A still from Pontianak (1957), dir. B. N. Rao. Produced by Cathay-Keris.

A few weeks back, I attended a lecture by Singaporean-Sarawakian artist-academic Adeline Kueh on cinematic imaginaries of the pontianak, the famed succubus of Southeast Asian superstition; the talk was part of the Post-Museum‘s roster of programmes for their recent takeover of the Substation. The ever lovely Ms. Kueh very kindly shared the transcript of her lecture with me, reproduced here.

This paper represents ongoing research. Pls. cite both Kueh and this site if you’re quoting from her text.


The many faces of the monstrous-feminine: Rethinking Monstrosity in Southeast Asian Film

Adeline Kueh

In this paper I will attempt to analyse primarily the conceptual category of ghost stories centering on the construct of the ‘pontianak’ (a female ghost) and her SEA counterparts within the contexts of folklore, fiction and film. The emphasis is more on Malayan context (with Malaya being formerly a geopolitical entity consisting of modern-day Singapore and Malaysia). The question that I would like to ask is not whether these female ghosts and categories reveal or distort the reality of women but whether they “actively construct… and define…”1 the ways in which femininity is conceived. It is my opinion that they do reflect, to some extent, the mimetic reality of a particular period, especially the socio-historical concerns and turmoil even if these examples are of a selected few. Jeffrey Cohen had suggested that the “monster is born only at a metaphoric crossroads, as an embodiment of a certain cultural moment… and the monster’s body literally incorporates fear, desire, anxiety and fantasy…”2 This paper is a work in progress and is part on an ongoing academic research.

A ghost by any name is just as monstrous, or so we are told to believe. The examples I will look at closely are the Pontianak of Malaysia and Singapore; the similar Thai Nang Nak; and the Aswang and Manananggal of the Phillipines. Within Russell Lee’s book, for example, there are varying manifestations of spirits. The most popular is the variation of the Pontianak, a “gendered monster”, to borrow Barbara Creed’s term. The Pontianak is said to appear sometimes in the form of an owl, but its most common form is that of “a beautiful woman who lures men to their doom”.3 According to Allen Jean:

A woman who had died during or after childbirth becomes a pontianak. She is cursed [by] being denied the promise of peace in the kingdom of God (Allah). She is considered unclean, impure as she cannot fulfill her duty as a mother. The curse of immortality descends on her of having to “live” by draining blood from human hosts and not being able to die with the accorded dignity of proper burial rites.4

The Aswang, on the other hand, is “seductive: a vampire who craves blood; terrifying [as] a viscera-sucker who consumes internal organs; confounding [as] a werebeast who transforms into pig, dog, cat and human; horrific [as] a witch who causes illness; disgusting [as] a ghoul who preys on corpses and laps up the phlegm of the sick.”5

Like her Western counterpart, the Pontianak is in constant need of human blood to sustain her. Other versions of the Pontianak also exist: sometimes under a different name, like the Lungsir, or the Pontiklianak in Indonesia and the Manananggal in the Phillipines.

The genre of ghost stories in Singapore and Malaysia are very much rooted within popular culture and the history of oral tradition. Before the onset of written history, storytelling was the primary way of relating messages and social values. Even as the practice of transcribing stories and histories gained momentum as the regional and international trade expanded during the Malacca Sultanate, the tradition of oral history persisted within Malaysian and Singaporean culture(s).

The official storyteller in a traditional Malay village/context is the Penglipurlara (or worry dispeller), usually an old, “wise man spinning after-dinner tales which include myths, daily news or occurrences from neighbouring villages. Stories also circulated by word of mouth by villagers to one another.

Time and again, the film industry of many SEA countries (like Singapore/Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines) would tap into the oral tradition and folk literature using all types of folktales that are rich in moral values, themes and sayings. For example, with the folk romance (cerita penglipurlara), the main theme in these stories is of travel, love and war,6 all of which is situated predominantly in a court setting.  Another crucial aspect contained within these stories is the concept of trust or faith (amanat) that good will always triumph over evil. The warrior will always fight for justice, a broken promise will have negative consequences, and most importantly, the sense of obligation or graciousness (nilai budi) is underscored, particularly between family members.

