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The discipline of ghost classification is still in its infancy, and the spiritual world could certainly use someone like 18th-century Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus, who was to taxonomy what Brigitte Bardot was to the bikini.
One might argue that nature (and the spirit world) is, by definition, chaotic and disorderly. But Linnaeus, who liked to say “God created, Linnaeus organized,” strove for structure and logic.
Linnaeus lamented that there was no common, easy-to-use, universal system of nomenclature for different species, citing the case of the common tomato, which was described as Solanum caule inermi herbaceo, foliis pinnatis incises — the solanum with the smooth stem that is herbaceous and has incised pinnate leaves.
Ghost taxonomy is similarly chaotic and imprecise.
In his book The Malaysian Book of the Undead, Danny Lim catalogues 126 different types of ghosts, vampires, hantus, demons, were-tigers, evil spirits, goblins and other creatures you don’t want to meet on a dark and stormy night.
Malaysia has plenty of faults, but you’ve got to love a nation with enough ghosts to make up more than 10 football teams.
The female ghosts steal the show.
I met Lim at a Kuala Lumpur café. Like a taxonomist, he suggests various classifications.
There are the “class of disease-causing ghosts” like hantu cika, which causes colic, or hantu sawan, which causes convulsions in young children.
He names nature spirits that inhabit snakes, rivers and wind.
He writes about men who turn themselves into were-tigers, were-pigs and were-crocodiles.
There is even a conservation spirit, hantu songkei, that undoes snares “to release trapped animals.”
One ghost that takes up a large space in the Malaysian/Indonesian psyche is orang minyak, “greasy man,” who is a take on the Hunchback of Notre Dame. Orang minyak, who wanders around naked, is covered in oil and preys on beautiful young women.
But it is the female ghosts that steal the show.
The pontianak is the most prominent of a large sisterhood of female ghosts that are descended from women who have died in childbirth or who have been abused by men. If you have the patience, gather together some Malay friends and ask them to name and describe the characteristics of the various angry female ghosts.
There is considerable overlap and confusion. They are beautiful and entice young men to messy demises. They are old hags with pendulous breasts. Or they exhibit both personas, depending on the situation and who’s telling the story.
Here are some of the more well-known forms of female Malay ghosts identified by ghost taxonomists:
- The classic female vampire ghost is called pontianak in Malaysia and kuntilanak or matianak (death of a child) in Indonesia. It is the ghost of a woman who died in childbirth, and sucks blood of virgins and men who have wronged her.
- Sundel bolong is the spirit of a woman who has been raped and abandoned to die. She has a deep hollow in her back. Very angry, and hence a nasty piece of work.
- Langsuir has the ability to fly, like a pontianak; she is sometimes associated with the owl, called “ghost bird” in Malay.
- Hantu tetek, also known as hantu kopek, is a huge old hag with drooping breasts who preys on children, thereby encouraging kids to get home in time for maghrib (dusk prayer) or risk being captured by her and smothered to death. Many cultures have this kind of Big Momma Witch – the cannibalistic forest-dwelling sorceress in Hansel and Gretel come to mind.
- Churel is another female ghost with oversized, sagging breasts, a consistent feature of their kind. And, like other female ghosts, she can also appear as a beautiful young woman who can charm any man. Because young men caused her death during childbirth, the churel drinks their blood, beginning with the man she loved in life. There are numerous ways to get rid of a churel, including burning a ball of thread along with the corpse in the belief that the woman’s spirit will be so preoccupied with unwinding the ball that she won’t bother to haunt anyone. The term churel is also used in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan to describe a pontianak-like spirit.
- Penangallan, which Danny Lim describes as having long flowing hair, penetrating red eyes and a long protruding tongue, feeds on human blood and flesh, with a preference for the taste of a newborn infant. When she goes out on the town she is able to separate her head and organs from the rest of her body; she leaves the rest of her body in a container of vinegar to preserve it until she returns. As Lim says, “A woman smelling of vinegar is not to be trifled with.” This head-and-intestines creature seeks houses where women are about to give birth. The way to prevent her entry is by hanging pineapple or pandan thorns around the house; the sharp points will hook the penangallan’s flailing intestinal tracts and entrap the spirit.
Demons are well-known to live in forests.
Maya Satrini doesn’t look like a woman who could beat up a pontianak.
She’s a thin, neat, serious grandmother who lives in Singkawang, a small town two hours north of Pontianak.
But Maya has steel in her character.
She runs a non-governmental organization that tries to stop the trafficking in women from the region to men in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Malaysia. “Young girls from the villages are promised jobs as maids or think they’re going to get married,” she explains, “but often they wind up as ‘family whores,’ forced to service many men.” They’re promised salaries but they receive nothing after the down payment of a few hundred dollars. Eventually they get HIV and are sent back. “Sometimes I get a call in the middle of the night,” Maya says, “to rescue a girl left in the middle of some rural road.”
Maya believes the origin of the pontianak myth is based on the widespread (and not incorrect) belief that men don’t take responsibility for fatherhood.
The first sultan of Pontianak encountered pontianaks when he wanted to make a settlement in the swampy forest. Similarly, Maya’s house abuts a forest, and she thinks that could be one reason why her son and two grandchildren saw pontianaks in front of the family home; since demons are well-known to live in forests.
“Pontianaks are spirits which haven’t had a chance to settle,” she says, explaining that most people die because their contract with Allah is finished. “But some spirits don’t go back to Allah immediately; they’re waiting for a promise that has yet to be kept.”
‘Like adult women — except I could see through them’
Several pontianaks appeared to Maya a few days before my visit. “It was eight-thirty in the morning,” she recalls. “I was in my bedroom. They looked like normal adult women except I could see through them — they were transparent.”
“One of the ghosts was angry with me,” Maya told me. “She knew you were coming and said I mustn’t talk with you, that you had no business delving into such things.”
Maya said that she told the ghost that they had no such agreement. Maya told the spirit to leave.
And then the pontianak spit at her.
Maya’s face became red and a rash immediately appeared.
And Maya spit back. “The pontianak’s face became red and her eyes looked like they would burst out of her head,” Maya recalled.
The ghosts disappeared. Maya treated her rash, which she described as being “like a bee sting,” with an herbal remedy made of charcoal, garlic, onion and dried chilli. The swelling went away after 15 minutes.
(For the third installment, click here.)
Paul Spencer Sochaczewski is a Geneva-based writer who has lived and worked in more than 80 countries, including long stints in Southeast Asia. He has written 14 books; the latest, Dead but Still Kicking: Encounters with Mediums, Shamans, and Spirits, was published by Explorer’s Eye Press in May 2019. He can be contacted at www.sochaczewski.com.