We know that vampires and ghosts don’t exist. Or maybe they do? Better to know what to expect from a pontianak spirit — before they eat your organs.
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Wherever there are ghosts there are surely ghostbusters.
A dukun has to know not only how to call a spirit, but how to get rid of one.
My friend Amalia is a Singaporean spirit guide who makes a decent living flying around the world cleansing homes and businesses of bad spirits. I never quite know how serious she is when she tells me about her achievements. You would recognize the names of some of her Beverly Hills-type clients.
At the village level, shamans “cleanse” the victim. The concept of cleansing has a special place in Indonesia’s Islamic community, and Muslim prayers are often invoked to rid the individual of malevolent spirits.
But is there a deeper intention?
The term “catharsis” derives from the Greek word for purging or cleansing. One controversial etymology of the word, suggested by Bruce Chatwin, derives from the Greek katheiro, to rid the land of monsters.
Isn’t that what a shaman does? He or she helps us banish the demons within. We all tango with our demons, weaving, posturing, conquering and submitting, seducing and sometimes conquering. Demons are our dark sides, our uncontrollable desires, our regrets over actions taken, or not.
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Vampire movies sink their teeth into theaters in most countries. A quick check of the IMDb database gives some 200 results with “vampire” in the title, including Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter, Vampire Hookers, I Bought a Vampire Motorcycle and A Polish Vampire in Burbank.
Pontianak– and kuntilanak-themed films have been box-office favorites in Malaysia and Indonesia since 1958 when the Malaysian film Anak Pontianak (Child Pontianak) was released, followed three years later by the Indonesian film Kuntilanak. A spate of female vampire ghost films ensued, followed by a three-decade hiatus. The industry picked up again in the 2000s.
Lakshmana Krishnan, one of the pioneers of the Malaysian film industry, is now in his nineties and living in Thailand. His films include some of the classic Malaysian ghost films, such as the 1958 Serangan Orang Minyak (Attack of the Orang Minyak).
“No, I don’t believe in ghosts, but the people who go to the cinema do,” he explained over lunch at a Bangkok café. “There were times when the film was shown in a cinema and the film burned because the projectionist hadn’t said the proper prayers.”
Shankar Punjabi is another leading horror film director who doesn’t believe in ghosts. “No, I’ve never seen a ghost and I never got possessed. If you believe in ghosts you will see them. It’s the power of suggestion, as if I ask you, ‘Do you feel the wind on your arms?’ People go into self-induced trances. Imagination works best in a dark room. If you believe, you will feel; if you feel, you will see.”
Over coffee in a Jakarta restaurant, Indonesia-based Shankar added: “But I’ve had actors who got possessed, and we always have an ustād [Islamic spiritual teacher] on call during the shoot to treat the crew and actors who get haunted.”
Prem Pasha, a Malaysian filmmaker (who is Lakshmana Krishnan’s son), recalled that when he was about seven, he visited the set of one of his father’s films, being shot at night at an old English bungalow in Kuala Lumpur. “I remember that Nordin Ahmad, the star who played the orang minyak, approached the camera. I looked up and saw a ‘real’ orang minyak watching the proceedings from the balcony where Nordin had just come from.”
Teenage boys like to tempt fate, and when Prem Pasha was 16, he and two friends went to a cemetery to spend the night. He recalls they were approached by a woman who glowed like she was covered in diamonds. Prem went into a coma for two days, and when he awoke he was suffering a high fever and his frantic grandmother was rubbing Indian holy ash on his forehead.
I asked if they had called a bomoh. “No, 99.9% of bomohs are fakes,” he said. “But what about spirits and ghosts?” I asked. “Ah. They’re real.”
Are the pontianak films sexist? Singaporean Glen Goei, who co-authored and directed the 2015 film Pontianak, thinks they represent the 1950s Malaysian society when men were men and women were women.
He didn’t say so, and I’m not suggesting he thinks this, but the extension of this idea is that in rural Malay societies women are closer to the spiritual world than men; they have special, sometimes nasty, powers and are fickle about whom they choose to befriend and whom they elect to curse.
Perhaps this is male resentment (or acknowledgement) that Malay women, like women throughout most of Asia, bear the brunt of the domestic labor, take a large chunk of familial responsibility, and are generally the stronger and more reliable of the two genders.
Danny Lim, the ghost cataloguer, agrees that ghost stories and films reflect rural, village life. “You don’t have many urban ghosts,” he says, although some modern ghost films feature sophisticated urban men (usually spoiled playboys and businessmen) encountering traditional spirits.
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I wanted to speak with an actress who played a vampire ghost. I was introduced to Indonesian actress Julia Perez by a mutual friend, a leading Indonesian film producer. I was in Jakarta, and she was in a Singapore hospital. I was surprised she bothered to exchange SMS messages with me to set up a phone interview; the day before our talk she had undergone an operation for cervical cancer.
Known by her nickname Jupe (pronounced Joo-Pay), her career rose due largely to her energetic portrayal of a range of sexy and nasty ghosts. She has starred in some of the most famous Indonesian kuntilanak films such as Jeritan Kuntilanak (Scream of the Kuntilanak), Kuntilanak Kesurupan (Trance of the Kuntilanak), Kuntilanak Kamar Mayat (The Mortuary Ghost), and Beranak Dalam Kubur (Birth in the Graveyard).
“Acting in a horror movie is not difficult,” Jupe said. “They’re the same as any action movie.”
But has she seen ghosts while making her films?
“Not clearly, not in front of my face, but I’ve seen strange shadows. My grandmother told me they exist.”
I didn’t know how hard to push a woman who had just had major surgery, but asked whether she believed in these spirits.
“I believe fifty percent. There are mystical things we have to respect. But the other fifty percent is just human behavior.” It was a similar answer to the question I had been posing so frequently — maybe, who knows, I’m not sure, I saw something I can’t explain, better not examine it too closely.
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Why do ghost stories linger in so many countries?
Some people feel the pontianak is an enforcer of morality, a creation of Malay wives who wanted to discourage their husbands from engaging in casual sex with women they might meet on the road at night. Be faithful, the man is told, and he won’t have any supernatural complications.
Dimas Jayasrana is an Indonesian film producer who thinks that an encounter with a ghost is like meeting a superstar. “Seeing an old lady in a white dress who is dripping blood and laughing like a crazed little girl is the village equivalent of running into George Clooney,” he explained. “After an encounter with this ghost you’ve got a great story you can tell for the rest of your life.” And, Jayasrana adds, “ghosts are useful for disciplining kids.”
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How can you recognize a pontianak? And, more importantly, what can you do when you are confronted by one?
My Indonesian friends offer this advice: A pontianak’s presence can sometimes be detected by an initial sweet floral fragrance of the frangipani (considered an unlucky cemetery flower by people in the region), followed by an awful stench afterward.
A pontianak kills its victims by digging into their stomachs with its sharp fingernails and devouring their organs. In some cases where the pontianak desires revenge against a man, it rips out his sex organs with its hands. It is said that if you have your eyes open when a pontianak is nearby it will suck them out of your head.
Pontianaks locate prey by sniffing clothes left outside to dry. For this reason, some people refuse to leave any article of clothing outside of their residences overnight.
And most insidious, the pontianak announces its presence through baby cries. If the cry is loud then the ghost must be far away. If the baby’s cry is soft, then she is close, ready to punish a man. It doesn’t really matter to the pontianak whether the man she has targeted is good or evil; all men are same-same, which is to say all men, according to her definition, deserve to die.
(To read the next 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.