Within this context then, folktales (both on- and off-screen) are primarily utilized as a didactic and educational tool to impart concepts of morality. This issue of morality, according to Fatimah Mohd. Yassin, is one that is clearly understood within traditional Malay societies. In fact, certain folktales have profound effects on the moral well-being of the society in general due to the internalization of these stories told and heard many times over: they fulfill the role as a type of cultural “law”. More importantly, the stability of the community in question depends largely on the individual co-operation and obligation which ultimately would result in the formation of a unified community.7

After World War II, Malaya experienced an economy that is marked as a period of growth in urban industrial economy and the increasing demand for independence from the British. In the process of negotiating a sense of identity and coherence, distinctions between good and evil are championed, thereby forming shared notions of morality and respectability.8 This process of creating primarily a kind of pan-Malay solidarity through Islam parallels that of the nineteenth century Victorian England and its Christian ideologies in many ways.9 Domestic ideology and the production of clearly demarcated gender rules were central features in this process of a ‘nationalistic’ definition.10 In other words, in the struggle to form a kind of identity or allegiance, Malayan films helped define and regulate female sexuality and other social concerns such as nationalism and religion. Gender became a category within which sexuality can be regulated: with the female being weak, passive and responsive, she is defined through her relationship to the male whose sexual urges were understood to be active, aggressive and spontaneous.

What is important to bear in mind is the fact that the embodiments of the folklore and folk literature are transferred and continued in the process of filmmaking, and remain to influence the present-day film industry. According to Felicidad Lim, ghost stories are very much related to rituals of magic which should not be seen as having just projected onto films, but rather, magic exists alongside films in the popular imagination of the people.11

In terms of the relationship between folklore and social reality, ghost stories and folktales from SEA region draw their popularity from the reader’s (and viewer’s) familiarity with local folklore. Alan Dundes reports that a goodly portion of folklore is fantasy, collective or collectivized fantasy. Furthermore, he adds that “[f]olktales…, like all folklore, have passed the test of time, and are transmitted again and again. Unlike individual dreams, folktales must appeal to the psyches of many, many individuals if they are to survive.”12

At this juncture, the psychoanalytic concepts of projection and projective inversion can be applied to the study of folktales in the construct of Pontianak, and the other ‘fallen women’. According to Dundes, projection “refers to the tendency to attribute to another person or to the environment what is actually within oneself … some internal impulse or feeling which is painful, unacceptable, or taboo.”13 For example, in the many versions of the Pontianak story, the ‘woman’ more often than not, changes from one being seductive to suddenly monstrous. The sight (and sometimes scent) of a ‘beautiful’ woman gives way to the ‘evil within’. Perhaps serving as a warning, I would suggest that it is indicative of a certain tradition that dominates within Malayan folklore which constructs negative connotations around female sexuality. Women who overtly exudes their sexuality (read: power) cannot be considered ‘good’.14

Furthermore, much of the meaning of folkloric fantasy is unconscious, particularly in a Freudian sense, that “[a]mong its functions, folklore provides a socially sanctioned outlet for the expression of what cannot be articulated in the more usual, direct way.”15 Folktales thus represent the site within which the anxieties of the Malayan culture can be vented. Within the narrative of the ghost story, the pontianak becomes the embodiment of female ‘difference’ and that which is despised or repressed within the culture.

At this point, I would like to present two interpretations. The first one is by working with Kristeva’s theory of abjection; and the second point which I will expound later, is by thinking through abjection into other possibilities in a more Southeast Asian context. As a “source of horror”, abjection works within patriarchal societies… as a means of separating the human from the non-human and the fully constituted subject from the partially formed subject.”16 Thus since a bona fide mother (that is to continue nurturing her newborn baby), the woman (as a “partially formed subject”) is designated as the abject other/object. Ghost stories thus become the ritual which in turn “becomes a means by which societies both renew their initial contact with the abject element and then exclude that element.”17 Here, abjection corresponds to attempts which clearly outline borders: a line must be drawn between the inside and the outside, between the clean, and the proper self and the abject other.18

An example from Nang Nak here suggests that although Nak does not disturb or kill anyone until the villagers try to separate her from her family, the villagers nonetheless remind Nak that ghosts should not mix with humans.

