Malaysia, Vampires in

Malaysia, Vampires in

(pop culture)

Western observers who began to look at the magical/religious world of Malaysians in the nineteenth century discovered belief in several vampire-like beings, somewhat analogous to the lamiai of the mythology of Greece. These beliefs have survived to this day in spite of the overlay of Hindu and Islamic thought that has come to dominate the religious life of the peninsula. Vampires still inhabit the very lively world of the average Malaysian.

The Vampire in Malaysian Folklore: There are two beings closely related to the Greek lamiai: the langsuyar and the pontianak. The former was described as a bansheelike flying demon. The original langsuyar was a woman of extreme beauty who bore a stillborn baby. When told of the condition of the child, she recoiled from the shock. Suddenly, she clapped her hands and flew away into a nearby tree. She was seen from time to time and identified by her green robe, her long fingernails (considered a mark of beauty in Malaysian society), and her ankle-length black hair. The hair concealed an opening in her neck through which she sucked the blood of children. The first langsuyar then gave way to groups of similar beings. Later langsuyars were flesh eaters with a particular fondness for fish (a staple of the Malaysian diet).

If a woman died either in childbirth or in the 40 days immediately following (during which time she was considered unclean), it was believed she might become a langsuyar. To prevent that from occurring, her family placed glass beads in her mouth (which stopped any banshee-like shrieks). To prevent her from flying, they would place eggs under her arms and a needle in the palm of each hand. However, it was also possible to tame a langsuyar by capturing it, cutting off its hair and nails, and stuffing them into the hole in the neck. In that case, the langsuyar became domesticated and could live in human society somewhat normally. Reports have been collected claiming that such langsuyars came into villages, married, and bore children.

However, their new life ended usually at a village party when they began to dance. Suddenly, they would revert to their more spirit-like form and fly off to the jungle, leaving husband and child behind.

The origin of the pontianak was directly linked to that of the langsuyar—it was the creature’s stillborn child. It was believed to take the form of a night owl. To prevent a deceased baby from becoming a pontianak, it was treated somewhat like its mother, with beads, eggs, and needles. As with the langsuyar, there were specific words to be spoken when “laying” a possible pontianak. Walter William Skeat, the main authority on Malaysian mythology, noted some confusion between the langsuyar and the pontianak. Both could appear as a night owl, both were addressed in invocations as if they were the same, and both mother and child were treated alike to prevent them from becoming a vampire after their death. This confusion has been somewhat cleared up by noting that in parts of Malaysia and throughout much of Indonesia, in places such as Java, what Skeat described as the langsuyar, the female vampire, was called a pontianak. The penanggalan was a third vampire-like creature in Malaysian folklore. According to tradition, it originated with a woman in the midst of performing dudok bertapa, a penance ceremony. She was sitting in a large wooden vat used for holding the vinegar derived from the sap of the palm tree.

In the midst of her ceremony, a man found her and asked her what she was doing. Startled, she moved to leave, and did so with such force that her head separated from her body, and with the entrails of her stomach trailing behind, she flew off into a nearby tree. That severed head with the dangling stomach attached below it became an evil spirit. It appears on the rooftops of the homes where children are being born. It whines a high-pitched sound and tries to get to the child to suck its blood.

Writing in the early 1800s, P. J. Begbie described the penanggalan as an evil spirit that possessed a woman and turned her into a sorcerer. When it wished to travel, it would detach its head and, with its entrails trailing behind, fly off in pursuit of food in the form of the blood of both the living and dead. He also told the story of a man with two wives, one of dark and one of light skin. He was told that they were both penanggalans. The man did not believe it, so to test them he watched one night and saw them leave to feed. He then switched their bodies. When they returned, they attached their heads to the wrong body. When the king was presented with this irrefutable proof of their evil nature, both were executed.

An alternate version of the story stated that the penanggalan originated from a woman who had been using magic arts and finally learned how to fly. At that time her head and neck were separated from her body, and with her intestines dangling, she took up her abode in a tree. From there she flew from house to house to suck the blood of not only babies but also mothers giving birth. To protect the birthing site, the leaves of the jeruju (a kind of thistle) were hung around the house and thorns stuck in any blood that was spilled. As might be expected, blood and other juices dripped from the dangling intestines, and should such drippings fall on anyone, they would immediately fall ill.

Two other blood-drinking entities, the polong and the pelesit, were closely related in Malaysian lore. The former appeared in the form of a very small female creature (about one inch in height) and the latter as a house cricket. The polong operated somewhat like a witch’s familiar in traditional Western mythology. It could be attracted by gathering the blood of a murder victim in a bottle over which a seven-day (some say 14-day) ritual was performed. Then one waited for the sound of young birds chirping, a sign that the polong had taken up residence in the bottle. The polong was fed by cutting a finger, inserting it in the bottle, and allowing the polong to suck the blood. (In the West, the witch’s familiar was said to suckle from a hidden protuberance on the witch’s body—a witch’s teat). In return for a daily supply of blood, the polong was available to do a variety of tasks, including attacking one’s enemies. If one was attacked by a polong, which was signaled by various kinds of wild ravings, wise men were called in to exorcise it and to attempt to discover who sent it to torment the victim. Deaths were occasionally attributed to the attack of a polong who remained unexorcised.

