With Hallowe’en just around the corner, it’s high time to recount the most famous of ghost stories in Singapore. Defending mistreated women in misogynistic communities around South East Asia, the pontianak is as much a part of Singapore as it’s people, history, food and culture.
Imagine you are a man and driving home after a long day at work. You’re tired, deflated and ready to hit the hay as soon as you open the door. You know you’re not dreaming however when you see a beautiful woman in a white dress, up ahead on the road. She seems to be crying and lost and against your better judgement, you stop the car and decide to offer her some help. She could be someone’s daughter after all, right? The minute you step out of the car, you smell a heavy floral perfume, like frangipani or roses. You hear the howls of an abandoned dog and you soon realise that the smell isn’t sweet at all, but sickly. You soon come to realise it smells exactly like rotting fruit or vegetables.
Before you know it, the beautiful young woman has jumped on top of you and she’s no longer beautiful or young. She is instead a horrifying creature that is tearing at your skin, eating your organs and wailing like a banshee.
You have probably heard this story since you were a kid or if you’re new to the city then your colleagues might have told you to try and scare you as you find your way around a new place. You might even have seen this figure in advertisements or movies, especially around this time of year.
But where does the legend come from? Prevalent in Malay and Indonesian culture, the pontianak is usually the ghost of a pregnant woman who has died violently at the hands of a man or in childbirth. This has turned her into a vengeful flesh-eating ghoul who intends to wreak havoc on unsuspecting victims.
What does she look like? Well, across the region, she always appears to be the same. Thin, with long dark hair, wearing white and with red eyes, she usually appears first to be a beautiful, but distressed, young woman. If that wasn’t enough to keep you awake, she also has exceptionally long nails which she will use to tear you right open.
Thanks to Singapore’s multitude of cultures, there are more than enough ghosts and ghouls to keep you awake during the month of October. Indian communities avoid ghosts like the plague, whereas Chinese communities welcome the spirits of ancestors into the home.
So why has the pontianak become so prevalent in local folklore? Put simply, she fits perfectly into Asian horror story stereotypes. The maltreated spirit looking for revenge? Check. The tragic backstory of wrongs done by those around her? Check. Inflicting terrible consequences on those who have wronged others? Check. Furthermore, the pontianak stands as a symbol for all those who have suffered rape, abuse, and even death at the hands of patriarchal societies. The pontianak rights all the wrongs that women have suffered in this region for centuries and she breaks open the constraints that were put upon her in life.