may well be related to the Tiyanak in the Philippines where it appears in the form of a child or newborn baby. So if you hear a child or baby crying out in the jungle or even in your neighbourhood and you go and pick it up, that child may transform into a demon and plunge its fangs into your neck.

Killing a Pontianak is simple. Just find a nail and plunge it deeply into a hole at the back of her neck. She will then transform into a beautiful woman which any man would gladly marry. Such a husband would, however, live in fear that one day the nail may just slip out.

Other than the Penanggalan and Pontianak, we have other demons in our country. There is Langsuir which is formed when a woman dies in childbirth, Hantu Belian which is a tiger spirit, Hantu Raya and the Toyol which is a spirit doll.

We locals are a superstitious lot and have a huge variety of horrifying spirits that the West can’t ever hope to match. But come Halloween time, it’s unlikely that anyone would come dressed up as a Pontianak, Penanggalan or any other Southeast Asian ghoul. It would be just too scary. It may even invite a terrible misfortune. Such folly may conjure up spirits and vampires that could stay in the dark recesses of our imagination.

Our demons don’t do trick-or-treating, they merely watch us in the shadows, eager to dip their fangs into our vulnerable flesh. And as you clown around dressed up as Dracula, the Mummy or Frankenstein, do glance behind occasionally in case something evil this way comes. Take care this Halloween. You have been forewarned!

This is part of a feature that was published in the October 2018 issue of UNRESERVED.

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