“Are You Strong Enough to Go Through With This?”
By Paul Spencer Sochaczewski
PONTIANAK, West Kalimantan, Indonesia —
If most Western mediums can be believed, the spirits of ancestors, even if abusive and cruel during their time on Earth, turn into cupcakes of affection and support once they “pass.”
But some spirits can be downright nasty. Ghosts.
We’re fascinated by evil-intentioned ghosts. And writers and filmmakers worldwide have stoked that fascination with campfire tales of scary things that go bump in the night and leave a trail of insanity and blood. These creatures have gruesome chips on their shoulders, and inhabit the dark other-world of nightmares and mayhem.
So it is in Borneo, where the pontianak reigns.
In the Inter-World, in the twilight mist of grey rainbows, hovering between dusk and dawn, joy and sorrow, life and death, dwell the ghosts. Wisps of smoke, certainly, but all too real for those who believe. And the best place in the world to look for ghosts is the western edge of Borneo.
Not just any kind of ghost, but a very specific type of spirit which gives this city its name: Pontianak. The only city in the world named after a female vampire spirit who is eternally angry at men.
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According to legends, and there are many, a pontianak is a misandrist for good reason: She is the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth, alone, abandoned by the child’s father.
She preys on men, indiscriminately. She is pale, dressed in white and horribly ugly, except for those interludes when she chooses to be an alluring seductress. Her hag phase isn’t necessarily permanent; some people say you can make a hideous ghost beautiful by hammering a nail into the hollow on the nape of her neck; the spirit will then become a comely and dutiful wife.
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A note on nomenclature (apologies, this gets a bit confusing).
In the Malay language, used in Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei and parts of Indonesia, the term for this particular spirit is pontianak. In the closely related Indonesian language (the difference between the two languages might be compared to the difference between American English and Australian English) the term is kuntilanak.
Even though the town of Pontianak is in Indonesia, they use the Malay word, pontianak, for their city and use the Indonesian term, kuntilanak, for the ghost. For simplicity I will refer to the ghost as pontianak, regardless of whether it appears in Malaysia or Indonesia.
And the Malay term for a shaman/medicine man/magician/ healer is bomoh, while the Indonesian term is dukun.
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I met the Sultan of Pontianak during a 2014 visit.
I was having dinner with two friends who are related to the royal family.
While we were enjoying grilled prawns and fish soup, one of my friends, a cousin of the sultan, said “You’re asking so many questions about the royal family, do you want to meet the sultan?”
“But it’s already eight-thirty. Isn’t it too late?”
So, we forgot about dessert, walked to the nearby harbor and boarded a comfortable wide-beamed boat that served as a semi-permanent café. Rustammy asked the other patrons if they minded a little river cruise, I forked over a few dollars and the boat untied from the mooring and chugged across the river to the sultan’s kraton (palace) where I would meet Syarif Toto Thaha Alkadrie, the tenth sultan of his line, the successor to a man who was Pontianak’s first ghost-buster.
In 1771, a prince named Syarif Abdul Rahman al-Gadri, burdened with a dodgy reputation among seafarers and hassled by a nasty on-going family feud at home, wanted to have a new start to his life and settle somewhere without being burdened with the baggage of his past.
He sailed along the west Borneo coast and anchored near an empty stretch of land 17 kilometers from the sea where two major rivers meet. It was a strategic place for a settlement, but had been left empty because it was a swampy jungle believed to be a place of bad spirits – the pontianaks.
Local historian Din Osman recounted one of many tales of the founding of Pontianak. He said that for three days and three nights the ghosts mocked the intruders, making an eerie “hee-hee-hee” laughing sound that infuriated Abdul Rahman.
Legend has it Abdul Rahman scared the pontianaks away in the same way he usually fought his earthly enemies, with a large bombardment of cannons. History is not an exact science here, myth and fact are joined at the hip. Some legends say that the spirits fled. Other myths say that the sultan never got rid of all the ghosts and was haunted for the remainder of his life.
Either way, Abdul Rahman became the first Sultan of Pontianak. And the town was given the name it has to this day. Every October, the local tourist office celebrates the event with the Pontianak Ghost Festival.
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The busy town of Pontianak has 600,000 people, a large university, shopping malls, traffic jams and luxury hotels.
But the ghosts remain.
Pontianak probably has more ghosts per capita than any other small city, and virtually everyone I spoke with has a ghost story to tell. It doesn’t take long before I imagine the entire town bursting into song, like an Indonesian Busby Berkeley musical — “ooh-eee … one-eyed, one-horned, flyin’ purple people eater.”
Spirits are everywhere, and I challenge a visitor to find a citizen of the town who doesn’t have a pontianak story.
Ghosts, sprites and demons are rampant. They’re in the banana trees. They’re in the restaurants: “Don’t eat the soup at Auntie Aminah’s, she might put a spell on you.” In cellphone towers, in dreams and, most definitely, in schools.
You might hear: “There is a particularly nasty pontianak that lives in the old house near the cemetery, where my sister-in-law’s ex-boyfriend’s motorcycle mechanic’s grandfather was killed; just before he died he ran gibbering into the yard shouting “I’m not the one who killed your baby, go back to your own world.”
Din Osman’s pontianak-encounter is typical. One evening in 1984, he was on a motorcycle crossing the bridge over the Kapuas river. It is no ordinary bridge. For a start, it spans the swampy site where the first sultan encountered the ghosts. And, on one end of the bridge a small road leads to a riverside cemetery.
Osman was stunned to see a pontianak walking alongside his motorcycle carrying a gravestone. He watched her for a while, and then decided that safety was better than curiosity and he sped away.
That doesn’t mean that everyone believes in the ghosts. Many of the folks I spoke with speculated that the ghosts are spirits of dead women who are stuck between earth and heaven. “So you believe it,” I would prod. “Not really,” they would reply. “I don’t believe in ghosts. But I saw it. I can’t explain it. If it’s not a ghost, then what is it?”
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When an AirAsia flight from Surabaya to Singapore disappeared near Kalimantan in late 2014, Jakarta Governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama referred to the high density of ghosts and mystical phenomena in the area. He joked that djinns (supernatural creatures in Islamic mythology; origin of the English “genie”) might be responsible for the disappearance of the plane. His statement was poorly received.
(To read the second 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.