Furthermore, the control of language in folklore by the (modern day or traditional) penglipurlara ties in with Foucault’s argument that what is ‘true’ depends on who controls discourse.19 The power of language, or rather, the power through language is exerted directly or indirectly in civil and domestic life, to curb and constraints individuals. The distinctive features or culture of the majority is thus transmitted within this genre of popular horror fiction. In some Aswang series by Peque Galaga and Lore Reyes, the ways in which language (both visual and verbal) frames the situations are worth mentioning: presented from a Bourgeois point of view, the binarisms between good and evil, urban and provincial, religious and ‘ritualistic’ seem to be partial towards the point of view of the ruling majority.

These stories represent women (and sometimes other underclass) as a threat and the threat/s perceived within folklore may be traced to the influx of particular religions into our region. The result was a conflict between folklore or traditional beliefs, and religion. Folklore amongst the earlier indigenous Malay people involved animalistic or pagan beliefs and had closer matrilineal ties and traditions (such as the Minangkabaus and the Melanaus). Like the Matianak myth, in all the examples, these traditions were gradually suppressed by the spread of Islam, Christianity and Buddhism and their respective (patriarchal) traditions in the examples I am referring to.20

Incidentally, in a patriarchal system, sexual aggression (if sanctioned) is within the exclusive realm of the males: men, not women, are to initiate any interpersonal relationship. However, within a story such as that of the Pontianak, the designated aggressor is the fallen woman. She almost always, either warmly smiles at the male victim, or she propositions him to visit her again.


A poster for B. N. Rao’s Pontianak (1957), in Chinese. Image from the blog of the National Archives.

Through the psychoanalytic use of “projective inversion”, the men in a sexually repressive society have metamorphosed their own fears of the stereotyped (sexual) woman into a form “where the victim becomes the aggressor.”21 With the avoidance of guilt, the wish to seduce young women is projected onto the female ghosts who are depicted as seducing the men. Since folktales are about wishful thinking and wish fulfillment, it is therefore possible to blame the Pontianak for the crimes the males may want to commit. Daniel O’Keefe talks about the “orientation of blame” in witch-hunts and how it reveals much about the social structures and inequalities. These accusations are often acts of power and violence over those who are socially and/or economically impoverished.22

Here, I would like to engage with Kristeva’s notion of the abject other again. While I have presented her notion of the abject (m)other earlier, there is a possibility that her concept of the abject is more relevant and coded within a Judeo-Christian tradition. I am proposing that perhaps due to a mélange of cultures and traditions in this region, the concept of motherhood or the maternal within a Southeast Asian context is more incorporated into the Symbolic order than in Kristeva’s discursive context. The difference here is that the (body of the) mother prefigures much more predominantly within Southeast Asian contexts than that within Western tradition (e.g. the Virgin Mother). Note that the traditional stories of the pontianak are about the mother/pontianak’s primary concern for her baby or loved ones. While the Filipino ghosts are somewhat different, Nang Nak foregrounds the story of Nak’s love for her family; Pontianak sacrifices her human status to protect her daughter; and in Return to Pontianak, the pontianak’s relationship to her daughter is exemplified by her ‘calling’ to the daughter to help her finally ‘rest in peace’.

Even her relationship to the birthing process is one that is more embodied. And yes, while the ways in which she is represented as a fully embodied mother are still problematic, I would still argue that the maternal within the regional Southeast Asian context for most part is perhaps not necessarily as negative as Kristeva’s logic of the (repressed) abject.

This leads us to the question of why this genre is so popular. In popular culture, pleasure is constructed primarily through sexual difference. While there are stories which tell of women spotting the Pontianak, the target audience still is presumably male. At the very least, the female reader are masculinized in the sense that they are presented stories from a male point of view, carrying the age-old tradition of the worry-dispeller.

In these stories, there are elements of sexual attraction, expected gender roles, supporting the social structures of particular societies. Often times, like in films of particular societies (like in Bollywood), the ideologies expounded within popular culture suggest a reaction to the various social movements or even social realities of contemporary women.23 Sexual symbolism and innuendos also permeate the ghost stories, further exemplifying heterosexual relationships. The tension and impact of these stories are more ‘potent’ when it is between the female ghost and her often times chauvinistic, unsuspecting but virile (of course) male who presupposes a romantic liaison. Cultural stereotypes of femininity, often hinging on vanity are played out through the focus on the ‘beauty’ and ‘sensuality’ of the ghosts.