The pelesit generally accompanied the polong in its travels and arrived before it. If the polong was sent to attack someone, the pelesit would first attempt to enter the body of the victim and, in a sense, prepare the way for the polong. Walter William Skeat reported a rather gruesome method of creating a pelesit. The potential owner dug up a recently deceased infant. The infant’s corpse was carried to an ant hill. After a while the child would cry out and at that moment its tongue would have to be bitten off. The tongue was then dipped in specially prepared coconut oil and buried for three nights.

After the third night the tongue turned into a pelesit. The Chewong were among the many peoples in the very diverse population of Malaysia. They possessed their own mythology, which included the existence of many spirits collectively called the bas. There were various kinds of bas, some of which will attack humans under certain circumstances. The usual food of the bas was a ruwai, roughly translated as soul or life or vitality. Their preferred prey was the wild pig, and the bas set invisible traps to snare the pig’s ruwai. Sometimes a human ruwai was caught in the trap, and in such a case the bas would eat the human spirit/soul. The bas might also encounter a human ruwai when it was traveling about during a person’s dreams. Bas usually did not attack humans or approach human places of habitation. They knew fire as a sign of human presence, and a person in the woods who encountered a bas could build a fire and the bas would depart.

On rare occasions, bas were thought to attack humans. They attacked in different ways, although most sought only the ruwai. For example, the eng banka, the ghost of a dead dog that inhabited swamp areas, would steal a ruwai. If it was not recovered, the victim died within a few days; someone who suddenly became ill and died a few days later was seen as the victim of an eng banka. The maneden, which lived in the wild pandanus plant, differed quite a bit from the eng banka. It attacked humans who cut the plant in which it resided by biting them and sucking their blood. It attached itself to the elbow of men or the breast nipples of women. To stop the attack the person had to give the bas a substitute, such as the oily nut from the hodj nut tree. Thus, the attack of the eng banka was a variety of psychic vampirism and that of the maneden a more literal vampiric attack.

The Modern Malaysian Vampire: It was not until after World War II that the film industry (always under strict British control) began to develop. Shaw Brothers, a firm based in Hong Kong, established Malay Film Productions in 1947. It was soon joined by Catay-Keris Productions. In their drive to compete with Western films, which dominated the market, the Malaysians sought particularly Malaysian themes and locales for their films. The Malaysian vampire thus entered the film world, one of the first such films being Pontianak in 1956. In this film, Maria Menado played a hunchbacked young woman made beautiful by magic. After her husband was bitten by a snake and she sucked his blood to get the poison out, she was turned into a vampire, the pontianak. The vampire movies drew on the broad use of the term pontianak throughout Indonesia and always pictured the vampire as a young and beautiful woman. The stories told in the movies were made plausible to viewers by the numerous reports from Malaysians who claimed to actually know a vampire who was living a more or less normal life as a wife and mother. During the late 1950s and 1960s, Catay-Keris eventually produced a series of six movies featuring a pontianak. The original Catay-Keris film has been lost and no known copies exist, but several of the others such as Pontianak Gua Musang (1964) and a later movie also called simply Pontianak (1975) have been released in the video CD format still popular in southeast Asia. After the Shaw Brothers closed their Malaysian operation in the 1960s, few horror movies were made in Malaysia. The film industry largely disappeared in the mid 1970s.

When Malaysian films began to be made again in the 1990s, a series of restrictions had been placed on the books, primarily to guide Muslim censors in reviewing Hollywood movies. Among the characters banned from the screen were vampires and monsters, who could only appear in dream sequences. The first attempt to make a horror movie within the stated guidelines was the popular Pontianak Sundal Malam (2001). Its success opened the door both to more vampire movies and a loosening of the restrictions. As the industry revived, a new series of pontianak films have appeared such as Pontianak Harum Sundal Malam (2004) and its sequel and Pontianak Menjerit (2005).


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Howell, Signe. Society and Cosmos: Chewong of Peninsular Malaysia. Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1984. 294 pp.
Kennedy, Raymond. The Ageless Indies. New York: John Day Company, 1942. 208 pp.
Laughlin, Will. “Braineater.” Posted at Accessed August 15, 2009. Lent, John A. The Asian Film Industry. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990. 310 pp.
Skeat, Walter William. Malay Magic: An Introduction to the Folklore and Popular Religion of the Malay Peninsula. London: Macmillan and Co., 1900. 685 pp. Rept. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1966. 685 pp.
Skeat, Walter William, and Charles Otto Blagden. Pagan Races of the Malay Peninsula. 2 vols. New York: Macmillan and Company, 1906. Rept. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1966.
Winstedt, Richard. The Malay Magician Being Shaman, Saiva, and Sufi. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1961. 180 pp.
The Vampire Book, Second Edition © 2011 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.
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