Pontianak: Vengeance Strikes as a Vampiric Spirit

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By: Alex Postrado

Malay Folklore’s Tortured Specter Of Maternity

Mistreated and victimized — women have been the perpetual subject of cautionary tales all over the world.

Constantly put through terrifying situations — often by the male populace — some women in these stories are being forced to become vindictive in order to get themselves to safety.

You can find one such symbol of vengeance in Southeast Asian lore.

In a bloodthirsty specter, appearing as a pregnant woman that typically targets men.

Embodying the horrors of pregnancy and childbirth — meet the ultimate female terror of Malaysian folklore, the Pontianak.

pontianak ghost image

What is the Pontianak?

Tales of the vampiric spirit were first told in — at least — the 17th century.

Commonly known to inhabit the Kalimantan Region of Malaysia, the Pontianak shares a name with a city in the West Kalimantan province.

It also goes by the name Kuntilanak in Indonesia, as well as Churel in Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan.

Pontianak was said to once be human. But she died tragically due to abuse and torment from the hands of a man during pregnancy — or sometimes even childbirth.

A woman that suffers such fate is then transformed into the terrifying Pontianak.

Appearing as a phantom of maternity, the creature represents the harrowing ordeals experienced by many women — on top of the struggles of pregnancy.

Often depicted as a pregnant woman unable to give birth to her baby, the Pontianak will stop at nothing to exact her vengeance.

Though commonly regarded as having a fearsome, monstrous appearance, she is also noted to have a separate, more attractive form: That of a delicate, young woman with long, black hair and sharp fingernails — donning a white dress.

According to the lore, the Pontianak puts this form to use whenever she seduces and lures unwitting men she would later prey on.

Be it seducing men with her supernaturally attractive features or actively attacking them in her nightmarish form — it appears like there is not much holding the Pontianak back from spreading terror and going on her killing sprees every time the sun goes down.

One entity sharing similarities with the Pontianak is the Langsuir or lang suir — an undead woman commonly attributed with vampiric traits.

But, as for the Pontianak, during the day, her spirit is said to reside inside banana trees.

artistic take on a pontianak

When the Pontianak Attacks

As opposed to creatures of the night who attack in a surreptitious manner — the Pontianak is said to announce its presence in a few ways.

The tale goes that if you can hear feminine laughter and cries of infants at night, then prepare to see a Pontianak.

Similar to the bird calls of the Tiktik — another Southeast Asian creature of fright — if these sounds are loud, then you still have a shot at safety.

Though definitely approaching, the Pontianak is still in the distance and you still have some time to run.

Some accounts also say that dogs’ howling can indicate that there is a Pontianak from afar.

But as the sounds of cries and laughter grow fainter and as the howling turns into whimpers — then you can be sure that the menacing Pontianak is near!

Even if you somehow miss the chilling sounds made by the Pontianak, you could probably notice her presence when you catch the fragrant scent of the Frangipani flower.

However, after the fruity smell dies down, expect the smell of rotting flesh like that of a dead body.

Making use of her more attractive and extraordinarily feminine visage, the Pontianak looks for unsuspecting men — or other helpless people — to seduce.

Once within her grasp, the horrifying creature goes in for the kill.

And as if not already terrifying in appearance, the Pontianak’s manner of taking the lives of her victims is undoubtedly even more horrid.

True to how tales depict them to be vampiric in nature, the Pontianak sucks the blood dry from the person’s body.

The vengeful creature also revels in cutting through the flesh of the unfortunate victim with the use of her long, sharp fingernails — eventually digging them into the stomach and physically plucking out the insides, organ by organ, then eating away to her wicked satisfaction.

Another cruel feat that the Pontianak seemingly takes pleasure in is sucking out the eyes of any unsuspecting person who made the mistake of having their eyes open in the presence of the creature. Quite grim, if you’d ask me!

And because the stories of the Pontianak tell of them, being enticed to the smell of fresh laundry — locals are sure not to leave any newly washed clothes outside by nightfall.

A desperate yet vital attempt to keep the vampiric monster at bay.

Vengeance comes.

Subduing the Pontianak

Seemingly invincible due to her menacing and carnivorous nature — the Pontianak actually has one weakness: A hole at the back of her neck, which is said to be covered by her long, dark hair.

And as the tale goes, driving a nail into the hole at the Pontianak’s nape will turn her into an attractive, submissive, and good-natured wife.

However, since the creature possesses supernatural strength, subduing the Pontianak would not be an easy feat.

If done successfully, though, the once-feared creature will turn into the “ideal” wife and mother figure.

From suffering male-inflicted torment to dying and turning into the Pontianak — the creature is once again subjected to a man’s bidding — this time by being forced to submit to him as a wife.

In order to be freed from this form, the nail driven into the Pontianak’s nape has to be removed — not by herself but — by another.

Once the nail is removed, the Pontianak can return to her previous ghostly form — again setting out to fulfill her vow of retribution.

And with this, the cruel order of abuse, death, vengeance, and — once again — abuse woefully comes full circle.

The Symbolism in the Pontianak Lore

If you’ve been intently reading and following the story of the Pontianak — then, it’s safe to assume that you’ve already noticed the hints of misogyny and patriarchal control playing into the narrative.

Forced to become a monstrous creature by suffering mistreatment, the Pontianak is, nowadays, slowly becoming a figure of feminism — challenging the pre-conceived, and often unjust, societal standards dictated at women.

Even breaking down the behavior of the Pontianak will already lead us to understand how the once-feared creature is actually an unmistakable icon of justice for womankind.

One of the main points of the tale revolves in her act of revenge on her aggressor — something that is, unfortunately, uncommon in real-life stories of women-directed abuse.

Also mentioned in the lore is the pregnant creature’s inability to give birth — a real-world horror in some cultures — so, the Pontianak instead — quite literally — kills the system that seems to only value women for their ability to reproduce.

To add to that, the inability of the Pontianak to remove the nail subduing her by herself is clearly a nod to women who are not given the chance to decide for themselves — more so, save themselves in desperate situations without the help of anyone else.

With all that, hearing the tale — albeit debated to be fictional — where a female entity challenges the social expectations on women and ultimately gets her revenge understandably sparks both hope and — simultaneously — unease.

Who would have thought that one of the most popular creatures of violence would help pave the way to realizing that the true horrors oftentimes lie in reality?


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