Interestingly, one of the questions that arise is how this image of the fallen woman was perpetuated and carried on as historical baggage into our contemporary society. By designating the fallen woman as a victim, rather than a social threat, promiscuity (like prostitution) as a threat that will destroy the family, the state and the nation is deflected. The use of sympathy/pity was applied so that the fear propagated towards the hegemonic social order may be diffused, and the image of the wretched outcast was formed.24

Having delineated the definitions and examples of the fallen women, at this stage, I would like to suggest that rather than seeing projection in folklore as a mechanical or reductionist technique, the agency of the reader or viewer should also be considered. An individual who tells or hears a tale cannot help but project his or her own personality into that tale.25

Another subversive aspect of these stories is that women are temporarily allowed to be the ‘aggressors’, behaving unconventionally within a sanctioned space. When a woman is out late at night by herself, the stereotype invoked is that she is either immoral or is a ghost. She cannot therefore be a ‘real’ woman. Yet, while the women and stories are set within traditional (or even modern day) contexts with their monstrosity overemphasized, some of these portrayals are still ground- and myth-breaking within the culture. Take the examples of young women asking for a lift from strangers, or of such woman making the ‘first move’ in an interpersonal relationship by propositioning the man to visit her again.

As these narratives often reflect the ideology of womanhood that still calls for and underlines ‘purity’, such an overt invitation to a man is transgressive both within and without the text.  This act also signifies a form of assertiveness on the part of the woman. Here, (hetero) sexual desire of a woman is overt and stressed: the ‘woman’ acknowledges her desire and ‘confronts’ the man, This process can be seen in terms of John Fiske’s “enunciation” process, of appropriating “the language system by the speaker in a concrete realization of that part of its potential that suits him or her.”26

The celebratory empowerment can also manifest in the ‘liberating’ strategies and readings within the collection of fallen women stories. One of the strategies is to subvert the conventional formula which sets up the expectation. The Taxi Driver story represents a space within which the ‘routine of a story is overturned’.27

In some of these texts, considering the conditioned expectation within the reader/viewer of a ghost story, there exists an awareness or knowledge that the male will be punished by the female (ghost or otherwise) for his advances. Their machismo/chauvinistic approach towards ’young ladies’ is interestingly exposed to be very naïve and finally even detrimental to the men’s health, since they usually succumb to the female ‘seductress’. Herein lies and aspect of the “subversive pleasure of the female spectator/reader.”28 I am therefore suggesting that pleasure comes from seeing the woman exact revenge and in seeing the supposedly I-know-best male being tricked. This aspect may seem to be the main element which allows for a site of fantasy for the female reader or viewer, and thereby resulting in the continuation of the fallen women myths within a society (at least for some of the female spectators).

When we consider the various representations in these films, we can observe some conspicuous assertions at work: the sexual division of the private and public domain is made obvious within these texts. The good wives and mothers are situated within the private domain, whereas the men can freely roam the streets with invisibility and ease, echoing the construct of the ‘transcendental’ Bourgeois male within the public domain. Again, the women who transgress these boundaries are deemed of low virtue.

According to Stallybrass and White, despite the gradations along the continuum of hierarchy, systems of extremes (high and low cultures) are favoured in framing all discursive elaborations.29 In terms of such systems of extremes, these popular fiction, to a large extent, deal with the construction of gender in terms of the appropriateness of male/female behavior.

While folklore has preset rules, filmmakers can redefine them. Yet, in most portrayals of women in the examples used, these gendered identities are retained. In the process of delineating the didactics of good and bad, the women characters in the examples I have shown are reduced to pitiful objects, While some of the strategies of interventions may seem powerful, Pontianak and her sisters are still contained within a gendered discourse.


  1. Lynda Nead, Myths of Sexuality: Representations of Women in Victorian Britain. United Kingdom: Basil Blackwell Ltd, 1988, p. 97.
  2. Jeffrey Cohen, “Monster Culture (Seven Theses)” in Monster Theory: Reading Culture, Cohen, J. (ed.), Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press, 1996, p.4.
  3. Cheo Kim Ban & Muriel Speeden, Baba Folk Beliefs and Superstitions (Singapore: Landmark Books, 1988), p. 18.
  4. Allen Jean, A Collection of ‘True’ Malayan Ghost Stories (Singapore: Butterfly Publications, 1994), p. 3 [my italics]. There is much confusion about the differing kinds of female ghosts, particularly the constructs of the pontianak and langsuyar (both banshee-like flying demons).
  5. Felicidad Lim, “The Politics of Horror: The Aswang in Film” in Asian Cinema, Fall 1997, p.81.
  6. Ismail Hamid, Sastera Rakyat – Suatu Warisan (Folklore – A Heritage). Petaling Jaya: Penerbit Fajar Bakti Sdn. Bhd., 1987, p.69.
  7. Fatimah Mohd. Yassin, “Cerita Rakyat sebagai Alat Pendidikan: Satu Analisi Isi yang bercorak Etika (Folktale as an Educational Tool: A Content Analysis And Ethics)” in Mohd. Taib Osman (ed.), Pengkajian Sastera Rakyat Bercorak Cerita (A Study of Narrative Folklore). Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa & Pustaka. 1991, p. 157.
  8. What I am arguing is that there were attempts at securing an identity that is based on a critique of the nobility, as well as of the lower classes. In these scenarios, the royal court traditions and folktales presented the ‘cultural producers’ with sites within which the contradicting noble virtues and decadence of the royalty are exposed. Similarly, the lower classes, with their humility are championed while their nafsu/greed is shunned.
  9. The secondary concern then is to create a shared allegiance with all other races, in the face of the colonial rulers. In most cases, this issue was a by-product.
  10. Nead, op. cit., p.5.
  11. See Lim, op. cit., p.84.
  12. Alan Dundes, Interpreting Folklore. Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1980, p. 34.
  13. Ibid., p. 37.
  14. Negri Sembilan, one of the states within the Malay Peninsula, has a strong matrilineal culture (Adat Perpatih), whereas the majority of the states in Malaya followed the Adat Temenggong (patriarchal in essense). See Vreeland, Nena, Glenn Dana, Geoffrey Hurwitz, Peter Just, Phillip Moleller, and & R. Shin, eds. Area Handbook for Malaysia, 3rd ed. Washington, D.C.: US Government Printing Office, 1977.
  15. Dundes, op.cit., p.36.
  16. Barbara Creed, “Horror and the Monstrous-Feminine: An Imaginary Abjection” in Screen, vol.27, no.1 (1986), p. 44.
  17. Ibid.
  18. See Kelly Oliver on Julia Kristeva.
  19. Rama Selden, Practicing Theory and Reading Literature: An Introduction (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1989), p.136.
  20. Anthroplogist Hud Salleh suggests that the pontianak is actually a demonised spirit of the Semalai, an indigenous tribe in West Malaysia, the Matianak. The Matianak is a benevolent spirit of a woman who died giving birth and is a guide to many dwellers of the forest. Hud Salleh, in Asian Enigma, Discovery (US), 2001, and in phone interview, November 2002.
  21. Dundes, op.cit., p.54.
  22. See Daniel O’Keefe, Stolen Lightning: The Social Theory of Magic. New York: Continuum, 1982. Also, Lim, op.cit..
  23. Wimal Dissanayake (ed.), Cinema and Cultural Identity: Reflections on Films from Japan, India and China. New York: University Press of America, 1988.
  24. Nead, op.cit., p.139.
  25. Dundes, op.cit., p.59.
  26. John Fiske, J. Understanding Popular Culture.Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1989, p.37.
  27. “She has disappeared. Frightened, he does not dare to stop because he is near a cemetery. Then when the cemetery is behind him, he glances at the mirror again and she is there! … ‘By the power of the gods, I want to know, who are you? Why do you play with me?’… The woman looked thoughtfully for a moment, then burst into laughter… ‘I am no ghost,’ said the woman, still giggling. ‘I am sorry I scared you, but when we were passing by that cemetery, I just bent down to pick something I had dropped…” (Lee, op.cit., p.67).
  28. Meagan Morris, “Banality in Cultural Studies” in Logics of Television, Patricia Mellencamp, ed. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990, p.21.
  29. Peter Stallybrass & Allon White, The Politics and Poetics of Transgression (New York: Cornell University Press, 1986), p.3.


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